In the autumn animals start to get ready for winter and many, especially the herbivores, will be busy collecting food to store for the cold months. Squirrels bury nuts and acorns and rats and mice cache their winter dinners in a variety of places. Someone told me recently that when converting a barn he discovered that the roof was packed tightly with oat husks all around the edge, the grain having been eaten by a large population of rats which had used the space as winter storage.
Voles also lay up food in their burrows for hard times. We have three kinds in Britain, the Water vole, which is the largest, sometimes bigger than a rat, the Field vole and the Bank vole. Like rats, mice and squirrels they are rodents which means ‘gnawing animal.’ Rodents are characterised by having a single pair of front teeth (incisors) in both the upper and lower jaw. These chisel-like teeth are continuously growing and are worn down by the constant gnawing that this type of animal does; the back teeth then grind down the food.
Water voles inhabit lakes and slow moving water with steep banks to accommodate their burrows. Although very occasionally they may take fish and insects, they feed mainly on a great variety of plants and there will often be a little ‘gardened’ area around the entrance to a burrow where they have nibbled away the vegetation. They usually live in pairs and in the winter can occupy communal nests. The female may have up to five litters a year, each comprising 4 – 6 young which are looked after by both parents. Water voles are in decline because of too much water-side tidying, which destroys their habitat, and predation by the introduced American mink which have been very successful in our British waterways.
The Field vole, also called the short-tailed vole, is a much smaller animal being about mouse sized but with a chubbier appearance. It has a blunter nose, smaller ears and a shorter tail than a mouse and likes to live in open grassland where it will make runways leading to underground tunnels. It feeds on grasses and various plants and bark in the winter, and sometimes, but rarely, will take insect prey. It can produce up to seven litters a year if conditions are good and each will contain 4 – 6 young which are cared for by the female only. Field voles are predated on by a variety of birds of prey, also crows, as well as foxes, stoats, weasels, badgers and domestic cats and dogs.
The Bank vole differs from the field vole in having a reddish coat and larger ears and eyes. They prefer banks and hedges, woodland and scrub and places with plenty of cover. They are almost entirely herbivorous and will take plants, fruit, nuts, seeds and sometimes fungi and the odd insect or snail; they also will eat bark in the winter. Like the field vole it is the female who looks after the young, which number between 3 and 5, and she may have 4 – 5 litters a year. They are also hunted by raptors and many other animals but feeding trials have found that foxes prefer their field cousins so they must not taste the same as each other, probably because the diets are a little different.
The Ladybirds in the photograph are on a Robin’s pincushion. This charmingly named structure is a kind of gall and is the result of a tiny wasp laying its eggs in a developing bud of a wild rose, which reacts by producing the gall. This photograph was taken by a friend but I have recently seen another similar one. So what are the Ladybirds doing there? Are they just enjoying a bit of October sunshine or are they, may be, thinking about hibernating in that comfortable little gall? Or is there a more sinister reason? Ladybirds predate on small insects so are they, perhaps, after the gall wasp larvae that are living inside? If anyone knows the answer or has other theories please let me know.
October is a good fungi month and some you may come across are members of the Boletes family. Sometimes called ‘Penny Bun’ mushrooms, these do not have gills like most species but have pores which are the ends of tiny reproductive tubes, giving the underside of the cap a sponge-like appearance. They live in association with trees and some are very fussy about their partners only growing by particular species. Some Boletes are edible but some are poisonous and, as I’ve mentioned before, it is important to have a sound knowledge of how to recognise which is which. This may seem obvious but every year people are ill or die through eating the wrong kinds of fungi; there are experts who run ‘fungus forays’ if you are interested.
An autumn moth that you may see this month is the Feathered Thorn. The males of this night flying moth have beautiful, feathery antennae giving this attractive insect its name; colour can vary from buff to a rich reddish-brown. They like to inhabit deciduous and mixed woodland, parks or large gardens. By December, the female will have laid her eggs in batches on the shoots of broad leafed trees such as Oak, Maple, Hawthorn and many others, including some fruit trees. When spring arrives the caterpillars hatch and feed on the new leaves and in June they will drop to the ground, pupate in the soil, to emerge as adult moths in the autumn. A pretty addition to October nights but can be considered a bit of a pest by fruit growers.
The Red Admiral butterfly is another beauty that we see flying in October, when on sunny days it will be feeding on the nectar of late flowering plants, such as ivy. (Another good reason to leave some growing where it won’t be taking over trees and buildings.) Most of these butterflies migrate from the continent in May and June when they will mate and lay their eggs to emerge as adults in August. Not many are able to survive our winters but a few may hibernate in houses, or buildings with mild temperatures, and these are the ones you will see in the spring. A stunning insect, velvety black, decorated with strong red bands and white and blue markings but blends into the background when at rest with closed wings that are well camouflaged.
Things to do this month include:
- Minsmere migration.
www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
- Meeting at Holkham Woods, fungi, birds & general.
Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society, Tonyleech3@gmail.com or 01263 722282.
- Fungi course, winter arrivals & geology walk – Cley Marshes.
- Creatures of the night – Bretts Wood.
- Many guided walks.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2015. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org