October brings autumn colours to our woodlands and Broads with changing leaves and delicate fungi and it is usually still warm enough for a boat trip to appreciate the wildlife on the water.
Visitors to Norfolk are often surprised to hear that although the beautiful lakes that are the Broads look completely natural they are, in fact, man-made. They are the result of extensive extraction of peat which started in the 12th century. This wasn’t realised until the 1950s when a botanist, Dr. Joyce Lambert, discovered that each Broad had a level bottom and vertical sides indicating that they had been dug out rather than being formed naturally; natural lakes have variable depths and sloping banks. Norfolk was well populated in medieval times and, as we talked about last month, much of the woodland had been cleared so there was a shortage of fuel. Peat provided this but extracting it was hard work; there were no mechanical diggers and it was all dug out manually. This went on until the 14th century when sea levels rose and the pits that had resulted from the diggings flooded, creating the Broads that we have today.
There is now much discussion about protecting and restoring Britain’s peatlands which are homes to rare plants and animals. Peat bogs take thousands of years to form and are composed of the remains of ancient plants which absorb water and carbon. Scientists can tell what the climate was like in the past and which plants and animals were around, by examining a slice of peat. Because of the acidic and oxygen free environment of these bogs much is preserved, even human remains have been found. The famous Lindow Man, also called Pete Marsh (pardon?), was found in the 1980s on Lindow Moss near where we used to live in Cheshire. Because of the high degree of preservation we even know what his last meal consisted of! Before ‘Pete’ was found a peat digger had discovered a woman’s skull in the same area and a local man, who had murdered his wife twenty five years before, assumed that the game was up and made a full confession. The skull was subsequently found to be rather more than twenty five years old – two thousand, actually! I bet the confessor spent much of his ‘porridge’ kicking himself; his wife’s body was never found.
Many of our Norfolk peat bogs are now protected nature reserves but some have been destroyed through drainage, agriculture and the extraction of peat and water; this happens throughout the country. As the peat dries out and degrades it releases the trapped carbon as carbon dioxide, the main villain in the infamous greenhouse gases we hear so much about. We can help by not buying peat based compost for our gardens, in fact it is hoped that this will be phased out in the next few years – there are alternatives.
All our wetlands are important for plants and wildlife and the autumn is a wonderful time to visit coastal marshes such as Cley and Titchwell. Geese, ducks and waders gather on these rich feeding grounds for the winter and one we can fortunately still see is the Lapwing. The name is thought by some to refer to its aerobatic, zigzagging flight pattern and by others because of its habit of trailing a wing, pretending to be injured, to lure a predator away from the nest. It is also known as the Green plover and the Peewit, a human translation of its unmistakable call.
This beautiful black and white bird, with its iridescent purple and green back, bronze vent and long crest, likes to nest on open farmland or rough, undisturbed grass. The nest, with 2 – 5 eggs, is a simple scrape on the ground which the bird will defend bravely, even mobbing large grazing animals. The Lapwing used to be a common farmland bird but changes in agriculture, the draining and tidying up of wet grassland and predation on nests has seen its numbers plummet. The Victorians didn’t help as they considered a plover’s egg to be a delicacy, consequently they were avidly collected; it is now illegal to do this. Because Lapwings feed on a variety of invertebrates, the overuse of pesticides has reduced the amount of food available to them, contributing to their decline; it is on the red list of vulnerable birds meaning that it is considered an endangered species. However, the winter population is boosted by large numbers of birds that arrive from Northern Europe at this time of year.
Another migrant animal that arrives here in thousands is the Silver ‘Y’ moth; it gets its name from the ‘Y’ shaped markings on the wings. Although they will breed here they cannot survive our winters so during the late summer and autumn head back south to warmer countries. Studies have shown that they wait until the winds are blowing in the right direction, fly vertically to the height of the faster streams and use the currents to bear themselves to their destinations, sometimes travelling at up to 100 kilometres (over 62 miles) an hour. This shows that they know the difference between north and south and, although it is not known how they are able to do this, it is thought that they have some sort of built in magnetic compass. They are very successful, arriving here in time for our growing season and back in Northern Africa in time for theirs. This makes them something of an agricultural pest as their caterpillars will feed on a variety of plants including crops such as peas, sugar beet and cabbage. The stadium in Paris which hosted the Euro 2016 cup final also hosted a party for thousands of these moths. They were attracted to the lights which, for some reason, had been left on all night. They were everywhere! On players, spectators and all over the pitch and I think they won!
If you look under your outside window ledges at this time of year you may find a Harvestman resting for the day – not the type that drives a combine harvester but a relative of spiders. With its eight long legs it does look rather like a spider but close examination will show you the difference. Spiders bodies are in two sections, with a definite waist, whereas in the Harvestman’s case these two parts are fused forming an oval shaped body. Also, spiders have six to eight eyes but Harvestmen only have two. They do not produce silk or spin webs and they do not have fangs or venom like spiders. The second pair of legs is longer than the others and these are packed with nerves acting as sensory organs. If you watch one walking you will see that it constantly taps these two legs picking up information about its surroundings. It is generally active at night hunting small insects and also feeding on fungi, vegetation and even bird droppings – a good little recycler! Harvestmen defend themselves by producing a smelly liquid from their bodies and they are also able to shed a leg when attacked. This will keep moving which will often distract a predator while its original owner makes a getaway. They are able to lose more than one leg in this way but must retain one of the sensory legs to survive. Interesting animals and they sometimes come indoors at this time of year. Be careful when putting him out or you may find you are left holding a twitching leg!
Things to take part in this month include:
• Creatures of the night – family event at Strumpshaw Fen.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 01603715191.
• Minsmere migration.
www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
• Autumn towards winter – Cley Marshes.
• Fungus foray – Ken Hill Woods, Snettisham.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Deer discovery – Holkham Hall Park. 01328 713111.
© Sheila Sims 2016