If there are no strong winds the autumn leaves can stay on the trees well into the winter providing us with welcome colour. This is particularly true of shrubs which are often lower and therefore more protected. The 29th of this month is the start of National Tree Week. The Tree Council launched this idea in 1975 with the aim to plant a million trees. Trees are important; they supply us with oxygen and provide food and homes for wildlife. A mature English Oak supports up to 300 species of insect as well as birds and mammals. Deforestation is carried out in many places in the world causing major environmental problems but we have to remember, when we criticise, that Britain was once a heavily forested country and we also have been guilty in the past. But now we know better and we can all help by planting a tree of our own. Or, if you want to get more involved, you can get information on how to organise events at email@example.com or 020 7407 9992.
Oak trees will have shed most of their acorns by now, although this year they don’t seem to be as plentiful as usual.They are relished by lots of animals and birds and Grey squirrels have been busy burying them for winter food – I love the way they pat the soil down with their hands – and Jays have been busy digging them up again! Like all members of the crow family these birds are clever and will watch what other animals are doing and take full advantage; as well as stealing from others they will also bury their own.
Wood pigeons will eat acorns whole, so how do they manage them when they have no teeth?
A bird’s digestive system is different from a mammal’s. After the acorn is swallowed it passes into a muscular pouch called the crop, situated near the throat, which is a storage place for food before it is digested. It then travels down into stomach number one, where digestive enzymes help soften the hard fibres. Next into stomach number two, the gizzard, where, with the help of grit and small stones which the bird has swallowed, the acorn is ground down into fragments. It then moves into the intestines, where it is further digested, and then absorbed through the gut wall into the pigeon’s bloodstream to be carried round the body and fatten up the bird. Some are so plump they can hardly get off the ground! What a lovely meal. (The acorn, I mean, not the pigeon!)
Unlike pigeons butterflies cannot find food in the winter and, like all insects, cannot generate warmth for themselves but have to obtain their heat from outside sources, usually sunshine. As the cold weather approaches, and food supplies dwindle, some types of butterflies die. Others become dormant and, depending on the species, spend the winter as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult. We may find the odd adult in our homes, tucked away behind the curtains in a little used room, but for the main part, they tend to favour cool, dry outbuildings and the ones we often see are Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks. Sometimes they are on their own, sitting with closed wings, on a beam or in a corner but last year we came across a group of Peacocks all resting together. Peacocks will flash their wings if disturbed, making a rasping sound and showing the large eye-spots. It is possible that they feel better protected from predators if there are a lot of them doing this; it would certainly alarm the rodents that find them a tasty winter snack, in particular the Wood mouse. Those wings that we find on the floor are mainly the work of this mouse, which relishes the soft bodies but discards the crispy bits.
The Wood mouse, also called the Field mouse or Long-tailed Field mouse, is one of three similar species. The other two are the House mouse, which we are all familiar with, and the Yellow-necked mouse. The latter is very like the Wood mouse but a little heavier, with a larger yellow throat patch. The Wood mouse is larger than the House mouse and has a brown coat and bigger eyes and ears. It also has longer hind feet and tail and doesn’t have the musky smell that our home visitors tend to leave behind them. They are opportunist feeders and will eat a great variety of foods including, seeds, cereals, vegetation, fruit, nuts, fungi, earthworms, snails and insects. They are very agile and climb well, often taking over old birds’ nests to store food. They can have four or five litters a year, each with 4 – 7 young, but 9 have been recorded. They excavate burrows where they create two chambers, one for a nest and the other for food storage; they sometimes nest communally out of the breeding season. They are very adaptable little animals and will use whatever is available to fill their needs.
We once left a box of books, destined for the charity shop, in an outbuilding and found a perfectly gnawed tunnel going from one book to another, with a nest at the end, and a heap of bird food put by for later. Another nest was made from shredded Christmas decorations, very sparkly and colourful! They are pretty, delicate little animals and although they can be a nuisance when they dig up your newly sown peas and beans, for the main part they are harmless, except when they take sugar beet seed or get in a grain store when they can be very destructive. At this time of year you may see them in your garden where they will be looking for berries and nuts, and the really cheeky ones will raid bird feeders. They also enter out buildings in search of those delicious butterflies and, if they find a gap, will squeeze into a feed bin to eat your chicken food. Wood mice are predated on by foxes, stoats, weasels, owls and other birds of prey; domestic cats also reduce the population numbers.
It was a mouse that taught me a valuable lesson about life. At primary school, like all others I imagine, we had a nature table and, on a piece of waste ground, I found a dead mouse. How much better than all those boring conkers, leaves and sea shells that were the usual offerings. The most popular girl in the class was Alwyn Jones and everybody adored her and wanted to be her best friend. I longed to impress her and now was my chance. How I would shine in her eyes when I showed her my treasure. She screamed the place down! I was sent to the headmistress and received a good telling off and twenty ‘thou shalt not’ lines. For the life of me I could not understand what I had done wrong or why my parents shrieked with laughter when I told them about the injustice. The lesson? Life was never meant to be fair!
November is the start of the birthing season for Grey seals and they are beginning to come ashore on the Norfolk coast. Blakeney and Horsey are good places to see them.
If you are planning a firework night for the 5th you probably have a heap of stuff ready to burn for your bonfire. Before you set it alight don’t forget that there will probably be animals, such as hedgehogs, reptiles, amphibians and insects that have decided that it is a good place to spend the winter, so please move all the material before striking that match; any animal that appears to be dormant should be moved to a safe, sheltered place.
P.S. I still think a dead mouse is better than a conker!
Things to to do this month include:-
• Getting to know the trees of Bure valley – Ranworth Broad.
• Guided walks – Cley & Thorpe Marshes.
• Visit to Holme Dunes.
• Horsey seals.
Details at www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Wildlife at RSPB reserve at Titchwell.
Go to firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 210779.
© Sheila Sims 2014