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.

Weekly Nature Watch 12 Oct 2019

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Corvids fascinate me! I know that for many they are public enemy number one and quite understandably, shepherds hate them. There are garden bird-watchers too who don’t have much time for them and in particular it seems, magpies, carrion crows and jays, for during the spring, they collectively consume the chicks of other songbirds given half a chance.

Yet despite such downsides, I do admire the intelligence that crows in general display. However, there is also a strange tradition relating to the oft despised magpie, suggesting that we should in fact respect it and in particular, that we should salute when one crosses our path! Magpies, therefore, engender varying degrees of wrath but on the other hand they demand respect … according to those for whom such legends hold sway.

The singling out of magpies as birds of ill omen goes back a long time for it was alleged that the magpie refused to become a resident of Noah’s Ark when the great flood occurred. Instead, it perched on the roof of the ark in order to survey the disastrous flood which, according to legend, submerged much of the entire world. Worse still, it is said the bird proceeded to cackle with laughter at the advancing waters - as only magpies can! Furthermore, there is a selection of verses citing the dubious qualities of magpies, such as “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a wedding, four for death”!

There are many variations on this theme from various parts of the UK. However, I’m afraid magpies do have a particularly tarnished reputation. By tradition, they are regarded as ‘thieving’ birds and I have certainly heard many stories of the magpie’s liking for shiny objects, with reports of the birds entering open windows and making off with items of jewelry. Although generally seen as black and white birds – hence the ‘pie’ element in the name – magpies, in the right kind of light, show off a brilliant greenish blue hue on the wings.

‘Mock-a-pie’ is my favourite soubriquet for these now familiar birds and at times it seems very apt indeed. However, the black nature of carrion crows, hoodie crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws adds to an ancient and deeply rooted reputation which, for many, condemns most black coloured birds as birds of extremely dubious heritage! This is a long-standing antipathy and I have known folk whose temperaments seemed stable but who literally shrank from such a ‘black’ bird.

Yet despite this natural antipathy, we cannot ignore the fact that members of the crow clan are generally among the most intelligent of the avian classes. Experiments with captive rooks and carrion crows reveal a remarkable ability to work problems out. The unrehearsed experiment with no accompanying training, in which food in the form of invertebrate life was placed in a tube the neck of which was too narrow for crows to access prompted a remarkable response. The birds proceeded to repeatedly pour containers of water into the test tube until the food, floating to the top of the rising water, thus eventually became accessible. Clever? I’d say so! Such is the extent of a whole series of experiments which have been conducted with crows in general, that they are now known to have an ability to count – not to a hundred or anything like that but certainly in single figures.

They are certainly able to reason and, un-prompted, work things out. The have also completed many relatively complex tasks set for them by scientists besides showing remarkable ingenuity without any supervision at all. Wild crows in Japan, for example, learned that when the traffic lights turned red, it was the time to place walnuts in front of the wheels of stationary vehicles, then waiting for them to turn red again before collecting the walnuts, their shells now conveniently broken!

There was a time when magpies were seldom seen in this airt. Perhaps declining control of them has been a factor but they are now resident here despite the fact that our local collared doves clearly dislike them and regularly see them off! It somehow seems incongruous that doves – birds of peace – and of course, much smaller than magpies which by the way have pretty lethal looking beaks, can so effectively send them packing! It smacks of David and Goliath! I guess that most members of the crow clan do not necessarily have to commit themselves to much in the way of preparation for forthcoming winter. All of them have extremely varied food requirements which in essence means they can exist on the widest possible range of foods, animal or vegetable.

However, there is one member of the clan which provides the exception to this rule, the jay. Not only by far the most colourful of the crows but one of the most vibrant of all our birds, jays spend much of the autumn collecting and stashing literally thousands of acorns for consumption during the winter months. Red squirrels and many rodents spend a good deal of the autumn establishing stores of nuts and seeds as food reserves for the forthcoming winter but, by and large birds, do not store food. Although nuthatches store minimal amounts of seeds in the bark of trees, their stores do not usually last longer than a week or two.

The now extremely rare great grey shrike – largely a winter visitor here - also stores food, albeit that similarly, such stores of a mixture of insects, small birds and small mammals are literally stored on spiky branches for short periods of time. Jays, however, have taken the matter of putting food away for the rainier days of winter very seriously. Indeed, it is estimated that a single jay may stash as many as 5,000 acorns in an autumn season. So much so, that jays well may be partly responsible for the natural regeneration of oak woodland. Most of those acorns are cached in a variety of locations such as holes in trees, walls or in the ground, some of which jays create themselves, or in the bark of trees, under leaf litter and in crevices in tree bark.

If squirrels may sometimes be absent minded about exactly where those stores have been hidden, jays have the reputation of remembering where most of their stores are through a combination of visual observation and good memory. Another demonstration perhaps of their intuition? However, inevitably not all 5,000 acorns thus ‘planted’ by each jay are likely to be recovered. Hence, those not collected may germinate and play their part in spreading the ethos of oak woodland, while others may be discovered by other hoarders. Astonishingly, a jay is capable of holding up to nine acorns in its gullet at a time and so seriously do jays take this task, that they may spend as much as ten hours a day collecting and stashing this vital source of winter nourishment during the autumn. However, jays are always alert to danger. Indeed, should you disturb jays, whether they are collecting acorns or just going about their normal routines, they will first screech and swear at you – I was subjected to such a volley myself the other day - then they will exit, not together but always one by one. Safety first!

It may seem incongruous that the vibrant jay is indeed a member of the crow family, most of which, at least in terms of British crows, are notoriously black. With the exception of the black and white magpie the jay bucks the crow trend with its pink, grey body plumage, bright blue wing-coverts, streaked with black and contrasting black and white on the crown and on the tail. The jay is the odd one out, colourful, aware and extremely industrious, especially during these equally colourful autumn days.

Weekly Nature Watch 03 Oct 2019

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Colour is October’s hallmark and all around us is the evidence that autumn is rapidly submerging our landscape in change, in preparation for the relatively deadening days of winter. Some trees may just look tired but others are showing yellow, gold and even red as the chlorophyll in the leaves ceases its food processing activity in response to the shortening hours of daylight.

Green gradually disappears and those stronger colours begin to emerge. The golden and red nature of the autumn colours provides us with the most brilliant of requiems to count the days down to the year end’s precious few. The conifers however stubbornly retain their greenery.

Yet whilst this may seem like the beginning of the end of the year, once Jack Frost imposes himself on the landscape, leaves will cascade from the trees to eventually provide the stuff of a new beginning. New life will in time, begin to feed back into the system from the autumn’s cast offs ensuring the eternal cycle continues. Meanwhile there are flights of fancy which remind us that the cycle of other life forever turns too.

Two buzzards, the smaller male and a larger female, proscribed circles high in the autumnal sky. Round and round they went each mewing as only buzzards can … like flying cats! They could I suppose have been two young buzzards getting to know each other or were they an established pair seeking to strengthen a bond before winter’s descent? Buzzards mate for life. Was this I wondered, a rehearsal for next spring? With little else in the way of birdsong, their cries seemed to echo across the otherwise quite mute landscape.

There are however, some fragments of bird-song to be heard also Inevitably breaking the silence, Robins increasingly blurt out little phrases of sweet music almost it seems involuntarily, perchance anticipating their appearances on the Christmas cards already prominent on shop shelves. Again, in an otherwise silent backdrop, these fragments of song fairly echo across the landscape.

A minuscule wren belies his tiny stature to blast forth his fantastic repertoire of 56 notes, rattled off in just over five seconds and at such a decibel rate as to almost deafen any other sound. Surprisingly, there has, as yet, been no sign overhead of gabbling geese. They’re decidedly late! Scientists tell us that global warming may be causing the geese to linger longer in the far north where there is it seems, a better than usual growth of grass to graze even into the autumn months. They will doubtless in due course, fill our skies with their raucous clamour for we offer them the salvation (hopefully) of a temperate winter climate which offers them plenty of good feeding. Soon their northerly grazings will be overwhelmed by frost. I always await their arrival in this airt with keen anticipation. A winter without them would indeed be silent and a tad less wild perhaps!

Near to here stands a forest largely of mature spruce which was planted many years ago on bog-land but which was never harvested or indeed managed. I share the opinion of many that this is a forest that should never have been planted. Its origins date back to a time when the forest authorities bought land and planted it willy nilly, without having any idea as to how to extract it. It has therefore become a wild and wet wilderness of a place, dark, dank and perhaps forbidding but nevertheless a haven for wildlife.

In recent times, as evidenced by the activity in the bog covered ‘Flow Country’ in the north of Scotland where many trees which were planted as a means of wealthy investors escaping tax commitments, have now been pulled up and some of the bog restored, such plantations are now simply not regarded as viable The carbon absorption offered by peat bog has been recognized too as an important means of countering global warming and the disastrous clearance of rain forest that is happening across the globe, particularly in the Amazon. However, our dark and very damp forest is presently a fact of life. It may possibly be felled before long – a very difficult job because of the boggy nature of the land. Meanwhile, it has become a habitat for much wildlife, including a considerable herd of red deer.

These red deer however, are posing something of a problem to nearby farmers who in essence are accordingly unable to plant any crops due to the depredations of the deer, besides losing too much grazing to them. Most of my encounters with red deer at this time of the year have historically been among the glens of the nearby Highlands, albeit that I well remember a very close winter encounter with a large herd of stags in an old woodland which although situated in what we call the Highlands, was not on high ground but at quite a low altitude beside a loch. I hid myself beside a tree as they filed slowly past, with only their foot fall and their occasional grunting and snorting audible as they filed past.

For the substantial numbers of red deer, now resident in this neighbouring, and of course, other Lowland forests, the arrival of October is also a beginning and an ending for of course during these next few weeks the climax of the red deer year will come with all its attendant fury and challenges, as master stags vie for the opportunity to sire as many of next year’s new generation of calves as possible. How often have I heard the belching, sonorous roars of challenging stags echoing across our Highland Glens, watched rival pairs of them as they have marched side by side until suddenly both animals will lunge, mighty heads down, their antlers coming together in a mighty clash as each strives to achieve even the slightest advantage over its opponent!

It may be that a generally warmer atmosphere and the absence so far, of Jack Frost, may be having the effect of delaying the onset of the rut. But the stags, living much of their lives apart from the hinds, are now mingling with them. They have grown new appendages – antlers – and have rubbed the velvet off. Now the masters – the older and more senior stags – are in prime condition. With the passage of each day, they will increasingly respond to the urge to compete with each other, for the ownership of those hinds. So, when it inevitably gets colder and Mr. Frost duly arrives, let battle in earnest commence.

Meanwhile in that same neighbouring Lowland forest, red squirrels will be collecting seeds, gathering then caching them for the colder days ahead when there will be a dearth of natural food available to them.

The badgers that are also resident in that forest will also be feasting on nature’s autumn harvest so that when bad weather does set in for days on end, they can rely on the body fat they have accumulated during these days of plenty, and disdain the elements and sleep through the worst. Any day now however, I am expecting to hear those first, muffled roars emanating from that dark forest. The action however, is unlikely to be seen for unlike the deer which remain anchored to the open, treeless glens of the Highlands and for which the pre-occupations of the rut overcome their relative shyness, this Lowland rut will be conducted among the density of the trees, not necessarily covertly but out of sight … with just as much vigour, noise and angst. This is their moment and they must make it count!

Weekly Nature Watch 27 Sep 19

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It was a different take on the BBC’s “Death in Paradise”. Only the setting was not some distant Caribbean Isle bathed in wall-to-wall sunshine. It was my garden bird-table without, I might say, any hint of wall to wall sunshine! However, I don’t doubt that it does represent a kind of paradise due to the goodies it offers to all manner of birds.

These include peanuts, sun-flower hearts and blocks of fat which, in particular, attract great spotted woodpeckers. Indeed, a few days ago, I had been watching such a woodpecker – a female – stabbing away at the fat for all she was worth and securing highly nutritious lumps in the process.

Over the past number of months, we have enjoyed many sightings of two such families, including the resultant redcaps – young woodpeckers – as they have regularly arrived to enjoy our offerings. There has also been a bevy of starlings squabbling vociferously as they too attempted to stuff themselves with the fat. One day, to our considerable amusement we watched the starlings rapidly disperse when one of the woodpeckers flew in. One starling, however, decided to tough it out only to find itself violently assaulted by the woodpecker which ended up with a beak full of feathers! But in nature, how the tables can suddenly be turned for I had briefly turned away from watching the female woodpecker feeding – upside down – when I heard a screech.

So back to the window I went where my gaze was met by the baleful, yellow eyed glare of a sparrowhawk on the ground below the feeder, the woodpecker firmly gripped in its talons. This was real drama, not a TV work of fiction! The hawk paused long enough to continue giving its impression of some kind of demon with that piercing stare, before adroitly taking off with its victim and literally disappearing in a flash. We had wondered over the past few days why the traffic at our bird-table seemed to have fallen off. Now we know.

I don’t doubt that there has been an awareness on the part of the other avian visitors that the hawk – a female - had been lurking with what some might call evil intent! It is perhaps the sheer cunning – it might be regarded as an underhanded approach - that causes some folk to take the most jaundiced of attitudes towards these very adept raptors. Of course, gamekeepers don’t like them because occasionally at this time of the year when young pheasants are being released wholesale into the landscape, sparrowhawks do sometimes dine off them! And of course, some ardent garden bird watchers aren’t too keen on them either for when a hawk suddenly appears as if from nowhere and snatches one of the ‘nice wee birds’ they have been regularly feeding, they can get quite angry.

I must say that I wasn’t too pleased myself to see one of ‘our’ woodpeckers fall victim almost before my very eyes but it certainly underlined most clearly the oft repeated fact that nature is indeed red in tooth and claw! Hawks of course, are not as well liked as other raptors because of their liking for the small garden birds we enjoy watching. However in contrast, kestrels, those delightful ‘wind-hovers’ that dance so delicately on the air in their quest for the ’not so nice’ small rodents that are their staple diet do appeal to us with their sheer beauty and athleticism. And of course, buzzards and kites delight us with their delicious, gliding, soaring flight patterns, drifting gloriously across our skies.

Eagles and ospreys also command our admiration with their sometimes absolutely spectacular flight, not to mention their relative rarity. Harriers, too, because they are also so very rare and in any case largely confined to remote moorland areas and therefore seldom seen. However, perhaps because of their rarity and the recent publicity regarding the persecution they have suffered, are generally admired except, it would appear, by a minority of folk who regard grouse moors solely as places where the red grouse must reign … at everything else’s peril Hawks, however, because they operate in such a covert way, do not command the same degree of admiration and respect. That other hawk, the fearsome goshawk, once extinct here but now reclaiming territories it previously occupied, whilst widely admired by the bird-watching community, is thoroughly detested by some gamekeepers!

Despite its protected status, I have known keepers who would simply refuse to tolerate a ‘gos’ on their patch. Perhaps they, together with sparrowhawks, therefore share a degree of unpopularity that sets them apart from other raptors. So often we view the activities of some wild creatures through essentially human eyes, attributing them with low cunning and therefore in a sense, dismissing them. However, such a viewpoint ignores the reality of life as it is lived by nature’s own. Thus sparrowhawks are designed and equipped to hunt in particular ways. They use stealth and speed to run down their prey. For example, I have many times watched such a hawk flying low alongside a hedge, before flipping over to the other side in order to strike down one of the small birds it may have flushed out. Is this low cunning? I think not, it’s just their way of staying alive!

I have watched a sparrowhawk secrete itself among the well foliaged branches of a tree, setting an ambush for birds innocently flying by. I remember once watching one exploding from such an ambush in pursuit of a passing pipit. Three times it struck and three times it missed as the pipit repeatedly managed to jink and slide from the hawk’s onrushing path. Those yellow legs struck with their slender but deadly talons but grabbed nothing except fresh air. The hawk then ruefully returned to base doubtless hoping its next encounter might be with a less street-wise victim! Hawks sometimes appear to lack stamina. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily always succeed.

Some friends were telling me the story of the sparrowhawk they watched in pursuit of bats recently. Again the hawk tried several times to make a kill but each time, the bats managed to dodge those striking talons. Sparrowhawks may seem covert and cunning and they are certainly built for manoeuvring through the woodland habitat they prefer with their relatively short, rounded wings. It may sometimes seem brutal and of course I mourn my woodpecker but the simple fact is that hawks, like so many creatures, must kill to survive! Red in tooth and claw? Unfortunately so!

Weekly Nature Watch 20 Sept 2019

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There are events and moments during the year which signify forthcoming change. For instance, at the beginning of the year I always listen for the ‘teach-er, teach-er’ calls of great tits for they at least give us hope that the first signs of spring, no matter how distant, are at least on the way. I suppose that there are many such triggers but above anything else, those notes echoing across the winter landscape in January, at least provide me with the first glimmers of hope that better times lie ahead.

There was a time, usually in late February or early March, when folk dwelling on England’s south coast would listen for the first cuckoos of the year. Indeed, famously, the letters page of “The Times” would be suddenly awash with claims from folk claiming to have heard the first cuckoo, usually in March. How many of these claims were bogus due to the activities of young boys who would mischievously imitate the sound of cuckoos, is not known. Sadly this ploy has died out as cuckoo numbers have plummeted but it is generally May before we hear any cuckoos in this airt.

However, throughout the year nature gives us such signals, when for example the first songs of inwardly migrating birds suddenly wake us to the fact that we have made another, vital step towards the season of regeneration. That sound is usually the monotonous ‘chiff-chaff’ of the ubiquitous and very plain little visitor to these shores, the chiff-chaff. Another such signal is provided by the first swallows and martins when they arrive some weeks later, and of course give notice that summer is here.

Finally, the fast flying swifts are the last of the migrants to appear, also in May. Suddenly village rooftops resound to the screams of swifts as they hurtle around the chimneys, beaks agape as they sweep up great mouths full of flying insects. By May, the level of bird-song reaches its peak, as birds, whether they are migratory or not, pronounce their territorial integrity.

Another milestone occurs as July takes over from June. For most, by then the breeding season has reached its zenith albeit that the swallows and particularly the martins, still have their production lines rolling. But most birds now fall silent as they enter the main moult of the year. Because they are vulnerable at this time – some such as waterfowl become utterly unable to fly – and silence is golden.

We sometimes forget that whilst as summer wanes and many migrants prepare themselves for epic flights to Africa, another group of birds is also preparing themselves for epic voyages, far to the north and east of their destination here. Whilst many leave during these next few weeks, many will also arrive – another of those milestones, And, as the old sage Tommy used to say, the fifteenth of September was the date upon which the first of those winter migrants pitch up.

Those first arrivals hereabouts are the vanguard of the pink-footed geese, at last reaching the end of a thousand mile journey across the wild northern Atlantic and making landfall here. By and large, these first arrivals are the non-breeding birds. Later, in October, the bulk of the massed ranks of pinkfeet will arrive. These are the breeding adults with their youngsters, which of course are merely a few months old. That trans-Atlantic flight is the youngsters’ first great adventure. Some adventure!

Years ago, I was always somewhat surprised to record that Tommy’s words were so accurate for sure enough the first geese did indeed put in an appearance on that very date. However, in recent years, the geese seem to have thrown their calendars away, perhaps adapting their lifestyle to the phenomenon of global warming, and arriving days and even weeks after the due date! Pink-footed geese are not the only migrating geese to head for the UK in autumn. Not far away from here, on the southern reaches of Loch Lomond, Greenland white fronted geese will arrive, probably in October. Like the pinkfeet, these are grey geese but are identified by the prominent white blaze at the base of the bill.

Curiously enough, there are two very distinct populations of white fronted geese, one group coming to us from Greenland and another from the Norwegian territory of Svalbard. The Greenland-based birds winter down the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland whilst those from Svalbard winter on the Solway. Never, it seems, do the twain meet!

The Isle of Islay receives large numbers of white fronted geese and also plays host to large populations of barnacle geese. I well remember being on Islay during October some years ago and seeing great skeins of these geese as they arrived at the end of their flight across the ocean. It was extremely stormy and in a word, they looked and probably were absolutely exhausted, flopping down to the fields and very soon tucking their heads under their wings and going to sleep.

Barnacle geese – one of the three ‘black’ geese we see in the UK - are attractive birds and although we don’t see large gatherings of them in this part of Scotland from year to year some do become mixed up with the pinkfeet and so we get glimpses of them. They get their name from the most bizarre of beliefs, which might possibly have stemmed from a deliberate mistake!

As many readers will know, there are certain times when Christians are not supposed to eat meat. This gave rise to the strange belief that barnacle geese actually emanated from the curiously shaped goose barnacles rather than from the egg. This of course, qualified them as fish rather than fowl, which could therefore be eaten when the flesh of beast and fowl was off the menu! The result was that barnacle goose was still on the menu of some believers … within living memory!

The other two ‘black’ geese are the Brent goose, seldom seen in Scotland and the all too familiar Canada goose, larger than the other geese, familiarly black and white and very much an incomer. The latter owe their entire presence in the UK to the landscape designers of the seventeenth century who brought them here from North America as decorations for the lochs and lakes of the estates they were re-shaping for their wealthy benefactors, the landowner for whom they worked.

Inevitably ,some of these geese escaped and by the mid twentieth century, were well established in England. Slowly but surely they infiltrated Scotland too, however their presence is not welcomed by most for it is said that a flock of these geese can devastate grazing – it is claimed that four Canada geese can eat as much grass as a sheep! In addition, Canada geese are bullies, tending to chase other wildfowl from waters where they nest.

Most of the summer migrants are now winging their way towards Africa but any day now, our skies will begin to echo to the wild calls of truly wild geese, the first of which may descend upon us any day now. They are however, merely the overture. The main symphony of them will announce their arrival very vociferously next month. Boy, what sights and sounds they present. They certainly add a wild dimension to our colour-changing autumn landscape

Weekly Nature Watch 13 Sept 19

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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!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods