The nights are drawing in

The sun is now rising around seven o’clock and setting around seven too if you haven’t noticed. So the day length, when plants get nourishment has been reduced by about six hours from the early summer whilst the temperature is now dropping markedly. This means that both plant and animal activity is slowing down. Most plants are putting all their efforts into making fruit and seeds for the future, which birds and animals are very much enjoying.

I notice that wild clematis (old mans beard) has done very well with many trees covered in the fluffy pale seedbeds. Elsewhere, wild hops are covering bushes and hedges while the hawthorns are covered this year in incredible numbers of berries(haws) reddening the hedgerows. This will delight the migrant thrushes soon arriving from Scandinavia and Northern Europe, coming to share these fruits with native blackbirds and song thrushes. Already you can sometimes hear the tiny crackle of squirrels breaking into the tiny nuts inside each haw only if you listen very carefully in places where the empty half-shells litter the ground. Look hard – they are very small.

Grey Squirrels are now very active, seeking out hazel nuts to bury and as acorns ripen on oak trees you may also see them carrying and burying those. The female squirrels will have mated and be pregnant. Most will be carrying embryos which will only implant and develop later in the winter, ready for the young to be born at a suitable time in the spring. The dreys of our squirrels are difficult to see at the moment, but will become obvious once the coming winter gales have stripped the leaves from the trees. Walking the trail I am seeing fungi of many sorts from big to tiny – many of which can be eaten, but only if you know which ones. The giant puffballs found in the camping field are quite delicious but only if picked before they become big enough to be called giant. Once they are grown large it’s like eating polystyrene foam! There are also multitudes of smaller fungi of the type that elves and fairies in victorian illustrations often use as parasols. Hence their name.

The fungi are one of the most important groups of all living organisms and live everywhere although they are often hidden until this time. Autumn is when most fungi fruit, releasing thousands of billions of microscopic spores into the air to distribute and reproduce. The fruiting bodies include mushrooms, toadstools and bracket fungi. Look carefully and there are now thousands of fruiting bodies all along the trail and especially under trees among dead leaves and erupting from fallen branches and stumps. All of these are springing from a network of hidden threads of fungus called mycelium weaving their way throughout this years and past years production of dead wood and leaves, using energy from the breakdown of dead bodies (both plant and animal) to survive and reproduce.

By doing so, the old leaves, branches, even animal droppings vanish releasing their nutrients making space for new growth. Imagine a world where dead leaves built up year on year, or cowpats never disappear after the cow has relieved itself. The digestion of dead material by fungi and bacteria is an essential stage in the universal cycle of nature. Whilst many folk would see the short nights, cooler weather and even appearance of toadstools as a grim foretelling of winter or death, I personally see this season as one of harvest and future renewal, as much as that favorite season of spring.

Keith Falconer, September 2016

Keith Falconer is a local naturalist with many years experience of observing and photographing the wildlife of this region. He has an amazing knowledge of birds and bugs and all the creatures that live around us. Every few weeks he share his seasonal account of what to look for and listen to across our wonderful nature trail.