It’s the time for seeking warm wintering quarters
October is an unpredictable month, often stormy and wet but occasionally surprising us with days of beautiful sunny perhaps frosty weather as the trees and berries assume their autumn colours.
It is the month of migration and sleepy hibernation – migration as the remaining birds that arrived in spring and summer fly south towards Africa and other birds begin to arrive from the colder north and east to winter here.
Among the last to leave are the chiffchaffs and wheatears, among the first to arrive are continental chaffinches.
Most reptiles and many small mammals are now seeking warm wintering quarters. Slow-worms look f or burrows, holes or old compost heaps where numbers may congregate together and from where they will re-emerge in the spring.
Grass snakes may also hibernate in groups but adders are more solitary. Both will seek warm hollows under trees or hedges, usually with plenty of leaf cover.
There have from time to time been rumours of smooth snakes in Kent but I know of no definite records – the nearest are said to be in Surrey.
Common and great-crested newts also hibernate, often under large stones or in convenient greenhouses if they can get in. Palmate newts usually remain low down in their ponds as do some frogs, but I often find wintering frogs sheltering against house walls or the sides of sheds.
Most dormice will have now fattened up after an excellent crop of hazelnuts and are about to live up to their name by hibernating individually from late October until April.
Wood mice, or long-tailed field mice as they are also known, set aside food stores for the winter. I have watched one hard at work beneath my cobnut trees where they also have a burrow. They can leap like kangaroos but use all four legs.
If you hear mice scrabbling about in the attic the chances are that they are yellownecked mice, slightly larger than the wood mice.
They are great climbers of walls, finding a way into the house in the winter to raid any food and even bringing their own – beech mast is one of their favourites. They are noisy creatures, playing games when you are trying to sleep, but they usually leave again in the spring. But the greatest beauty of October are the autumn colours.
The Bishopsbourne author, broadcaster and botanist, Jocelyn Brooke described the month as a kind of second spring but as different as dusk is from dawn – in spring one watches for the first flowers, now the process is reversed.
One flower that seems to defy the cold is red campion, sometimes blooming until Christmas. But a star performer is ivy. It attracts late flying bees and tough butterflies such as the red admiral, even into winter.
There used to be a belief that red admirals could not survive our cold winters but they regularly endure much colder conditions in France.
Dampness may be a problem, but I have seen two emerge from ivy-covered woodland on a sunny lane in late December and very early January. Hawthorns now bear rich red haws, winter food for the birds. In wartime they, like rose hips, were once made into Christmas jellies by knowledgeable village ladies when normal gelatine was unavailable.
Another star of the hedgerows is guelder-rose with its bright red translucent berries, poisonous to humans but food for bullfinches and mistle thrushes.
In the years after the 1939-45 war I used to wander around a huge flooded crater near the old Sturry allotments colonised by newts and grass snakes.
It was there that I saw my first thorn apple, an oddlooking member of the nightshade family whose fruit is a bright green pod with prominent spikes.
Thorn apples come from south-eastern Europe and are hallucinogenic.
They have been given a number of other appropriate names including devil’s snare, devil’s trumpet and devil’s weed. Recently one was found fruiting in Elham. It probably came from bird seed. They do not usually survive our winters.
A wheatear – a corruption of its old English name, white arse; bright red haws
Guelder-rose berries, left, and a thorn apple