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Content Updated: 1st October 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: October 2017

Autumn leaves in the New Forest

September started on an uncomfortably muggy note, with night-time temperatures in England and Wales an unseasonably warm 17C (63F) during the first few days. Temperatures dropped during the second week and Britain saw squally showers and blustery winds courtesy of Storm Aideen, the season’s first named storm. Winds hit 50mph along the south coast and almost 75mph through the midlands. This was followed by an erratic week of sunshine, showers and a chilly northerly wind. October is forecast to begin with settled weather, with wet and windy conditions pushing into northern and western parts later in the month.

The main weather story last month was, of course, the devastating hurricanes that hit the western Atlantic. On the 6th September, NASA’s earth observatory released a fascinating, if disturbing, image of three hurricanes (Katia, Irma and Jose) lined up across the Atlantic basin. Category 5 hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean bringing sustained 185 mph winds (gusts up to 218 mph) and storm surges and killing 25 people before moving north to Florida where it killed five people when it made landfall. The devastation was staggering, with 95% of properties on the tiny island of Barbuda, which suffered the brunt of the storm, damaged – most flattened. Hot on the heels of Irma was Jose, a Category 4 hurricane bringing sustained winds of 145 mph to the Caribbean. Katia, a Category 1 hurricane, followed Jose, brewing in the Gulf of Mexico before heading southwest towards Mexico. Around the middle of the month, Hurricane Maria left at least 15 people dead when it hit Dominica, bringing 140 mph winds and up to 76 cm (30 in.) of rain. The unseasonably warm waters of the tropical Atlantic have meant lower surface air pressures and increased moisture, culminating in a more dynamic environment that’s perfect for hurricane formation. Sadly, climatologists are warning that as our climate continues to change, such hurricanes will become more frequent and more difficult to predict.

If you want to get out and about this month, as usual, the Wildlife Trusts have a series of nature-themed events up and down the country, as do the RSPB. If you feel like being proactive and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. The Forestry Commission are also running a series of events this month, details of which can be found here.

Red deer stag and hind.Mammals: Probably the greatest mammal spectacle to be seen this month is the deer breeding season, or rut. October is the peak month for the rutting of red, fallow and sika deer here in the UK. Red deer tend to hold traditional rutting grounds and these are areas of good grazing that the females are attracted to; the stags are drawn to the females, who form small matriarchal groups, and work hard to keep competing males away for long enough to mate with as many of their harem as possible. The stags roar (or ‘bolve’ - right) for several reasons: to scare off potential rivals; to attract nearby females; and to help bring the females into oestrus. Research by scientists on the Isle of Rum has revealed that females can tell the size and fitness (and probably the individual deer) from the volume and duration of the roar; larger animals have deeper roars. Much the same applies to fallow and sika, except that the males tend to occupy a good spot (called a lek) where they stand and belch (fallow) or whistle (sika) to attract females over. The deer rut is fascinating and very entertaining to watch, but please remember that, even in deer parks like Richmond, Bushy and Petworth, getting too close can both disturb the deer and be dangerous for you – these are large mammals pumped up on testosterone, and this makes them unpredictable. Please keep your distance and don’t risk your safety, or theirs, for the sake of a photo. If you want to watch the rut this autumn, there are several parks and gardens that hold managed populations of free-ranging deer across the UK – check out the British Deer Society’s website to find one local to you.

October is a good time to check up on your local hedgehogs, which will be out and about during these lengthening nights looking to put on plenty of fat to see them through their winter hibernation. Some of you may have seen an article published in the Daily Mail last month asking people not to feed their local hedgehogs because it will prevent them going into hibernation. Please ignore this advice (see below). Unfortunately, some hedgehogs will have given birth recently and these so-called ‘autumn orphans’ are very unlikely to have sufficient time to lay down the necessary fat reserves to see them through the winter. Consequently, if you come across a small hedgehog you can help by either taking it in and feeding it up, or contacting your local wildlife rescue centre. (If your local wildlife centre takes the hoglet and you have the means, a donation towards the care is always gratefully accepted.) If you fancy helping out the hoglet yourself, check out the Caring for Hedgehogs article on this site for some instructions. More generally, you can help your local hog population by leaving out food and water for them, as well as holding off tidying up your garden for a few weeks in order to provide plenty of leaves and vegetation for use when they’re constructing the hibernaculum. Dormice and bats will also be starting to wind down for the winter soon but are often actively feeding at this time of year.

Squirrels are very active this month, and with a bumper mast crop this year here in the New Forest, squirrels are busy caching the surplus for later retrieval. If you head out to your local park or woodland for some squirrel watching, keep an eye on their caching behaviour – you should notice them make phony caches when they think they’re being watched.

Red fox family life is now starting to break down and, in some populations, the cubs are starting to disperse as tensions rise and fights become more common. In some groups, cubs may stay around until December and, particularly in urban areas where food is in greater abundance, vixens may remain on their parents’ territory for another year or more. Whether the cubs are about to fly the coop or not, foxes are becoming increasingly territorial as the breeding season approaches, and calling tends to increase as a result, reaching a peak during January. My local foxes are also making the most of the blackberry glut, based on the very dark scat I’ve been finding lately.

Birds: I always think of October as the month of the owl. Little owl chicks have fledged and can be heard calling on mild October nights, while barn owls can often be seen hunting during the day. Moreover, October is the month of the tawny owl. As many of my friends can testify of late, there’s a lot of ‘kee-wick-ing’ and ‘hoo-hoo-ing’ going on in our woodlands, parks and cities at the moment. These noises, that Shakespeare described as “Tu-whit. Tu-who” in his poem Winter, are contact calls made by tawny owls and calling is increasing in frequency as the owls kick the kids out and become more territorial. Much has been said about sexing owls based on their calls, with the female making the ‘kee-wick’ and the male responding with the ‘hoo-hoo’, but in reality it is not that straightforward and I have sat and watched a tawny change from kee-wick-ing to hoo-hoo-ing. That said, females do seem vastly more prone to making the kee-wick call than males (I’m reliably informed that males can make it, but generally don’t) and their ‘version’ of the hoo-hoo is more warbly/tinny in quality than that of the male, which has a deep, resonating quality. Here’s what I mean (click each to listen): female kee-wick; female hoo-hoo; male hoo-hoo. Being territorial now means that not only can they be duped into responding (even approaching) imitated calls thus offering a better view, they are also more prone to calling during the daytime, which has caught some people off-guard.

October is also the month during which many of our winter migrants begin arriving, including whooper swans from Iceland, wigeon from Russia and Scandinavia and, also from Scandinavia, woodcock. Sightings of bearded tits, crossbills, bramblings and redwings are also starting to increase here in Hampshire.

Spider web against autumn colours.Reptiles and amphibians: Warm, sunny days during October will tempt out some reptiles, particularly juveniles born earlier in the year. Most reptiles will, however, begin preparing for hibernation towards the end of this month, so encounters will become less common. The same is true for amphibians, although there are still plenty of froglets and toadlets around at the moment. I have also come across a few adult frogs in the long grass of the lawn on recent nights, so please be careful if planning on giving your lawn a final cut.

Invertebrates: There are fewer butterflies and dragonflies around in October, although the occasional white butterfly and southern hawker dragonfly have made an appearance during my walks. A few lepidopterids to keep an eye out for this month include small tortoiseshell butterflies, the ivy-loving herald moth, the striking yellow and orange vestal moth, and the clouded yellow. Perhaps the most obvious invertebrates around at the moment are the eight-legged ones: the spiders. Orb weaver (Araneus) spiders are everywhere at the moment, their webs covering grass and gorse bush alike. Most of these spiders are “garden spiders” (Araneus diadematus), which come in a deceptively broad range of colours, but there were other orb weavers in attendance, as well as the odd late wasp spider. Check out the edges of pools, particularly on heathland, this month for one of Britain’s largest spiders, the raft spider. These large spiders are chocolate brown with white stripes and are widespread on heathlands in southern England, but very sparsely distributed across the rest of the UK. There also seem to be plenty of small black ground beetles around at the moment.

Plants and fungi: Arguably, the feature that makes autumn special is when the deciduous trees start shutting down for the winter. As the leaf dies, a variety of reds, oranges and yellows are revealed courtesy of xanthophylls, beta-carotene, and anthocyanins present in the leaves but masked by green chlorophyll for most of the year. The fallen leaves not only appear to contain waste products and toxins that the tree shunted into them before they were cast but, as they’re broken down by detritivores, nutrients are released back into the soil, acting as a fertiliser for the tree. In amongst this carpet of colourful leaves you can usually find fungi, which form a crucial part of the recycling process – in fact, were it not for fungi, almost no woody tissue would be recycled in our forests. October is a great month for fungi spotting and a few to look out for are shaggy inkcap on grassy areas, the striking orange-peel fungus, the dripping beefsteak fungus on oaks and sweet chestnut, the repugnant-smelling stinkhorn fungus, and the familiar red and white spotted fly agaric.

In a slight deviation from the normal structure, I was going to enlighten you about how naked molerats can survive underground without oxygen, but that will have to wait for next month. Instead, I want to take a few moments to look at an article published in a national daily newspaper at the start of last month suggesting we should stop putting food out for hedgehogs visiting our gardens because it’s stopping them going into hibernation.

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Question of the Month – Is it true that feeding hedgehogs stops them hibernating?

Hedgehog eating cat food.Don’t feed hedgehogs – or they won’t hibernate” read the headline in The Daily Mail on 8th September. The article was a short opinion piece by Victoria Allen that reported on an observation made by University of Brighton mammologist Dawn Scott at the British Science Festival, held in the city earlier that week. During her talk, Dr Scott presented some of her findings on the impact of people putting out food on mammal behaviour and questioned whether food left out in gardens may be delaying hedgehogs going into hibernation, perhaps explaining the recent increase in sightings of them during December or January. Dr Scott was quick to point out that this winter activity was more likely a response to milder winters, but that data for other species (specifically, research on brown bears in Slovenia published back in May) suggest that supplemental feeding can affect (reduce) periods of hibernation/torpor. The Daily Mail interpreted this as householders preventing hedgehogs hibernating by putting out food. This sparked a furore online, particularly among hedgehog rehabilitators, who correctly urged people to ignore the article and continue to feed their visiting hedgehogs. Indeed, supplemental food may be more crucial at this time of year than any other. I also saw some criticism levied at Dr Scott, suggesting she didn’t know what she was talking about, which I considered unfair. So, what’s the real story?

Firstly, Dr Scott never told people that feeding hedgehogs stops them hibernating. She never even suggested that people shouldn’t feed hogs visiting their gardens. All Dawn did was to make an observation that we’re seeing more hedgehogs active during the winter months when we’d normally expect them to be hibernating, and that supplementary feeding might play a role in this.

Secondly, hibernation is a complicated process, one we have yet to fully understand. We know that it’s at least partly triggered by a disappearance of (or significant reduction in) food, but that’s not the whole story. Indeed, hedgehogs kept in outdoor cages by rehabilitators will eventually go into hibernation, despite food and water being available around the clock. Temperature, hours of daylight, age and body condition all appear to influence when a hedgehog will go into hibernation. As I’ve mentioned, there are data suggesting the presence of supplemental food can reduce the duration of hibernation in bears, and there’s anecdotal evidence that it can delay entry to hibernation in hedgehogs. There are no data showing, even suggesting, that the presence of food alone prevents hibernation.

Thirdly, the Daily Mail article (and many of the social media posts I saw over that weekend) gives the impression that failing to hibernate is a bad thing, that hibernation is in some way essential to the well-being of the hedgehog. It is not. Hibernation is a complex physiological adaptation to the disappearance of the hedgehog’s food (i.e. invertebrates) during the winter. Given that, during hibernation, hedgehogs are prone to starving or freezing to death, being set on fire if they happen to build their hibernaculum in bonfire fodder, drowning, or being dug out by predators, it is arguably the most dangerous time of a hedgehog’s year – this is particularly true for juveniles undertaking it for the first time. In much milder climates, such as New Zealand’s North Island where they were introduced in 1892, hedgehogs don’t hibernate. There’s no evidence that failing to hibernate is detrimental to a hedgehog’s health, provided there’s sufficient food around.

A couple of other points were raised in the article that warrant quick attention:

The constant food supply stops them realising it is hibernation time, putting hedgehogs at risk of dying during the colder temperatures or being eaten by predators at a time when food is scarce.”

Hedgehogs feeding togetherThe ‘realisation’ that it’s time to hibernate seems to come before the food vanishes. Changing light conditions and cooling temperatures probably indicate that prey will soon disappear altogether and prompt the animal to subconsciously begin preparing for hibernation by laying down fat. The observation that there are no fixed dates for hibernation suggests each hedgehog responds to these external cues differently. Furthermore, hibernation is no guarantee of safety from predation and the  main predator in Britain, the badger, is also much less active during the winter.

If a hedgehog is underweight, below 600g (1.3lbs), then it is sensible to keep feeding it to help it through the winter. It may not have enough body fat to survive through the long hibernation period. However it is suggested that people should reduce their food at this time of year if that is not the case.”

Firstly, this was not suggested by Dr Scott. Secondly, there’s more to hedgehog health than just weight. There’s general body shape and parasite (particularly worm and tick) burden. Finally, assessing weight generally involves catching and weighing a hedgehog, which may be neither  desirable nor practicable for many people, particularly if (as in my garden) they don’t arrive until the early hours. Moreover, if one hog was 600+g, do you stop putting out food? Likelihood is you have more than one visiting, and some may be underweight.

So, to sum up, don’t believe everything you read in the papers. There’s no evidence that we’re harming hedgehogs by putting out supplemental food for them, provided that food is appropriate. Shop-bought hedgehog food is good; wet cat or dog food is also fine, as are dried pet foods provided plenty of fresh water is available. Mealworms, sunflower seeds and peanuts should be seen as treats – their high phosphorous:calcium ratio can cause bone-thinning, so they should only be offered in moderation. Peanuts should be crushed because whole ones can get stuck on the teeth, causing obstructions and dental disease.

In the end, we may find that the hedgehog response to climate change is that they stop hibernating, but we don’t have any data to suggest this is happening yet, nor that it would necessarily be a problem for them.

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Profile of the Month – Jenni Cox of the Orme Glow Worm Project

Female glowworm.Tell us a little about yourself
I’m just a wildlife enthusiast who spends a lot of time encouraging other people to appreciate wildlife, especially invertebrates. At the moment I’m not working so it’s become a full time voluntary job. I’m out on the Great Orme almost every day and most nights.

How did Great Orme Glow Worms come about?
Up until 2011 I had no idea glow worms even existed in the UK. I accidentally stumbled on my first female glow worm one night and she sparked my interest. After finding one, a more thorough search lead me to another 300 glowing females that same year. I wanted to start a proper survey in 2012, but fear of being out late alone in the dark stopped me. In 2013 I managed to get over the fear. Once I’d started the survey I noticed how the orange sodium street lights were attracting hundreds of males away from the females. After informing the council of my finds I managed to get them to change all the street lights near the glow worm colony from orange sodium to white LED lights. A local newspaper reporter printed a story about it and it ended up in all the national newspapers too. I was also interviewed on BBC Radio Wales and appeared in a 10 minute glow worm documentary. I was famous for a short while! Besides doing the survey, my biggest aim is to count 1,000 glowing females in one night. This year I got very close to the target - 843, my highest count yet.

What does surveying glowworms involve?
It involves lots of late nights and lots of walking! On the nights glow worms peak in numbers and I’m trying to count 1,000, I usually cover 7 or 8 miles, a lot of it uphill. I end up with very sore legs! This year I remember thinking I wasn’t going to make it back because I could hardly walk. When I see hundreds of glow worms the excitement and adrenaline kick in so I don’t feel the pain as much at first. At the end of the night walking back home is when I feel it the most! It’s a good job numbers only peak for a few nights. (Photo below shows a lure put out to attract male glow worms to count.)

What do you like most about the work you do?
Just knowing there are so many more little glow worms in existence because of me is what I like most about the work I do.

Glowworm surveying.What do you find the most frustrating aspect of your work?
There are a lot of frustrating aspects. The most frustrating is that now I’ve got the street lights changed there’s a lot more males flying around and mating with females. This is a good thing, but once a female has mated she turns her light off and crawls away, which means I might not see her and it lowers the chances of me hitting my goal of 1,000.

If you had to choose one thing you’ve learned about Orme wildlife during the course of your research that stands out as particularly fascinating/valuable/weird, what would it be?
All the Great Orme wildlife is fascinating to me and all valuable in some way. What I find very weird is how few people take an interest in the invertebrates there. With all the wonderful species I’d expect the place to be swarming with entomologists looking for something new to report. I suppose there just aren’t that many people in general who have an interest in invertebrates. I hope to change that, not just here on the Great Orme, but as far as my reach will let me through Facebook.

How can people find out more?
People can find out more through Facebook by checking out my page Great Orme Glow Worms which has lots of information and photos. The page will direct them to the Facebook group Glow Worms of Great Britain where people can discuss glow worms and share their photos. There’s also a Great Orme Wildlife Sightings Facebook group, which includes all wildlife. And then there’s British Spider Identification where people can show off their spider photos, get identifications and learn more about our native spiders.

If you're interested in getting involved and being featured on here later this year, please get in touch via the normal route.

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As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page. (Note: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support.

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WildlifeonlineOkay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!

What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.

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DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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