The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 5.10.17

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Territorial integrity is fundamental, not just to animals and birds but indeed to us too. Whether in relation to a multi-roomed mansion or castle or a one-roomed flat perhaps more reminiscent of a shoe-box than a house, we psychologically need the security such a dwelling provides "An Englishman's home is his castle," is a well-worn phrase. A Scotsman's, perhaps, is his bothy! It perhaps boils down to our need to belong ... somewhere!

Animals and birds have precisely the same needs, albeit that territory for them, serves more than one purpose; on the one hand, a breeding territory. However, many of the small birds, which are especially vulnerable to attacks by predators, surrender their territorial sovereignty when they are unencumbered by the drive to procreate and their lifestyles are changed by the shortening days of winter.

Indeed, as winter approaches, territorial integrity as a means to a breeding end, ceases to be such a driving force for most birds. Instead, the mentality now switches more vitally to the harsh reality of survival and that goal is more readily achieved by surrendering all such notions and individual status to come together in flocks. Thus, during the next few weeks many small birds in particular will cast aside their individuality - not absolutely perhaps but to a substantial degree - and instead become members of a community of fellow birds.

I'm sure that those of you, who derive pleasure from feeding birds during the autumn and winter months, will have noticed that occasionally, the cock birds taking advantage of your generosity, do have little spats with one another. I suppose that the spirit of competition still lurks deeply within the breasts of many males of various species. However, for the duration of the winter they try their best to suppress their antagonism to other rival males, in the rather more important pursuit of food.

Yet things are not always as we may expect them to be. Much to my surprise the other day, I was suddenly aware of a cock great tit, suddenly bursting into song. His, strident 'tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher' proclamation is not something I would normally expect to hear until January at least. I therefore wondered if this solitary songster had been inspired by the resident robins and wrens here, which as mentioned a week or two ago, remain in musical mood throughout the winter months, as they put down their vocal markers in establishing winter feeding territories.

They, the redbreasts and jenny wrens, are perhaps egotistical enough to resist the temptation to adopt corporate life and instead fiercely resist any notion of togetherness. But, that said, wrens can sometimes surrender their individuality too, in especially cold weather, coming together for the warmth generated in a communal roost. Often dozens of them will squeeze themselves into small spaces such as nesting boxes, where they generate sufficient heat to get them through the night.

Located in my garden, there are four cock robins, each occupying and prepared to defend a distinct and separate territory. For robins it seems that winter territory is just as important as breeding territory in the springtime ... and as intensely defended, although that defence is more often than not reflected in song - each occupant responding to the challenge and songs of the others. For me, the result is extremely pleasant for their vocal proclamations of territorial integrity provide a remarkable oasis of sweet song against a background, save for the rattling wrens and that lone great tit, of relative silence.

Nevertheless, as autumn advances and natural foods begin to dwindle, most other small birds will indeed ditch that singularity and come together in large communities. It is all about improving their chances of surviving those harsh winter months. Corporately, so many pairs of eyes will be better able to source food and also, they are similarly useful in spotting and warding off predators. For instance, the likes of sparrowhawks are literally repelled by a swirling mass of birds, put off and confused by them and prevented from selecting single birds as victims. All those raptors can hope for is to pick off stragglers - usually birds which are not perhaps as fit as they should be.

And, if recent reports from the British Trust for Ornithology are universally correct, some of those flocks might just be that much bigger this winter. Research shows that most small birds have had a very bountiful year. Indeed, figures suggest that 2017 has been their most productive breeding year since 1992. These figures, therefore, point towards a short-term reversal to the trend, which in recent years has suggested an alarming decline in many small bird populations.

Cock great tits can be very assertive but as garden bird feeders will be well aware, they do, during the winter months, tolerate (more or less) the corporate presence of other great tits, male and female. And whilst that surprising and strident little burst of song is typical of these feisty little birds, more often heard perhaps in the spring, great tits are more versatile than you may have cause to think. Experts tell me that a male great tit may have as many as forty different songs in his repertoire.

Such a range of songs is of course a substantial advantage when, next spring, it comes to the selection of a mate. Although the male may seem to be the one that leads that process, in reality, the choice of mate is definitely made by the female. However, as with many other small birds, there is a coming together for the common good during the winter months, but the greater his range of song, the better his chances of being selected as a mate.

The origin of these flocks may well have their beginnings during the late summer, when juvenile birds, having ceased to be reliant upon their parents, first face the need to learn the art of survival. Again, the reason for this togetherness is entirely pragmatic for these newcomers will have a much better chance of survival as a group than as individuals. And as autumn and then winter comes along and food becomes harder to find, other tits may join these wandering bands. Again, it is all about self-interest!

As observers will know only too well, great tits are not only versatile vocalists they are also very omnivorous when it comes to choices of food. This is perhaps why they are relatively successful. Close observation has for instance, identified that great tits consume invertebrates from an astonishing range of up to 135 different species, ranging from months and butterflies to beetles, bugs, flies, wasps and spiders.

Clearly such things become very scarce in the winter, hence the eager presence of great tits at garden bird-tables and their liking for peanuts and fat. However, beech-mast and other tree sees are important sources of food during the winter months. But, there is entertainment of a highly visual quality provided by all those birds, especially those great tits, when they flock to our bird-tables during these shorter days of winter. And while robin and wren may regularly break the silence, you might just hear the odd great tit too! Feeding time approaches, which means here are rich rewards and much entertainment to be enjoyed.

Country View 27.9.17

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The pink-feet have called my bluff, or rather Tommy's bluff. At the time of writing and despite my prediction of their arrival, there has been absolutely neither sight nor sound of them. Mind you, I have heard geese but it has been the sonorous honking of Canada geese, not the shrill calls of pink-feet, emanating mainly from the waters of the loch. There, these alien geese are so numerous now that when they gather in one great squadron, as they are wont to do at this time of the year, they resemble a veritable armada, their long necks, when seen swimming together, somehow resembling the masts of an invading fleet of galleons.

Although these imported black and white geese may be handsome birds, somehow they do seem to me to be utterly alien, even though there have been 'wild' or rather feral Canada geese here for several centuries, if mainly south of the Border. It may have seemed a good idea to introduce all manner of wildfowl including the Canadas, when pioneering landscape architects were beginning to make their plans for the decoration of newly enriched estates several centuries ago. The centre-pieces of many of their lavish plans were often the sparkling new lakes which they went on to further decorate with an array of exotic wildfowl! Perhaps now, it does not seem to have been such a good idea at all, especially in relation to those Canada geese!

Whilst many of the introductions of plants and animals to these shores were perpetrated by enthusiastic collectors from the Victorian age, for several long centuries, many plants from all over the world have been transplanted into the British landscape. Several of them have taken so well to our climate and environment that they are the subject of strenuous efforts on the part of the authorities, to exterminate what are now regarded as undesirable and invasive plants. Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and giant hogweed spring immediately to mind, although rhododendrons have also long been favourites for 'bashing' as far as conservationists are concerned.

If the introduction of alien animals and birds was not practised with quite as much zeal as in the case of plants, there are, nonetheless, several well-known examples of animals and birds, which have been introduced, later to become undesirables! Some, you may actually be surprised to learn of as 'non-native' species! For instance, in recent times the ruddy duck, introduced by Sir Peter Scott to his Slimbridge Wildfowl centre in 1948, which like the Canada goose is a North American bird, has enjoyed extremely mixed fortunes. Previously and perhaps following in the footsteps of those landscape architects of yore, attempts had been made to introduce ruddy ducks to Britain in the nineteen thirties and forties.

Inevitably, birds escaped from the likes of Slimbridge and in 1952 they were first recorded breeding successfully in the wild. Clearly the environment here suited them for by the turn of the millennium, it was estimated there were some six thousand or so of them living out their lives across Britain. I well remember seeing one at a Scottish Nature Reserve, back in the 1990s. I also recall that such a sighting was at that time regarded as quite a rarity. Ironically, whilst their numbers here were on the increase, in their natural habitat of North America, by the 1970s the ruddy duck population had plummeted from an estimated 100,000 to a mere 10,000, largely due to the activities of trigger-happy hunters.

Meanwhile the expansion of populations here had resulted in ruddy ducks spreading into Europe. There, lo and behold, it was discovered that a similarly 'stiff-tailed' duck, the white-headed duck had gone into serious decline through cross breeding with the newly arrived and extremely invasive ruddy ducks, its future apparently therefore endangered. Suddenly, the ruddy duck had gone from being a rare sighting enthusiastically recorded by twitchers, to an unwanted alien, which now even had a price placed on its head! I can almost envision the poster: "Wanted - Ruddy Duck - dead, not alive - REWARD!"

In 2003, a Europe-wide eradication programme began. In Britain, that cull has been uniquely successful with now only a handful of ruddy ducks remaining at large. Some might say that it is a pity that such a similar approach to the problem of other introduced species could not have been enacted years ago. However, others suggest that such culling opens up a very large can of worms! However, you may be surprised at just how long we have been 'welcoming' such introductions.

The brown hare, for instance, is not really a British native. It is thought the Romans were responsible for their introduction here ... nearly two thousand years ago! And those other invading forces, the Normans, are credited with the introduction here of the rabbit around a thousand years ago! However, much later in the 1950s, the deliberate importation of the disease myxomatosis to counter the twentieth century population explosion of rabbits was the cause of a universal sense of disgust at the sight of diseased rabbits, emaciated and blind, helplessly crawling around. Thereafter, the deliberate introduction of the disease was banned.

And perhaps most famously, there was the introduction of grey squirrels, another North American import, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If at first grey squirrels were greeted with excitement - cute little creatures endangering people in public parks and the like - there was initially little understanding of the damage these American squirrels could inflict on our native reds. In fact, the larger, more aggressive grey squirrel soon had our native 'squirrel nutkin' in rapid retreat. And as we now know, the alien grey carries a virus to which it is immune but which is deadly to the red. There have, therefore, been concerted efforts to cull these grey squirrels and indeed, perhaps due to the welcome intervention of growing numbers of pine marten, red squirrels are now, we are told, very much on the advance at the expense of the greys in many parts of the country.

Also from across the Atlantic, in the 1930s came mink. Although farmed and therefore caged, inevitably some escaped and became established as breeding animals in the British countryside. Worse followed when in more recent years, in protest against the very ethos of fur farming, over-zealous and unthinking enthusiasts deliberately released thousands of them into the landscape. What followed was mayhem. We quickly became aware of the catastrophic effects of these releases in this airt as hundreds of mink released from a nearby fur farm decimated ground nesting birds over the next few years, especially around the loch. Culling remains an on-going task.

The latest invader, however, comes from a very different direction. Ring necked parakeets are on the march in the south-east of England. These, too, are escapees but are now congregating in growing numbers all over that part of the UK. Inevitably they are beginning to turn up in other parts of England and are spreading north. These are birds, which although originating in Africa and India, have become increasingly well established here, the only members of the parrot family to take up residence in Britain!

I'm sure there are those who might cite wild boar as another accidentally introduced animal, again perhaps, because they too have escaped into many parts of the British countryside from captivity. Ironically of course, they were once native here. Have we, therefore, come full circle? What next?

Country View 20.9.17

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Nights are really drawing in now as we drift into autumn and the year dips towards its grand finale of blazing colour. The lengthening hours of darkness, which may perhaps have us fostering thoughts of more evenings spent in front of the fire, are nevertheless when the creatures of the night properly come into their own. Compared with most of them, we are extremely limited when it comes to finding our way about in the dark. Our reliance upon electricity in modern times has perhaps dulled our senses!

There is of course, no dulling of the senses in the case of the creatures of the night. Many of our mammals are much more active under the cover of darkness. Foxes, for instance, tend to lie up during daylight hours and generally spend most of their nights hunting. And where they are still relatively common, one of the fox's favourite sources of food, the rabbit is also especially active at night, as are most of our roe deer. And of course badgers are almost exclusively out and about during the hours of darkness.

However, the real epitome of night-time living is surely the owl. Indeed, the screeching of an owl during recent nights has reminded me that as autumn progresses, so too do our owls become more vocal. This is especially true of our commonest owl, the tawny. And it is one such owl that has been screeching so plaintively here. The reason for this vocalisation is that this year's youngsters now find themselves in a situation in which they are no longer tolerated in their parents' territory and so must go out into the big wide world and establish territories for themselves.

However, for them it is a tough and demanding quest, as good territories are inevitably at a premium. A good territory, of course, is one that yields plenty of suitable rodent prey and so naturally, well-established adult owls are at pains to defend such established territories and give the shortest possible shrift to territory seeking, vagrant young owls. In addition, tawny owls seem particularly eager to make vocal contact with other tawny owls during this dispersal, presumably especially with their own siblings. However, some of the calling may indeed take the form of warnings to those territory-seeking youngsters that they are trespassing!

Humankind appears to be fascinated by owls. Indeed when it comes to owl-like knick-knacks, whether they are soft toys or ornaments made from pottery, wood or metals such as bronze, they literally fill many a craft shop shelf. And it isn't just us who are thus fascinated for owls are prominent in many cultures around the globe. Come to think of it, owls also figure in many of the books I read as a child.

And owls, we are told almost from our infancy, are wise, an assumption which perhaps is supposed because in many ways, owls resemble us. Their round heads, large, front-facing eyes, curved beaks, which have a likeness to the human nose, and the facial disc, give them a human-like persona. In addition, owls have blocky little bodies with distinctly square shoulders. So, the resemblance to the human figure is inescapable.

Most of us have probably sauntered through woods in daylight hours, utterly unaware of the presence of roosting tawny owls for they can so easily melt into the background due to their heavily mottled plumage and their ability to freeze. Indeed, the hitherto unknown presence of a roosting owl in woodland is often given away by the racket created by other small birds noisily mobbing it. Such small woodland birds definitely regard owls as enemies to be harried. Thus, if a roosting owl is discovered, all sorts of birds may gang together and mob it so ferociously that its easiest option is simply to re-locate.

However, continuing the theme of anthropomorphism, it is perhaps the large, round eyes of tawny owls that most attract our attention and indeed which attribute these particular birds with a reputation for sagacity. Those eyes are dark brown and do seem particularly deep, further conveying the image of wisdom. However, that said, because they are so nocturnal, the fact is that not many people actually see owls frequently. Much more often they are likely to hear them. The familiar 'too-wit-too-woo' is, I suppose, a rather haunting sound and indeed may induce in the mind of the listener a suspicion of a presence of wandering spirits. However, the loud, screeching 'kee-wick' heard unexpectedly and close by on a dark night can, I'm sure, seem bloodcurdling and may well be a cause of hairs on the back of the neck suddenly prickling!

Tawny owls, essentially woodland birds, have nevertheless taken well to our towns and cities, especially to those that are especially green! Not only are they able to find suitable nesting sites in mature parkland or even garden trees but there are of course plenty of rodents present in the shape of mice and rats, to keep them busy, not to mention the likes of roosting sparrows. To many folks, the silent presence of an owl, its lightly coloured underparts caught in the glow of street lighting, can be a slightly unnerving sight.

Apart from their ability to see well in low lighting conditions, due to the excessive size of their eyes, tawny owls have another vital weapon in their armouries. A soft fringing of feathers on the edges of their wings means that they fly so silently that their victims literally do not hear an attacking owl coming. Wham, bam and you're dead! Add to that a remarkably well-tuned sense of hearing and a set of lethal talons and you have an exceptionally well armoured predator.

There are two quite distinct variations on a colour theme in the tawny owl population, known as the grey and brown phases. Tawnies are comfortably our commonest owls. Long-eared owls, even more nocturnal by nature, are also even more anonymous, generally favouring relatively isolated woodland in which to dwell, their voices low and some would say, moaning. On the other hand, short-eared owls are surprisingly perhaps, more active during daylight hours, usually favouring open moorland or coastal habitats where they hunt for voles. Their eyes are  a piercing yellow. As recently said, their numbers here will soon be augmented by birds arriving from Scandinavia.

Sadly, what might be argued to be the most beautiful of our owls, the barn owl, is in quite serious decline due perhaps, to the destruction of suitable habitat as farming methods change. Its plumage is often conservatively described as buff and grey with white underparts. I much prefer to describe their lustrous plumage as gold and silver, offset by those starkly white underparts! With varying degrees of success, many organisations are trying their best to help a barn owl recovery by erecting nest boxes. There are few sights to match that of a hunting barn owl at dusk or dawn, as it floats ghoulishly through the gloaming ... all aglow!

There is one other British owl, the little owl, which is no bigger than a song thrush, was introduced to southern areas of Britain from Europe in the nineteenth century. Little owls have colonised much of England and in recent years have established themselves in southern Scotland too. A few years ago, I was awakened one autumn night by the calling of a little owl here but have not heard one since.

You might possibly hear owls - most likely tawny owls - during these autumnal nights. Fear not, they are just communicating with other owls!

Country View 14.9.17

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One day this week, myriads of swallows were buzzing around me the way only swallows can, zipping low across the ground and showing off their remarkable aerial talents, the next day they were gone! Nothing surely expresses the mood of our summer days more gloriously than swallows. In their constant search for flying insect life, their sole source of food of course, they swoop, swerve, duck and dive like no other creature. They bring such fantastic verve to summer days and now that they are leaving us, our lives will surely be the poorer without them. As they go, they seem to take our summer with them!

We may yet see a few more swallows as more waves of them come and go during these next few shortening autumnal days. Birds that have been stationed further to the north for the summer months may pass through as they join the swelling southerly exodus that characterises this time of the year. Although migrating swallows may hurry on their way south as instinct drives them towards more insect ridden climes, they are constantly re-fuelling, replenishing their energy banks. As they progress, at nightfall they may seek out reed beds in which to roost during the hours of darkness. At first light they are on the move again.

So, I wonder, are we about to witness a brief and unlikely meeting of the later leaving emigrant birds heading inexorably towards tropical Africa and those recently departed denizens of the icy Arctic? Indeed, this could be the day that such meetings occur, for Friday, September 15 is the date upon which Old Tommy always reckoned that the first wintering geese would pitch up in this airt. Furthermore, he was very often right! And with the arrival of those first skeins of pink-footed geese, the mood of the landscape most certainly changes for if the athletic movement of swallows is symbolic of summer, the honking of geese is surely the sound of autumn and indeed of forthcoming winter. Their loud gabbling is to me, essentially reminiscent of the wild Arctic tundra they have just vacated.

These first skeins whether they arrive today, tomorrow or whenever during these next few days, are largely non-breeders. They represent the vanguard of much bigger family orientated skeins which usually arrive a little later in October, at a time when our skies are suddenly filled with migrant birds, not leaving these shores but arriving from places to the north and east of us. The arrival of geese is one of the more obvious signs of what is a surprisingly large-scale inward movement of birds largely making landfall along our eastern seaboard during the autumn. However, the pink-feet come to us from a slightly different direction - from Iceland and eastern Greenland, Iceland being where they gather before taking on the perilous, near thousand-mile crossing of the North Atlantic.

Next month, that same hostile stretch of water will be crossed by the rather more stately skeins of whooper swans as well as the bulk of the pink-feet and the Greenland white-fronted geese which will be arriving in due course on the waters of Loch Lomond. I'm sure that the high flying swans will, like the geese, be keeping a wary eye out for what is left of the procession of hurricanes that have been gathering around the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. As the men from the Met. tell us, from relatively small beginnings these storms as they rapidly travel westward across the warming ocean, gather energy and vigour on the way. That energy explodes when landfall is made causing utter devastation. But although these storms moderate once they have vented their spleen on such places, they often continue across the northern waters of that great ocean, towards us!

If the presence of the geese is loudly signalled, the arrival of most of the other in-comers is somewhat more surreptitious. Indeed, few observers notice the likes of short-eared owls and minuscule goldcrests flooding in from Scandinavia. They are of course, identical to resident owls of that genre and goldcrests and so cannot obviously be picked out as resident or non-resident once they have moved inland. Nor indeed, can the incoming hordes of woodcock be distinguished from the woodcock that we play host to all the year round.

Woodcock are, without question, mysterious birds, some might even say, ghostly birds! In the latter context, my own experiences of seeing woodcock - or rather not seeing them against the backdrop of the autumnal woodland floor - could, I suppose, be interpreted as ghost-like. A bird, of which hitherto I was completely unaware, suddenly takes off from almost under my feet, flits silently away for a few dozen yards and then becomes utterly obfuscated again when it returns to the leaf littered floor ... before my very eyes! The mystery deepens and those of a more nervous disposition might indeed believe that they are seeing ghosts in such circumstances.

But then some of the traditions attached to these long billed waders, are even stranger than fiction. As recently as the mid-eighteenth century, before the concept of migration was understood, it was firmly believed that woodcock, departing these shores in the spring, actually summered on the moon and that in the autumn, they made their return! The following verse penned by Alexander Pope tells the story:-

"A bird of passage gone as soon as found

Now in the moon perhaps, now underground."

One 'expert' claimed that the birds took two months to reach their lunar destination and two months to return! Woodcock, well known of course to shooters for their fast, erratic flight, are also largely silent during the summer, save for their strange evening 'roding' territorial flight in which they croak and squeak, dare I say, in a rather ghostly fashion!

Mind you, there were those who also believed that it was to the moon that the geese leaving here in springtime, were also emigrating! However, the pink-footed geese I expect to arrive during these mid-September days certainly won't have travelled here from the moon but from Iceland, and Greenland. In fact, apart from a small population which breeds in Western Svalbard, these are the only places where pink-feet breed in the world. And whilst many of the geese from Svalbard winter in the Low Countries, the rest of the world's population winters in Britain and Ireland. In total, an estimated 360,000 birds currently winter in these areas annually. Over the space of the last thirty years or so, Pink-foot populations have more than doubled, bucking a trend in which most bird populations are declining.

Pink-feet are grey geese, rather more lightly built than the much bulkier but similarly greylag geese. Their quite darkly coloured necks are shorter than those of most other geese and their pink and black beaks comparatively slightly stubbier. Their voices too are pitched a little higher than most other geese, the sound they make often interpreted as a 'wink, wink'. Their arrival here in mid-September undoubtedly imbues the landscape with a different character and, certainly in my mind at least, brings a distinct air of the wild and barren north.

That we are day by day, slipping inexorably towards autumn and winter there can be no doubt. The v-shaped skeins patterning our skies, together with the far-carrying, echoing calls of flighting geese, which we may expect to see and hear during these next few days, most certainly appears to hasten us on our autumnal journey.

Country View 6.9.17

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A touch of frost in some Highland glens during the past few days will surely have sent a clear message to all creatures great and small that autumn has arrived. Decision time is approaching for many of our migratory birds although already, there has been some traffic in the departure lounge with many migrant birds now well on their way to warmer climes. For instance, I suspect that most osprey parents will by now have packed their bags and gone! The rooftops are silent too, the swifts, long gone a good few weeks ago.

Our birds and animals use many diverse ways of facing the forthcoming winter. Migrant birds, most of them insect eaters, of course don't take on that challenge. Instead they choose the different option of taking their leave of us and head south to spend their winters in the insect rich environment of Africa. Such journeys are of course, by no means a walk in the park. Indeed they represent a massive challenge in themselves. The miracle that is migration is still an amazing phenomenon when you consider the distances these intrepid travellers will attempt to fly, many of them taking on this great adventure for the first time. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that many of them weigh in at literally no more than an ounce or two. Most are minuscule yet will attempt to fly thousands of miles.

The challenges of migration are met in part by the fact that most of these adult voyagers will have renewed their plumage during late summer and so in that respect are in prime condition. Therefore, they look forward in the knowledge that the responsibility of rearing new generations is behind them, enabling them to concentrate solely on the job of getting themselves into the best bodily condition possible. Whereas earlier in the summer, all their energies were concentrated on the raising of families, during these early autumn days they now have time to look after their own welfare and plan for the big exodus.

The key before they embark on their journey is to be well fuelled up. Thus they will seek to increase their body weight by taking on extra food prior to departure. Body fat is the fuel that will sustain them and it is equally vital that as they make their way south, that they should keep on re-fuelling. Therefore, throughout their journeys they must always seek out food sources in order to keep their fat levels as high as possible. If that is not enough, they also face major physical hazards, which may see these birds crossing towering mountain ranges, featureless stretches of sea and for many of them, the immense Sahara Desert. And of course, they may encounter hostile weather conditions to boot, not to mention a host of predators finely tuned to taking advantage of their passage.

Intuition will play its part. Our own natural awareness of the weather conditions that are to come are dulled by the comfort zones in which we live. We travel in air-conditioned or heated vehicles, live behind double and even triple glazing and thus are not as exposed to coping with constantly changing conditions as for instance, our forebears were. Our wild creatures are much more attuned to variations in weather ... because they have to be!

Of course, the option of migration is denied to our mammals. The island nature of Britain precludes this approach. For example, in large land masses such as Africa and the Americas, these options are entirely viable as witness the immense movements of wildebeest across the plains of Africa and the equally dramatic movement across North America of the likes of musk ox. Thus, our mammals approach winter in different ways. Hedgehogs and bats choose to tackle the onset of winter by first feasting avariciously and then entering a deep sleep, better known as hibernation.

The pre-hibernation feasting is particularly vital for hedgehogs. Both bats and hedgehogs slow down their metabolisms markedly as they sleep in order to conserve energy, their breathing rates and pulses dropping until they are only just perceptible. However, for hedgehogs it is vital that their feasting is such that they can accumulate lots of body fat of which there are two distinct kinds - brown and white - both of which are equally important.

In the lower temperatures of winter, the brown fat mostly accumulated around the shoulders and the neck and chest is gradually absorbed by the slowly ticking metabolism of the animal. However, if temperatures fall suddenly, threatening to freeze the creature's blood, the brown fat automatically provides an instant and life-saving source of body heat. Contrary to popular opinion, hedgehogs do not sleep continuously through the winter. Warm spells can cause them to wake up from time to time and it is then that their survival is even more dependent upon that brown fat, for there is usually not enough food around to sustain them.

The white fat accumulates under the skin and around the body organs. It is not as full of energy as the brown fat but it serves, in particular, to protect the vital organs. Waking during the heart of winter is not a good idea and I well remember coming across a hedgehog scuttling along frantically in a roadside gutter one January day. For its own good, I caught it, took it home and offered it some tinned dog food, which it scoffed as if there was no tomorrow. I ensconced it in a well insulated cardboard box in the coldest room in the house, the utility room, where it stayed until spring, sleeping most of the time but waking occasionally to consume more dog food!

Other mammals also employ the tactic of accumulating body fat, not so that they can hibernate but to sustain them during the winter period when food is harder to find. Badgers do not hibernate. I have frequently found badger tracks in the snow and they do put on the 'beef' in the form of body fat during the autumn months. Thus when winter descends and produces spells of severe weather, badgers will happily sleep through the worst days relying on that fat to sustain them.

Meanwhile, just as the grain harvest is coming in rather fitfully due to the vagaries of the weather, another harvest will be gathered. Squirrels are renowned for the collection of nuts and beech-mast during the autumn months. Indeed, their endeavours in this respect could justifiably lead to an accusation of collector-mania, for they seek out and bury huge caches of such material, far more than they need for themselves when food is otherwise scarce or locked up by severe frosts. Of course, there are always thieves eager to deplete these stores and small mammals such as mice, voles and rats may well seize the opportunity to exploit these 'secret' stores in the drive for their own survival!

Therefore, during these next few critical weeks, there will be much collecting and much secret stashing on the part of our happily growing population of red squirrels and of course, on the part of grey squirrels too where they still dominate. However, there is another, perhaps unexpected hoarder, which during forthcoming weeks, will also be burying stores for the winter. Surprisingly, the jay is one of the few avian creatures that ensures its winter survival in this way, accumulating vast stores of acorns.

Survival beyond those glorious autumn days is the ambition of all such creatures. Each has its very own approach to what each year is the biggest test they are likely to face. Others, such as foxes, pine marten, the raptors and the rest of the crow clan, will on the other hand, try to survive simply by their wits! But then that is how these versatile creatures survive at any time of the year!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods