As a child I used to dread the autumn. After the vibrancy and abundance of spring and summer, life seemed to stall as the slow decline toward a cold dark winter started. The closing down of endless summer days of freedom on the return to school, and the drawing in of September evenings marked the start of this decline. Insects and amphibians could no longer be found as they returned to their secret winter refuges, and many birds shunned our soon to be cold and barren lands for warmer climates.
During the death throes of October it felt like trees and other plants seemed to drop their
leaves and die in a matter of days. So, well before the first frosts of November, I would long for spring, for the lengthening of days, the blossoming of bird song and the explosion of a multitude shades of green.
A new appreciation of the seasons
As I’ve matured so, it seems, has my appreciation of the seasons. Initially through the excitement of discovering fungi and mushrooms – food from decay – and the tasty nuts and fruits along hedgerows. Then to appreciate those birds who seek our relatively warmer climate; fieldfares and redwings bringing a flash of colour and glamour from Scandinavia; or knot and dunlin who create such spectacular coastal aggregations.
Autumn is a time of regeneration
I now appreciate the autumn as a period of consolidation and strengthening, a time of rest, replenishment and repair in preparation of the challenges of spring. A celebration of life begins as the hot tired greens of summer give way to a second flush of colour as leaves adopt a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and browns. And as the first frosts bite, the big reset button of winter ensures that many species reconfigure their operating system with a partial shutdown.
For many species autumn and winter provide an abundance of food as energy is returned to the soil, fruits, roots and other food stores are in abundance and, as any over production of the summer is made available in the form of weakened prey or carrion.
Human influence on the big seasonal reset
Unfortunately, our influence on planet earth has upset these natural processes; removal of natural habitats and the use of pesticides has greatly simplified once complex ecosystems, greatly increasing their vulnerability; the tidying of our homes, gardens and farmed land quickly removes nuts, berries and other seeds as well as winter refuges for so many species; and milder winters – a direct result of climate change – upset the normal winter reset, actually making winter survival more difficult for some species such as hibernating hedgehogs.
So many of these impacts might feel beyond our control but there are many things we can do in our gardens and greenspaces. During the next few months we’ll be providing a few simple hints and tips to give wildlife a helping hand during autumn, to redress some of the damage we cause, and to brighten our winter through a closer connection to nature.
Surviving the winter
Some of the most obvious seasonal changes occur with our plants. A combination of shorter days and colder night-time temperatures trigger plants to reduce chemical activity in their leaves and suck nutrients back into the roots, stems or other storage organs like bulbs and tubers. These stores are packed full of food and water and, hidden underground, provide an ideal home for those animals able to overcome toxic defences. Allicin, which is responsible for the pungent garlic and onion flavours is a very effective at putting off herbivores but the Ramson Hoverfly (Portevinia maculata) has found a way to overcome it and lives in bulbs of Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) over the winter.
Annual plants of course, die back entirely and invest their future into numerous seeds ready to germinate when conditions allow. According to Garden Organic the Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) will produce over 100 seeds in each capsule and an individual plant could produce several hundred thousand seeds. These tiny seeds can lie dormant in the soil for more that eight years and will no doubt provide food for many invertebrates during this time.
Hold back on cutting back
Tempting though it is to cut back, trim, and tidy during autumn, it is very beneficial to leave some areas to die back naturally as wildlife often thrives in these untidy areas. The bright blooms, so vital for our bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, may have gone but the old seed heads can provide a bounty for seed eating beetles and birds. As leaves start to curl and dry out, they will create perfect little hiding places for creatures trying to escape from hunting birds. Earwigs, for example, love to squeeze into small crevices like broken stems or seed pods and will actually help the gardener by munching on pests like aphids during the night. The BioScapes Invertebrate Hotel provides an excellent home for earwigs and other insects. Filled with straw, leaves and pinecones for animals to squeeze into the secure roof and mesh entry to this hollow is also protected from hunting birds and small mammals. Remember to top up this habitat refuge up with more material every year or so, to replace the material that has been eaten.
Create wildlife habitat with garden waste
If you do have to cut back overgrown shrubs and woody stems, use this to create a log or brash pile in a wilder part of the garden. These habitat piles attract a wide range of beneficial animals, and creating them during autumn ensures that invertebrates, amphibians and hedgehogs can find them well before they go into hibernation. As these habitat piles and compost heaps breakdown through the autumn and winter they will provide a rich feeding ground for robins, blackbirds and hedgehogs. If you worry these might look untidy place them behind, or under existing shrubbery and, protected from sunlight, this will prevent them drying out. All BioScapes units incorporate a Deadwood Zone and although deep within the habitat units, they are accessible through the Amphibian Refuge and other route ways so that invertebrates, small mammals and amphibians can come and go as they please.
Author: Terry Smithson BSc in Zoology, MSc in Ecology
Terry is our in-house ecologist. He’s worked in the nature conservation sector for over 25 years and loves all things wildlife, especially hoverflies, beetles, mammals and birds. He’s helped design our BioScapes products so they maximise the recovery of wildlife and he’s happy to offer advice to individuals, schools and businesses on how to boost biodiversity.