Race Against Time!

For most of the birds and mammals it’s a race against time to make the most of the produce now piled high upon nature’s table. Because of the looming sell-by date its not going to last long….the daylight hours are shortening and food supplies are dwindling so best to gorge on the ‘all you can eat’ season of plenty before the larder is bare.

Autumn is productive in so many ways, not least for the bird watcher who is treated to a bonanza of bird species as their numbers are swollen from the summer’s breeding, from the immigrants arriving to overwinter, and those species that do a ‘service-station’ stopover in the British Isles on their way further south.

Then September sees the beginning of the mass exodus of migrating birds leaving our shores seemingly taking the warm weather with them. It’s a sad farewell to high summer and it suddenly seems a long long time till spring. But the colour and vitality of the airways will be upstaged by the seasonal bounty…the wash of summer greens eventually eclipsed by a voluptuous display of berries and seeds that offer the ‘last orders’ to nature’s clientele hoping to make it through the British wintertime. We can hope for an Indian summer to illuminate the gorgeous palette of autumn colours, but either way when you step outdoors there is much to catch your eye and tease your tastebuds.

For example, the berries of bramble, elder, rowan and hawthorn, of black and white bryony, rosehips, sloes, wild plums and of course the bizarre fruiting bodies of the fungi all compete for attention. The tempting fruit on the table will even convert the insectivores, the tits, warblers and even woodpeckers will turn frugivore in the absence of invertebrates.

It’s a similar story for the mammal kingdom too, albeit the migrations are more localised. Juveniles will need to be on their way to \establish new territories so as not to compete for food supplies. Foxes for example have been known to travel as far as 40k and hedgehogs up to 15k. These diminutive cartoon characters have a place in most people’s hearts (and no doubt, in some hardcore bushcrafter’s stomachs!) and not surprisingly as they bimble about looking rather cute. However, they have a more pressing agenda during autumn and that is to bulk up, needing to weigh at least 1lb before their 6-month hibernation. Its regular diet of beetles, worms, caterpillars, slugs and snails is fortunately found everywhere, though it is not averse to frogs, small rodents and ground-nesting birds eggs if found. (When introduced to the Western Isles they devastated populations of Dunlin, Redshank and Ringed Plover which led to an RSPB cull in 2003))

Native to broadleaf woodland, hedgerow and meadow the hedgehog has adapted to the parks and gardens of our towns and villages as these habitats have diminished over the last 50 years. Its 6-7000 spines do not protect it however from its main predator, and uncomfortable as this may be to learn, wherever there is a high badger population there will be relatively few hedgehogs.

Badgers seem to have cracked the spiny code, and the cleaned out coat of spines is the grisly residue….
But lets get back to cute - 4-6 ‘hoglets’ are born spineless and blind in early June and are ready to leave in 6 weeks. They are good swimmers and quite agile climbers but most often you’ll hear their nocturnal foraging as a snort-and-sniff in the undergrowth and perhaps see their black shiny (beetle wing cases) 2-inch sausage-shaped droppings if you look carefully. They make daytime nests in long grass but for the long hibernation, a ‘hibernaculum’ is constructed out of grass, leaves and twigs perhaps using an old rabbit hole, a pile of wood or if its your garden, under a shed.

For most of us running bushcraft schools, it’s also a case of harvesting from the season of plenty, making hay while the sun shines. By squeezing the juice out of this last productive phase of the year we might ourselves survive to deliver another calendar of amazing courses and events next year. To that end we offer you readers some good living from the land this autumn before we all retreat indoors to face, dare I say it, Christmas!