September is the month when a mysterious organism may appear on your lawn and other grassy places. The frothy-looking, white, jelly-like substance, clinging to blades of grass in a mass, is a slime mould. There are different types of slime moulds in various habitats but this one likes grass, not to eat but to support itself or I should say themselves. Slime moulds are composed of many single celled organisms which live independently but can come together to form the masses we see and these can change shape and move. Laboratory experiments have shown that they can negotiate a maze to find the shortest route to a piece of food; there is a YouTube video showing this amazing feat. In their natural habitat slime moulds feed on bacteria, fungi and micro-organisms that live on decaying matter and they reproduce with fruiting bodies that release spores. A strange, amoeba-like life form and the fact that the masses can move around seems like something out of science fiction.
There are still plenty of flying insects around in September which means plenty of bats. They will not be thinking of hibernating until their food source is getting scarce and then they will find outbuildings, tunnels, roof spaces or hollow trees in which to spend the winter. We can help by providing bat boxes in which to roost and hibernate. These can be obtained from the RSPB and other wildlife organisations and should be placed facing south or east between 10 and 20 feet high; ours is on an oak tree above a pond which attracts lots of insects.
Oak trees will be bearing their acorns, now, which are food for many animals and birds. These trees do not produce acorns until they are at least 40 years old and pig farmers used to turn their animals out into woods to feed on them, beech mast and other nuts. This was known as ‘Pannage’ and still takes place in some parts of the country, in particular the New Forest in Hampshire. Acorns are poisonous to the ponies which roam the forest but pigs tolerate them very well and so clear the forest floor and fatten up to produce what many people think is the best kind of ham. Wood pigeons and mice are also feeding on the acorns and Jays and Grey squirrels are busy burying them for the winter.
The Grey squirrel, as we know, is not native to Britain but was introduced from North America. Another American visitor is the Mink and although there is a European variety, that is a different species and is not found in Britain. The Mink, like the South American Coypu was imported and farmed for its fur. Security at the Coypu farms was obviously not very good because many escaped and established a breeding population in the British countryside. Being a watery animal it found East Anglia very much to its liking and as it was able to produce at least two litters a year, each containing 2 – 9 young, it soon numbered in the thousands. Their extensive burrowing caused collapse of waterway banks and their diet of roots and stems severely damaged crops and reed beds. MAFF, later to become DEFRA, declared war on these large rodents and in the 1960s started a trapping programme which continued into the ‘70s and ‘80s. By 1989 the Coypu was said to be extinct in Britain but unconfirmed sightings are still sometimes reported; these are thought to be large rats, water voles or otters.
The Mink, on the other hand, is still very much alive and kicking here. These, too, escaped from fur farms and many were also released by misguided animal rights activists. Mink are Mustelids, from the same family as weasels, stoats, otters, badgers, polecats, pine martens and ferrets. Their natural colour is a very dark brown but the one in the photo, as you can see, is steel grey. This is a mutation and one of many colour variations that were bred by the fur farms. This young animal was found wandering and taken into the STA Ferret Rescue Centre, near Reading. Claire Shuttleworth, who runs the centre, told me that it was probably someone’s pet which either escaped or was released. A licence is required to keep mink and a home was found for this one with a licence holder. Claire was told that it now likes nothing better than to lie on its back watching television!
Like the Coypu the semi-aquatic Mink also found East Anglia an ideal place to live and soon became a common predator in our waterways. Together with habitat loss it is responsible for the decline of our native Water voles which proved to be easy prey; the young Mink and the females, which are smaller than the males, are agile enough to follow the voles into their burrows. They also predate on other small mammals, water birds, ground nesting birds and anything that they can catch, including fish and amphibians.
September, the beginning of autumn, brings colour to our Norfolk countryside; leaves are starting to change and berries are ripening. Sloes, Haws, Blackberries, Rowan berries are all food for wildlife and Bryony berries are strung through the hedgerows like necklaces. There are two varieties of Bryony in Britain, White, which is a member of the Cucumber family, and Black which is a type of Yam. Although they are not related they both have similar habits, climbing through the hedges with berries that start off as green, becoming yellow then finally red. White bryony has tendrils and leaves that have five lobes, sometimes more, but the Black’s leaves are shaped like the ace of spades. Both of these plants are poisonous but are reputed to taste horrible (who discovered that and are they still with us?) so will be avoided by most animals, although there are reported cases of illness and death in horses, cattle and even a dog which ate the berries.
Hedgerows are homes to many animals and one that you may hear before you see it is the Dark bush cricket. In late summer and early autumn they will be basking in the sun on leaves, particularly Bramble, and ‘singing’. They don’t actually have voices but create that very pleasant sound by rubbing their wings together, this is called ‘stridulation’. Although some bush crickets can fly, this species has very short wings and can only take to the air by jumping. They have an omnivorous diet and will feed on vegetation and small insects. The female Dark bush cricket has a long, upward curving ovipositor which she will insert into dead wood to lay her eggs; these will hatch into nymphs in the spring. After several changes of skin they will become the adults we can see in hedges and woodland edges this month and often into October. Bush crickets, of which there are several species in Britain, can be distinguished from grasshoppers by their long, hair-like antennae, whereas grasshoppers’ are short and sturdier.
September is a beautiful month in the countryside and in our county, even if you live in town, you are never far from an open space, so let’s take advantage of the last of summer.
Activities for September include:
- Sounds in our Surroundings – Ranworth Broad.
- Beach clean – Cley Marshes.
- Children’s Wildlife Watch – Cley Marshes.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
- Discover Titchwell – Titchwell Marsh.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 210779.
© Sheila Sims 2017. Email: email@example.com