Misty autumn days and the Red deer are rutting. The big stag, which has been king of this area for years, is thrashing the vegetation and bellowing throughout the night. Deer are normally timid animals and tend to run away when disturbed but during this time the Red stags have increased levels of testosterone circulating in their bodies. This can make them aggressive and want to fight rivals and if humans get too close they too could be seen as interlopers and may get attacked. This does occasionally happen so if, during this time, you come across a stag it is wise to give him a wide berth, he will be protecting his territory. For the moment our big stag is in charge but one day a younger one may challenge him to a fight which, if the challenger wins, will entitle him to mate with all the hinds in the herd. For the main part the loser will just back off but sometimes a fight can result in severe injuries or even death to the weaker animal.
There are still some plants in flower in October and one that can be seen blooming in the hedgerows is Honeysuckle. This beautiful climbing plant with creamy-coloured flowers, which are often tinged with pink and are wonderfully scented, attract bumble bees and other pollinating insects. The scent is particularly strong at night when moths, some of which are said to be able to detect it from a quarter of a mile away, will be feeding on the flowers. The leaves are the only food source for the White admiral butterfly which is in decline, now, and the red berries, which follow the flowers, are eaten by birds.
As the days get colder earthworms retreat to a lower level in the soil, to be followed by moles which tend to use their deeper tunnels in the winter for this reason. Worms form the main part of moles’ diets but they also eat other invertebrates such as leather jackets and beetle and fly larvae and they will occasionally take mice and shrews if they find them near the entrance to their tunnels. They store food in underground larders and this will mainly be worms which they disable with a bite to the head, keeping them alive and fresh for later; they squeeze the soil from the bodies with their front feet and I have seen hedgehogs do the same. Because moles live almost entirely underground, they are rarely seen but they do leave very visible evidence of their presence as anyone who is ‘lawn proud’ will know. They dig through the soil with their large, shovel-like forefeet at an amazing rate, 14 metres in one hour has been recorded, then they push the displaced earth to the surface creating the molehills we see in fields and in our gardens. They are impossible to deter. I have heard of people laying sheets of wire netting just below the surface with some success but that could prove expensive and very labour intensive for a large area. I was told by a builder, who was renovating a Norfolk house, that the owners had large slates sunk all around the perimeter of their considerable acreage as a barrier against these little excavators. Shortly afterwards I saw one run, with surprising speed, across the road, so one could have got access to that land by simply going under the gate. Things that vibrate and nasty smelling chemicals are among the so called deterrents on sale but, as far as I know, nothing works. We have come to look upon our garden as a mole sanctuary!
Moles are closely related to shrews and hedgehogs but are anatomically very different. They have an extremely well developed sense of touch and the snout is particularly sensitive. Even the hairs on the tail will give the animal information about its surroundings. The fur is short and velvety and, unlike most mammals, does not lie in one direction enabling the mole to move both forward and backwards in their tunnels without difficulty. Because they spend virtually all of their life in complete darkness moles don’t need to see much, therefore their eyes are tiny and are sometimes covered with skin and fur; also they have no external ears.
Moles are solitary animals and will fight others should they meet. The female is just as aggressive as the male because she has very unusual gonads. They contain both ovarian and testicular tissue and therefore she produces a lot of testosterone which, as with the Red stags, will prime her to fight; this is reduced during the breeding season enabling her to tolerate a mate. The nesting chamber is lined with dried plant material which she collects on a rare trip above ground. 2 to 7 young are born and at about 5 weeks of age they will leave the nest and venture to the surface to find new territories. They are obviously very vulnerable at this time and will be preyed on by raptors, snakes and hunting animals.
William Buckland, whose life spanned the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, was a theologian with a passionate interest in the natural world. He made a vow to eat a sample of every living thing that existed and often served his guests mice on toast. He declared the mole to be the vilest tasting thing he had ever eaten – until he tried a bluebottle! So it seems those animals that prey on moles must have different taste buds from humans.
There has been a lot in the media lately about other pests, the Herring gull and the Lesser black backed. These birds, as we know, are normally coastal inhabitants but many are now resident in towns and cities. They will eat virtually anything and are taking advantage of our mucky ways. Streets, littered with discarded food, and landfill sites make easy pickings. Not only do they feed inland but they are also nesting on roofs and some have become very much urban birds. They are intelligent and have learnt to snatch food from people’s hands, particularly in seaside towns where people often eat in the street or on the prom. They can be very aggressive during the nesting season and attacks have been reported. They are also noisy and messy, fouling buildings, streets and cars with their faeces. It is hard to believe, when we see these birds in action, that they are in decline, but they are and so, like all British gulls, are protected; it is illegal to kill them or interfere with nests or eggs. However, licences can be granted to control them in areas where they are considered to be a threat to public health or safety. But surely the answer is simple. Animals do not live in places where there is no food, so let’s sort out the litter problem and stop dumping organic waste in landfill sites, although this would require big changes in the law and people’s habits. If we can do this the gulls will go back to being beautiful seabirds. If we carry on as we are, some will stay inland and a thought occurred to me. Will these urban birds eventually evolve differently from their marine brothers? Living amongst buildings they no longer need to swim, so will their feet slowly lose the webs? The flightless Cormorant lives in the Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin made an extensive study of the animals that were confined to these islands and how natural selection evolved. He concluded that as there was a plentiful supply of food and no land predators, these Cormorants didn’t need to fly, so over time, because of lack of use, their wings became reduced to about a third of the size of those on birds of a similar weight. With the arrival of humans also came rats and feral cats and dogs and great efforts have been made to rid the islands of these introduced predators.
We’ll never know about the gulls’ feet because evolution takes an awful long time but it’s an interesting thought.
Activities for October include:
• Minsmere migration – www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or
• Deer discovery walks – Holkham Hall Park. 01328 713111.
• Roast & ramble – Cley Marshes & Fungi foray – Bretts Wood.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2017