Weekly Nature Watch

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

Weekly Nature Watch 13th November 2020

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They come in as if rattling sabres - or whatever it was the old Vikings rattled - Scandinavian invaders known as fieldfares and redwings.

In particular, the coarse voices of the fieldfares rattling drily across the autumn landscape almost as if they were issuing warnings of their presence again, perhaps like the Vikings of old did. They fly from hedgerow to hedgerow gobbling up the last remaining rowans as if there was no tomorrow.

These avaricious raiders can strip a tree of its remaining harvest of red berries in minutes and they are also prepared to invade the fields and strip them of their invertebrate riches. If they seem unduly avaricious, their arrival is entirely due to the fact that they have been frozen out of their native heaths of Scandinavia and northern Russia and here they seek winter solace.

The vigour of these new invaders contrasts starkly with other arrivals which appear less aggressive and altogether more peaceful. Indeed, there is a majesty and magical mysticism about the whooper swans that are sailing in from Iceland like so many fine galleons in full sail. Their arrival is signaled by softer voices which flute gently and contrast starkly with the sound of the raucous geese and the harsh ‘chacking’ of the fieldfares. Theirs is an altogether quieter audio dimension compared with that of the northern thrushes. These are, of course, the true wild swans of our winter months and as such, they are considerably more athletic than their more sedentary, heavier cousins, the mute swans.

Man has always had a fascination for swans as witness the artwork of our cave-dwelling ancestors who depicted them in their drawings and clearly admired their beauty. Or course, they must also have been very aware of their comings and goings in autumn and spring. These days, we may regard the etchings in stone of beasts of the chase, hares, bears and of course swans left by those early civilisations as being relatively crude, yet they are perhaps among the first signs of artistic talent in mankind because, after all, those cave drawings do have a beauty of their own.

And whereas tradition tells us that mute swans were often served up as the culinary centre-piece at medieval banquets in later times, apparently no such fate befell the true wild swans, such as whoopers and what later became known as Bewick’s swans.  We don’t generally see Bewick’s in Scotland for they winter in the deep south of England and places like the Netherlands. They also spend their summers in northern Russia whereas, the whoopers that winter here come from Iceland. Oddly enough, many years ago I saw a Bewick’s swan off the Ayrshire coast.  It had been colour marked which enabled the experts to identify it as a Bewick’s swan which, as far as I know, was the only one to have been seen in Scotland at that time.

 

There is recent evidence of people hunting the Bewick’s in those northern parts of Russia but clearly there is nothing in folk-lore stating that to kill one would bring ill-fortune to the slayer which is very much the case with regard to whooper swans.  The bad luck that is alleged to come to anyone guilty of harming a wild swan appears to be embodied in the folklore of several Continents.  However, Ireland does seem to be a particular source of such legends. In the Emerald Isle there has long been a belief that the souls of dead people are transferred to wild swans and a swan killed was assuredly a forecast that one of the local villagers would be likely to die imminently. Not surprisingly, there were also similar beliefs held in parts of Scotland’s Western Isles and similar legends existed in Serbia, in Wales, the Isle of Man and the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde. In Germany and in Russia too there are the stories of swan maidens, beautiful damsels who were transformed into swans. Such stories also persist among the North Americans, the Spanish and in African and Arabic cultures.

 

It appears that ancient man has always recognized the difference between the almost domesticated mute swan and the more athletic Bewick’s and whooper wild swans. The newly arrived whoopers breed in the tundra of Iceland and whereas all over the world, mute swans seem to show a familiarity with mankind, always willing to share food with us along familiar river or loch-sides where on occasions they terrify people with their aggressive hissing, whooper swans are nothing like as approachable and shun close contact with humans. I would also suggest that whoopers, together with Bewick’s swans, are considerably more courageous than our mute swans. The very fact that whoopers ferry themselves the best part of a thousand miles across the hostile north Atlantic in autumn and back to Iceland in spring, makes them far more adventurous than the sedate mute.

And if those journeys seem hazardous, consider the ordeal it must be for the year’s young cygnets which, barely a few months old, are being called upon to make such terrifying journeys, Furthermore, the sense of weather conditions with which such birds are imbued, means that to avoid flying into the teeth of really hostile situations they are prepared to really go to the extreme and fly at heights in excess of thirty thousand feet. Whooper swans have been recorded at such altitudes on airline pilots’ radar and at that level, temperatures can drop to -50 degrees and there is a distinct shortage of oxygen. Of course, at times their journeys in the autumn are aided by the jet stream which may result in them travelling at speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour.

Apart from being obviously lighter, less bulky and more athletic than the sedentary mute swan, whooper swans are also easily recognized by their posture. The familiar graceful curve of the mute swan’s neck is more often than not replaced by an erect neck in the case of the whooper. The seer above the beak is also yellow in both the whooper and Bewick’s swan rather than orange and as you might realise, the whooper is more adept than its mute cousin when it comes to flying. As anyone who has watched a mute taking off from water, it will be seen that it needs a fairly long runway in order to become airborne but by comparison, the whooper swan can get into the air much more quickly and with less effort,

I well remember when a year or two ago, a whooper took up residence on one of our local lochs which was the permanent home of a pair of mute swans. The mute cob took umbrage and went to chase the intruder off and with feet pumping, wings raised, he launched a full-frontal water-borne attack but the whooper responded by taking off and flying to the other end of the loch. Soon the mute cob gave chase again only for the whooper to leave and then return to his original position. The cob again set off in pursuit but it was like a game of avian tennis which the mute cob was never going to win and in the end, he gave up and decided reluctantly to tolerate the presence of the whooper.

In a sense, the arrival of our migrant whooper swans completes the immigration set. Birds however, are always on the move and should we have a hard winter those fieldfares and redwings may move on towards the Mediterranean. According to the carol, there will certainly be six swans a swimming over Christmas, but the graceful fluting whooper swans will be with us until next spring.

 

Weekly Nature Watch 6th November 2020

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If tradition held true then last Saturday, Hallowe’en, would have seen a massive invasion of birds all along the east coasts of Scotland and England for that tradition has it that it is on that day that hundreds, indeed thousands of birds arrive from Scandinavia.

There are woodcock, minuscule goldcrests, the Scandinavian thrushes - fieldfares and redwings - and short-eared owls all escaping from the descending harshness of a Scandinavian winter and instead settling here for a period in more temperate conditions.

However,   I wonder whether the amazing growth of wind farms in the North Sea will have any kind of impact on these migrating birds. Many of the turbines will be sited on routes which for centuries long have been used by these migrants as they swap the rigours of winter in the likes of Scandinavia and Northern Russia for the balmier climes of Britain. Any birds encountering the gigantic, whirling blades of those turbines have no chance whatsoever.

I always think that the crossing of the North Sea must be a particularly difficult flight for the tiny goldcrests but the most unusual of these immigrants is surely the short-eared owl. Of course, these are familiar birds in Britain anyway as denizens of upland moors and salt marshes where they mainly feed off the short-tailed field voles which inhabit such places. One physical feature that these owls share with the native long-eared owl are the tufts of feathers on their heads which have given rise to the names of ‘short-eared’ or ‘long-eared’ - the former were so named by Dr. William Turner in his work on ornithology way back in 1544. However, these tufts are not anything to do with ears. They are just features which may be used when the birds are in courtship or even in aggressive mood. However, like all owls, short-eared and long-eared owls have exceptional hearing but they differ in almost every other way. Whilst the short-eared owl may often be seen abroad in broad daylight as it hunts across those moorlands, the long-eared variety is exclusively a night time operator, its home generally deep in woodland.

However, those ‘ears’ or tufts of feathers means both owls rejoice in the name ‘cat owl’. I might also add that both birds, although existing in widely differing environments, share one other thing in common - they always look angry! They have a built-in belligerence, the long-eared owl with its orange coloured eyes and the short-eared variety with its yellow eyes, look as if they always ready to fall out with someone and both can give us that withering glare that pierces like no other!  But a short-eared owl’s eyes do not compare in size with those of the tawny owl. A tawny’s eyes are huge compared to the size of its skull but the short-eared owl’s eyesight, as well as its hearing, is nevertheless very well honed.

Because the short-eared owl is a daytime hunter, they are frequently observable in moorland areas. Indeed, there are one or two local glens where they are often bold enough to perch on roadside fence posts – always giving that disdainful look. Of course, it is impossible to tell whether the birds I saw were Scottish or perhaps Norwegian in origin for there is absolutely no difference between them.  However, having seen them frequently during the summer months, I am aware that they are resident in those accustomed glens.

Indeed, so familiar are short-eared owls on our moorlands, that they are variously known as ‘mouse hawks’, ‘day owls’ and ‘muir owls’.  There used to be an abundance of short-eared owls on my local range of hills but since the trees, which were planted several years ago, have now reached a degree of maturity, the ground vegetation that is so important to the voles and on which the birds are dependent, has died back due to the exclusion of light from the forest floor by the growing trees. In this respect, the short-eared owl therefore becomes something of a vagrant moving on when a forest becomes bereft of ground vegetation and their source of food also vacates the area.

As a result, the owls simply move to other places in which there are newly planted trees and as the national forest continues to expand it means that there are always fresh opportunities. Short-eared owls employ a method of hunting which sees them flying low over the ground as they search for voles, quartering the area methodically and then, when they spot voles moving through the vegetation, instantly raise their wings and plunge feet first to seize their victims. Often they then use nearby fence posts as dining tables on which to consume them.  The fact that we have good or bad vole years means that short-eared owl populations are inclined to fluctuate relatively widely. In good vole years, large broods of young may be reared whereas broods will be substantially smaller in the event of a bad year.

As for the long-eared owl, it is a much more discreet bird, seldom seen and an inhabitant of dense woodland. Often it is only the voices of long-eared owls that betray their presence. Known as the ‘hornie hoolet’ the long-eared owl’s wings are rather narrower than those of the tawny as befitting a bird that spends its time amongst trees. Its voice is also very different - a series of single hoots as distinct from the familiar ‘too-whit, too-wooo’ of the tawny owl. Generally less vocal, the short-eared owl offers a series of successive hoots which almost run into each other.

The short-eared owls currently flying into our eastern coasts are also known as the ‘woodcock pilots’ because of their reputation gained as being the guides of woodcock which, as previously reported, were said to spend their summer on the moon. Once again, according to tradition the short-eared owls were said to guide the so-called stupid woodcocks on their way to safety on that east coast.

As might be expected of a bird that largely inhabits treeless moorland or marsh, the short-eared owl is a ground nester whereas the woodland based long-eared owl is unsurprisingly a tree nester. The long-eared owl, like the woodcock, also had a reputation for stupidity for as another old story tells us, if you were to discover a long-eared owl at rest during daylight hours when they are at their least active, should you walk around the tree where it is roosting and keep walking around it again and again, the bird will turn its head to follow your progress until it literally throttles itself. A pretty unlikely story!

Weekly Nature Watch 30th October 2020

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I was reminded by a friend recently of an occasion, many years ago, when along with around fifty other souls, I spent a day in one of our glens.

It was a pristine, cloudless October day on which everything sparkled under a relentless sun. Frost had whitened the high tops, the brackens fairly glowed red and the red deer serenaded us with their sonorous roaring. We had come to see and listen to the deer and we were not disappointed. They were in magnificent form and we watched entranced as the master stags did battle, almost flinching when two mighty opponents came together, their antlers clashing. It was indeed a memorable day.

In fact, for one lady in the party, it was so memorable that as we descended from the glen, she literally burst into tears. However, she was not upset but instead said that this had been a day she would remember for the rest of her life. It was a day so full of emotion in the midst of spectacular scenery on a superb autumn day. And to cap it all, the deer were in top form, the stags roaring and hinds being ushered into their harems, as if herded by huge, antlered sheepdogs.

I have enjoyed many a such day down the years but that occasion was especially memorable and I understood entirely why the lady had burst into tears for it truly was a very special day all round. I reckon we saw around five hundred deer during our trek and there was plenty of action to witness, plenty of drama and of course, lots of noise.

The same scene has been repeated time and time again down the years, for the red deer rut provides the most spectacular and fitting climax to a year at a time when winter is just beginning to hint at bringing the year to its conclusion and indeed, closing things down.  In short, it is nature’s grand finale, a splendid and decisive end to the activity of the year. The results of all that huffing and puffing and the expressions of angst that are released, will come to fruition in the middle of the following year with the birth of the next generation of red deer calves.

Of course for most of the year, stags and hinds exist in different herds. In other words, the sexes don’t mix until as September dawns, they begin to move to the old stamping grounds where for centuries past red deer have gathered for the annual rut. The real contests are between the master stags, those senior animals that are at the very top of red deer society. They alone will challenge for the right to sire that next generation. The young stags cannot enter the contest until they too are old and big enough to compete, albeit that occasionally those youngsters may seize an opportunity to purloin the odd hind from the harem of one of the master stags while he is engaged in battle. Perhaps they, in particular, will also go on and in time become masters themselves.

Those that are able to enter the lists however, do so with a ferocity that is sometimes quite surprising. Deer generally give the impression that they are relatively mild mannered, but when their hormones begin to react to the arrival of autumn, any suggestion that they are quickly disappears. Indeed, the whole exercise, as far as most master stags, are concerned is about just how ferocious an image they can project. The competing stags do not eat during this period but liberally daub themselves with muck and mire by rolling in bogs, all in an attempt to look even fiercer than they already do. With their mud-ridden coats and a mighty pair of antlers they become the very epitome of ferocity.

Every such master will take up a position that he thinks may give him the advantage if and when it comes to physical battle. This is called a ‘stance’ and it is from that position that the challenges are now issued. Each master’s aim is to collect as many hinds as possible and to defend that harem. Should another master stag intercede, challenging the holder of a stance and of course the owner of that harem, they size each other up and often march side by side waiting for any sign of weakness to expose a crack in the resolve of one or other. That weakness is quickly sensed by the rival stag and that is when battle will often commence, although on many occasions the nerve of the weaker stag cracks and he may decide this opponent is likely to give him a beating. At that point, the erstwhile challenger will turn and flee, often sent on his way by the triumphant stag which may dispatch him with a rake to the flanks with his mighty antlers.

However, two well-matched stags, each with plenty of resolve will eventually face each other. Heads will go down and the two meet head-on with a mighty clash of their antlers. Each then heaves and strains to gain the upper hand, pushing with all its strength in an attempt to gain even the most minuscule of advantages. But two really competitive stags may be locked in this head-down struggle for some considerable time, in fact in some extreme cases for hours, before in the end one buckles and battle is over. On very rare occasions, two well-matched stags have been known to become so entangled that they cannot separate and in such circumstances, both are clearly likely to die.

The roaring contests continue and if you have red deer near to you, that sound will continue right through the lengthening nights. I well remember once playing golf in deer country and throughout my round being accompanied by those sonorous roars which seem to come from deep in the animal’s being – from the very gut of the beast. Defeat may have its price to pay for those older stags which are no longer able to offer the level of competition required to maintain the status of a master stag. For old stags that are past their best, the rut therefore is a time for reflection rather than angst. The brutal fact is, that if they are no longer able to compete during the rut, their future is fairly bleak. There is no coming back, no renewal of master stag status. Those who manage our wild red deer herds effectively will know exactly which of the stags have come to the end of the competitive road and act accordingly.

As November arrives at last, tempers begin to cool and the rewards are for the victors to enjoy. Now they will mate with their harems of hinds, their future well and truly determined. It is a fitting end to the red deer year and soon the stags and hinds will once more go their own way. It will be next June before the fulfilment is fully welcomed. That new generation will be dropped away in the glens where for centuries, red deer hinds have long brought a new generation of red deer into the world.

But that day all those years ago, will of course also live long in my memory and hopefully in the memory of that tearful lady as well.

Weekly Nature Watch 23rd October 2020

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The distances some migrating birds fly are sometimes mind-blowing, Even the six-thousand-mile journey undertaken by our swallows, a journey that takes them right down to the southern tip of Africa, may pale into relative insignificance compared with the voyages of other travellers which journey quite amazing distances.

Indeed, I have recently been intrigued by reports of the record-breaking migratory flight of a bar-tailed godwit which flew from Alaska down to Auckland in New Zealand, a distance of some 7,500 miles or 12,000 km.  However, bear in mind that this was a journey which it completed in a mere 11 days and which took the bird non-stop right across the Pacific Ocean. This is apparently a record and my guess is that when it arrived in New Zealand, the bird would have been pretty tired! And come next March, it will re-trace its steps and go back the same way.

Among the birds that are regularly seen around Scotland’s coasts during the summer months, there are a number which, come the end of the summer, depart not so much to seek warmer climes but to cash in on food surpluses in the open sea. For example, once they leave us, those colourful comics, the puffins, head out across the Atlantic to feast in the fish-rich waters of St Lawrence Bay in Canada before dispersing elsewhere across that mighty ocean and remain at sea until next spring when they return to these shores.

Equally, those other plunderers of our seas, the mighty gannets, also leave these shores albeit that they seldom go further than 1800 kilometers from here, but again live their entire lives at sea when weather conditions must be at their most hostile. And those secretive summer residents of many of our off-shore islands, the shearwaters, also depart to fly across the same Atlantic Ocean to station themselves during our winter months off the coast of South America. The wild seas of winter clearly pose no threat whatsoever to these intrepid adventurers.

The distance undertaken by that bar-tailed godwit however, will take some beating for there are no halfway houses where it could have broken the journey that it made. This bird flew directly south on a route that saw it skirt Hawaii and Fiji as it swapped the Northern Hemisphere for the Southern. It must presumably have eaten itself silly prior to take-off, for although godwits are apparently highly aero-dynamic, they would need a fantastic reserve of energy to make such a trip in a single flight in which there would be no opportunities to top up en-route.

A month ago, I reported the arrival here of the first batch of pink-footed geese. These were the non-breeding birds, which arrive well ahead of the main flocks of these geese.  However, last week, the bulk of them - 84,000 - arrived at Montrose Basin on Scotland’s east coast after a 1,200km journey from Iceland. These birds, which were just six thousand short of last year’s record count of 90,000, have summered in Greenland and Iceland and once winter begins to close down these northern outposts, they migrate to our relatively temperate climate. Their annual arrival at Montrose presents a spectacular event as the noise made by 84,000 geese is absolutely amazing.

In due course, these mass ranks will begin to disperse and fly to other sites in both Scotland and England. Their journey may not match that epic trek of the bar-tailed godwit but they certainly present quite a spectacle when they arrive en-masse from Iceland.  This must be quite an adventure for the youngsters which, at a mere few months of age, are launched on that perilous journey across the often hostile north Atlantic. Of course, they are carefully piloted on this their first migratory flight by the attentive parents, the skeins always led by the senior, most experienced of birds. Goose society seems to be particularly well organized.

Across on Loch Lomond, the arrival of white fronted geese may also be anticipated. These birds also arrive from Greenland but the white fronted geese that arrive in the Solway come from Svalbord and are an entirely different population from those on Loch Lomond.

Meanwhile to the east, the Bewick’s swans are also winging their way south on an epic journey of some 7,000 km (4,500 miles) from northern Russia to the south of England. Many of them spend their winters at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre set up many years ago by Sir Peter Scott, where they are of course cosseted with a regular supply of food. Nevertheless, Bewick’s swan numbers are in serious decline for a variety of reasons that may include being shot and from the lead in shotgun pellets, which the swans may ingest when dabbling, the erection of pylons on their flight path not to mention the crop of windfarm turbines that are sprouting in the North Sea. Of course, these are the swans that the conservationist, Sacha Dench, piloting a para-glider so courageously followed two years ago crossing eleven different countries in the process.

We welcome the graceful whooper swans to Scotland. They fly to us from Iceland and so also, with their youngsters from this summer, make the dangerous crossing of the North Atlantic sometimes flying at remarkable altitudes – they have been spotted by airline pilots flying at heights of over 30,000ft - in order to fly over hostile weather systems.

A couple of hundred years ago, the record established by that bar-tailed godwit might have been open to challenge, for it was firmly believed that woodcock migrated to the moon for the summer months before returning to our woods during the autumn. That’s a distance of roughly a quarter of a million miles and were it true, would be the all-time record for a bird. 

Tradition has it that woodcock, returning from their summer on the moon, arrived overnight all together on a change of wind from the east some time close to Hallowe’en or All Hallows. However, because several other birds such as the tiny goldcrest and the short-eared-owl are also supposed by tradition to act as pilots for the woodcock, does one suppose that they too migrate to the moon for the summer? There are other traditions that suggest that the moon may also be the summer destination for some geese. Of course, the truth  is that these are birds which, when autumn arrives, vacate their territories in Scandinavia and northern Russia, cross the North Sea and seek winter solace on our shores. Indeed, there is a veritable flood of birds that follow this course.

The theory that woodcock spent their summers on the moon was still being promulgated well into the eighteenth century when the very concept of bird migration was first beginning to take root. Indeed, a sixteenth century writer, Olaus Magnus, even described how the birds took two whole months to get to the moon, the same to make the return trip, in between spending a further three months on the moon itself. Such was the strength of this belief that the poet Pope actually penned a verse which read:-

                        “A bird of passage, gone as soon as found

                          Now in the moon perhaps, now underground.”

The poet, Gay, also penned this verse in his poem ‘The Shepherd’s Week’ written in 1714:--

                        “He sung where woodcocks in the summer feed,

                          And in what climates they renew their breed:

                          Some think to northern coasts their flight they tend

                          Or, to the moon in midnight hours ascend.”

Those who thought that the woodcock … ‘flew to northern coasts’, were actually correct but the woodcock has always been a bird of mystery, especially because it is so perfectly camouflaged that it literally does melt into the woodland floor. How many times must I have walked past a woodcock without ever knowing it was there?

We may think of migratory birds as those that summer here and then fly south for the winter, yet the traffic traversing our skies during the autumn months is immense. Millions of birds seeking safety especially on these island shores …. but the exploits of that lone godwit will take some beating!

Weekly Nature Watch 16th October 2020

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We are entering that technicolour time of the year as autumn’s spell begins to coat the landscape in richer hews.

There are golden moments, red moments and rich brown ones, a fitting farewell to a year rapidly coming to its end with a flourish which this time around appears to me to be even more colourful than in previous years. Millions of birds have already departed these shores rather than face our winter when, for most of them, the insects upon which they rely for food have hibernated or become dormant. The birds that have left are already being replaced by others whose Arctic homes are fast becoming untenable as temperatures plummet and frost begins to bite harder by the day, persisting and locking up the ground upon which many of them feed. That our winter visitors have arrived is witnessed by the sounds of cackling geese which are beginning to pervade our landscape. This is the sound of winter.

In so many ways, it is changeover time as day by day the hours of daylight shorten and winter nears. This means that some creatures, unable to escape by transporting themselves those thousands of miles south, begin instead to prepare for the big sleep. They have developed a more unique way of fighting the winter - they simply sleep their way through it. Perhaps the most familiar of those that hibernate are our intrepid garden occupants, the hedgehogs. Yet the process is not as simple as once thought. It is not simply a case of finding a suitable place to bed down - a hibernaculum - falling resolutely asleep and expecting to re-awaken when rising temperatures signal a resumption of normal life as spring begins to make its influence felt. There is much preparation to undergo which entails cashing in big time on autumn’s bounty and eating as much as is possible.

There are several of our mammals which were thought to hibernate but which do not. Squirrels, for example, employ another interesting technique which involves the establishment of caches of food – again making the most of autumn’s bounty and saving and storing large reserves of food, carefully buried so that when winter really begins to bite and other food sources become scarce, they have enough to sustain themselves. Most squirrels are very wary of those colourful members of the crow family, jays, for they are eagle eyed in their ability to make a mental note of where for instance squirrels have hidden their reserves and are certainly not averse to a spot of thieving!

Nor do badgers hibernate. Brock also capitalises upon autumn’s bounty and will enter winter with a few surplus pounds to spare so that when the weather turns really hostile, he may decide to lie up for a few days and not venture beyond his snug underground sett, relying instead on the surplus fat that he has acquired in much the same way as hibernating animals store energy in their bodies.

A surprising number of small mammals establish similar stores to those of squirrels so that there are always plenty of candidates when it comes to raiding of other animals’ stores. But the key to successful hibernation depends upon the ability of creatures to build up stores of food and thus energy in the form of body fat in their bodies which will sustain them whilst they are asleep. The entire metabolism of a hibernating animal slows right down during the months of sleep, so much so that the heart and breathing rate will reduce to an almost imperceptible level. Thus, they are sustained by a constant drip, drip, of energy - just enough to ensure that the basic body functions can be kept functioning.

Therefore, from late summer onwards the hedgehog’s aim is to build up those body-fat reserves which can later be translated into vital energy when winter sets in. There are two types of fat built up in the hibernating hedgehog’s body, brown fat and white fat. The brown fat builds up around the shoulders, neck and chest and has a higher calorific value than the white fat. During exceptionally cold winter weather, a hibernating hedgehog’s blood can actually freeze, causing irreparable damage to the body’s organs.  In such conditions, the hedgehog is likely to wake and their immediate energy source is the brown fat. However, it may also be necessary for the waking animal to quickly find a better place to resume its sleeping mode because during the winter months, food is hard to find and it is important not to deplete the stores of fat unnecessarily.

The white fat is concentrated under the skin of the animal and around the vital organs. This fat is used during the early stages of hibernation and as said before, is marginally less nutritious. However, previous theories about hibernating animals bedding down in the autumn and sleeping solidly on until spring have been disproved. It is now thought that hibernating hedgehogs wake quite regularly. I certainly recall once coming across a young hedgehog scuttling along a roadside gutter on a January day. I rescued it, took it home and installed it in a hay filled box in the utility room together with a selection of tinned cat food. The hedgehog slept for most of the time but periodically woke to top up its food requirements.

Hedgehog numbers are these days much depleted and of course their normal defence of rolling up into a prickly ball is not effective against the modern motor vehicle. Hedgehogs are most active by night and they are not always easy to see when they cross roads.  The number of hedgehogs that perish on our busy roads is hard to ignore and I always feel especially sad in the springtime when hedgehogs emerge from their hibernation only to meet their fate under the wheels of a vehicle. It amounts to a winter spent sleeping in anticipation of forthcoming spring only for it to suddenly end.

In recent times, I have heard people blame the badger for the dearth of hedgehogs. Certainly, Brock is strong enough to easily overcome the hedgehog’s defences, however I have never yet found a dead hedgehog that I could definitely say had been killed by a badger. Hedgehogs and badgers have lived together for millennia so I think that it is highly unlikely that the badger could be having the effect of severely curtailing the lives of hedgehogs. The alternative suggestion I have heard is that wildcats too are able to penetrate the prickles of a hedgehog but as there are so few true wildcats remaining, I hardly think they would pose a problem.

The other creatures that enter a period of winter hibernation are of course bats and although I am no expert, I suspect that they also feast avidly on the insect life of autumn in order to build up energy reserves which will sustain them during their long sleep. Our reptiles too hibernate in order to avoid the winter and of course, further south in England, the dormouse is another creature that sleeps through the winter months.

These then are the various ways in which different species of animals, birds and reptiles survive our winters, either by leaving these shores altogether and seeking solace in warmer climes, by establishing stores of food to sustain themselves through the long months or by simply building up bodily reserves of fat which provides the energy that keeps them alive whilst they sleep. Winter is definitely a coming and so hopefully we won’t be seeing the likes of hedgehogs again until next spring.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods