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October 2013

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October evening, Sheila Sims
October evening, Sheila Sims

Misty autumn nights and the Red Deer are rutting. The bellowing roars of the stags, as they compete for the hinds, can be heard for miles across the Norfolk countryside.
The Red and the Roe are the only two of our deer that are truly native to Britain. The others, Sika, Fallow, Chinese Water and Muntjac, are all introduced species.

The Red Deer stag is our largest wild land mammal, standing up to 137 cm (nearly 54 ins) at the shoulder and weighing 190 kgs (418 lbs) although larger reds have been recorded. Our lowland deer are bigger than the Scottish highland animals where the forage is not as nutritious.

During the rut, breeding is the only thing on the stags’ minds and they will fight until one emerges dominant. Serious injuries and even death can result from these encounters but usually one will eventually back down and the winner will mate with all the hinds in the group, ensuring that the strongest genes are passed on to future herds.

October is the peak month for migrating birds flying along our coast to spend the winter in the south. Among the sea birds that can be seen are skuas, shearwaters, gannets and auks. Geese, ducks and waders arrive in thousands to feed on the coastal marshes. Winter thrushes, Fieldfares, Redwings and Mistles, fly inland and many will appear in our gardens to take advantage of fruit and berries.

Fly Agaric, Mike Sims
Fly Agaric, Mike Sims

This month is the time for fungi. Some look and smell wonderful but don’t be tempted to have them for breakfast unless you know what you are eating. It seems that for nearly every edible one there is a poisonous look-alike that could cause serious illness or even death. The beautiful Fly Agaric is easily recognisable with its white spotted red cap and is regarded with fondness, probably due to childhood memories of fairy tale illustrations. It is very poisonous and I’m sure that little gnome, who was often sitting on top, never ate it. If you are interested, there are experienced mushroom hunters who organise foraging walks and will help you with identification.

In the winter frogs go into suspended animation and some will settle in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Dragon fly larvae and other water-living insects also become inactive and they are unlikely to survive if disturbed, so now is the time to give your pond a bit of a clean up before animals start to hibernate.

Autumn brings visitors to your house and I don’t mean the ones that come for Christmas and thought they’d give you a nice surprise by arriving a bit early. No – I’m talking about spiders.

The big chunky ones that you find in the bath or sink can make you jump a bit, I know, but they are harmless. These large House Spiders are of the Tegenaria species and the one we see is usually a male. He is love-sick at this time of the year and roams around the house looking for a female. She tends to play the waiting game and for the most part stays in her web. This will be in a dark corner somewhere and is a woven sheet of silk with a funnel at one end, where she will sit until she feels the vibration of an insect walking across the web – dinner! Very welcome, I’m sure, as it may be the first meal for sometime; these spiders can survive for months without food or water.

So why do they appear in our baths and sinks? Some think they come up through the plug hole but this is highly unlikely as the bend in the pipe is full of water and would be difficult to get through. They may lose their footing when traversing ceilings or walls and fall down. Possible, but wouldn’t happen very often as these animals are good at travelling across this type of surface. The most likely reason is that they are in search of water. Our bath hasn’t been used for some time, because we shower, and consequently is dry. I haven’t found any spiders there but they are often in the sinks. So maybe love is driving these boys to drink! A towel draped over the edge will help them to leave.

In contrast to that beefy beast is the one we call the Daddy-long-legs spider. The female of this delicate animal, with its long, hair-like legs, lives with us all the year round. The male arrives in late spring and summer and searches for a mate during the night. They make rather untidy webs to trap insects – they will also eat other spiders – and using their legs, throw silk around the victim which is then rolled into a parcel – a sort of packed lunch. If they are disturbed they spin around rapidly to confuse predators. These are very industrious spiders; knock down their webs and guess what, the next day they are all back again!

Garden spider, Sheila Sims
Garden spider, Sheila Sims

Another that will often venture into the house in the autumn is the pretty Garden Spider. It is also called the Orb or Cross Spider, not because it is bad tempered but because it has a white cross on its abdomen and, like its close relatives, builds a beautiful orb web. These are favourites with photographers when covered in drops of dew.
All spiders are venomous but although a few British species have been known to bite people, these incidents are rare and not many have fangs that are strong enough to penetrate the skin. Their venom is designed to kill small insects and is not dangerous to humans. The only one that may be a cause for worry, is a member of the False Widow family, the Noble False Widow. This is not a native but has been present in Britain for more than a hundred years and is thought to have been accidentally brought in from Madeira and the Canary Islands. It spread from the south of the country and has been found in Norfolk. Although its bite can be painful and may produce an itchy lump, it is only a cause for concern for people who suffer acute allergic reactions, when more severe symptoms may be present. This spider is not actively aggressive and will only bite if accidentally touched or squeezed.

Spiders are not everyone’s favourite creatures, I know, but they are more efficient at controlling the fly population than a rolled up newspaper!

Things to do this month include:
• Walk with the warden – Cley.
• Fungus foray – Foxley Woods.
• Wildfowl and waders – Cley Marshes.
• Children’s wildlife watch (fungi) – Meet at Gresham’s Senior School car park, Holt.
• Creatures of the night – Meet at visitor centre, Ranworth.
Details: Norfolk Wildlife Trust or ring 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2013