In just over a week’s time, it will officially be autumn, the equinox occurring between the 21st and 23rd of September, despite the Met Office decreeing that autumn, meteorologically at least, has already made its appearance – on the first day of the month!
A good number of our summer visitors – the feathered variety – have already pre-empted the falling mercury and the rapidly shortening days by leaving and in the case of many of them, heading for the warmth of Africa. Most of them being insect eaters, their departure is the wisest option no matter how hazardous their voyages may be. However, migration is not an option for our animals, except that recent disclosures reveal that some of our bats are indeed long distance travellers, venturing to some surprising overseas destinations at times. However, the fact is that bats – also of course, consumers of insects – will, as the days shorten further and the supply of insects seriously diminishes with the temperature, opt for the big sleep.
Along with our reptiles and hedgehogs, hibernation is their way of getting through the winter but there is no set date that may trigger the urge to enter their slumbers. Apparently, the most influential factor is the lessening hours of daylight, rather than the diminishing food supply or indeed receding temperatures. And just as migrating birds find it absolutely vital to add the ounces in the shape of body fat, so too must those creatures preparing for hibernation, apply the same rules. They have to take full advantage of the bounty provided by autumn’s harvest and also literally stuff themselves with food in order to establish adequate reserves of fat.
Our falling population of hedgehogs will already be putting on the beef beneath the skin and around the internal organs. However, it has been discovered that there are two different kinds of fat, white and brown Brown fat is primarily laid down in the region of the neck, shoulders and chest. This brown fat, which has a high calorific value, is drawn upon slowly throughout the winter and indeed it is only when this resource begins to seriously diminish that ‘reveille’ is triggered and the animal wakes up in spring. The white fat, which is apparently of lower calorific value, is generally the initial food store and is particularly absorbed in the early days of hibernation. It has long been discovered that the notion that hedgehogs go to sleep in the autumn and sleep soundly throughout the winter has long since discovered is not the case. However the animal’s metabolic rate is slowed down during its sleeping periods, the heart rate falling and the breathing rate barely perceptible. Should unseasonably warm conditions prevail during the winter months, the animal may wake and as a consequence, the metabolic rate increases necessitating a search for food to top up those fat reserves which have been naturally burnt off quicker when awakening occurs.
I’ve had a few hedgehogs about during this summer – more than usual – one of which was rolling in fat and is clearly well prepared for bedtime! However, there has been a serious decline in hedgehog numbers across the country. One of the hedgehog’s main problems of course is that its defence is to roll up into a prickly, impenetrable ball. My dogs know all about that and left the fat hedgehog alone apart from a cursory sniff. But that awesome predator, ‘auto motoris’ simply ignores that defensive ball and sadly for all of us to see, the result is hedgehog carcasses littering our roads. This tactic in such circumstances is very evidently futile. However, some have pointed an accusing finger at badgers, saying that the decline in hedgehog numbers is due to the badgers’ ability to unwrap that defensive ball with their very powerful claws. This accusation apparently ignores the fact that badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed in our landscape ever since the Great Ice Age, many millennia ago! Poor old Brock gets the blame for more than he bargained for and I see that the war conducted against badgers by the Westminster Government is set during these next few weeks, to be stepped up.
Notwithstanding the advice of the scientists and indeed the veterinary profession, a further 10 areas of England have been scheduled for badger culls to be undertaken this autumn, making it 42 areas in total. It means that the Government expects that up to 50,000 badgers could be killed between September and November. Yet so far the evidence is that despite Government claims to the contrary, culling is exacerbating the bovine TB problem not solving it. For example, the incidence of bovine TB in the Gloucestershire pilot culling-zone rose by 130% during 2018! I am well aware that this pernicious disease poses a huge threat to the cattle industry however culling does not seem to be providing the solution to this intractable problem.
The Welsh Government is following a policy of vaccination and there are other areas where this approach is being taken. When you consider that some 28,000 badgers were killed last year and some 33,000 cattle destroyed because they, the latter, failed TB tests, surely the time has come for a different approach, one with which scientists and vets can agree upon! It’s surely time to end the pointless killing! This after all, is an animal that enjoys the protection of the law! Thank goodness Scotland remains free of bovine TB. Meanwhile badgers are also fattening themselves up on autumn’s bounty, not as some might believe in preparation for hibernation but as a means of getting through the worst of the winter’s weather when it comes.
Badgers, like hedgehogs build up excessive reserves of fat and when bad weather sets in may elect to sleep safely tucked up in their underground setts for a few days, relying on that fat to sustain them. I have however, seen extremely active badgers in snow covered landscapes on many occasions. As I’ve said, badgers don’t hibernate! Many of the more sedentary birds are following similar tactics by taking advantage of autumn’s bounty. The rowans have produced a fine harvest this year and red they most certainly are. Already there is a steady procession of blackbirds and thrushes devouring the fruits of our laden rowan branches albeit that the starlings, which have been a constant presence here throughout the summer months, are gobbling the berries at a phenomenal rate. I’m afraid that here, at least, there will be little or nothing left in this cupboard for any redwings or fieldfares when they arrive next month.
There is also rather more in the way of music with the sparrows back to their quarrelsome noisiest, the delightful whispering conversations of goldfinches and as is to be expected, plenty of redbreast song. The robins are blurting out their little burst of song as a means of establishing winter feeding territories which incidentally, they will defend with just as much vigour as they defended their summer breeding territories. Any day now, we can expect the noise of birds to be ramped up as the first of our winter visitors arrive, the vanguard of the great flocks of pink-footed geese which will pattern our skies throughout the autumn and winter months. There can be no doubt that the atmosphere of autumn is with us whether or not we abide by what the Met men tell us or indeed whether we count the autumn equinox as being the true signal! It will be Jack Frost next!