Where does the wildlife go?
Written by Kevin O'Hara, conservation officer at Northumberland Wildlife Trust
Where do they all go in winter? - Part 1
Recently I felt the first twangs of winter; the 'first frost' gripped my garden, the chickens came skidding out of their ark, and I had to break the ice on their drinking water. I really like those first days, when we still have some daylight left to enjoy the wonderful colours and smells. I take the camera and binoculars with me when I walk the dogs, keeping an eye out for winter thrushes or other visitors. The clocks have altered and we start the long haul of winter - not until February will some real light return to the sky, and warmth to the sun.
It is during these months that we wonder where, exactly, many of our resident wildlife species go to survive the coldest and wettest days of winter, especially those that are more delicate and less mobile.
We may have an idyllic mental image of a hibernating hedgehog (unless you're my terrier, Brock) cosily curled up under the garden shed, but other UK creatures avoid the chill in very varied and often surprising ways.
In the North East the weather is more variable than the rest of the country and our continental neighbours, upland birds such as red grouse, need only make temporary altitudinal movements, generally returning to higher ground once the snow relents. However, with snow lying longer on the hills they often move to the tops where drifting snow exposes the best feed.
Relief from the winter cold is also afforded by migration to salt water. For example, the kingfishers from the Blyth and Wansbeck disappeared over the last couple of winters, but I regularly saw kingfishers in the estuaries and along the open rocky shoreline.
The golden plover's breeding grounds in the Pennines seem remarkably empty after the birds leave together. They abandon the open moors to winter on the coast, some pushing as far south as Sussex and in extreme weather, over the channel to France.
The grey partridge is a highly sedentary bird and whilst I have been heartened by the number present in my local area this year, they will have a tough time in the open countryside this winter if it is a hard one again. This is why I keep banging on about good hedgerows and not flailing them to within an inch of their lives (plus maintaining a good field margin) - this is where these birds find shelter, food and warmth. Other residents, like the woodcock, whose numbers swell in the winter months with continental migrants readily make bad-weather-related movements. With great dependence on wetlands, most of our wildfowl and waders must constantly shift location in icy weather.
Amongst the species that truly hibernate to escape the winter cold, bats are the most well-known occupants of houses and other buildings; mostly roosting in the roof, but also sometimes (as in the case of my house), in the tiny spaces in the wall cavity. They will also roost under tiles, beneath lead flashing, in boiler rooms, cellars and service tunnels...anything that maintains a constant temperature and affords access to the outside world, and that replicates their natural hibernacula such as caves, trees and other enclosures.
I will be making the most of these last rays of light because I can't stand the dark winter nights. As a youngster it was a time for pranks and dares, but now health and safety, political correctness and a zero-tolerance society has put paid to nicky-knocky-nine-doors, apple bashing and dogging (the traditional pursuit of legging it through people's gardens unobserved, not the lewd public behaviour of some ex-football stars).
Besides, at 48 my days of out-running the local plod may have come to an end. I content myself with using my rowing machine in the conservatory whilst staring at the grey skies, shooting defenceless pigeons around my farmer friends' fields, days out walking my dogs (avoiding hibernating hedgehogs), and a bit of photography and writing.
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