Autumn has well and truly run its course, the leaves have all turned and mostly fallen and the days are getting very short. Winter has arrived at Clandon Wood. As usual at this time of year, a small flock of sheep have arrived to help keep the grass short. They’ve had a few weeks’ grazing in the West Meadow and will soon be moved into a fenced-off section in the East Meadow. There may only be seven of them but we’re already seeing the effects of their presence; the sward is looking lightly munched and birds are beginning to follow the flock around to forage for worms and insects disturbed by their hooves.
The sheep have arrived
In October we saw the first Redwings and Fieldfares arrive from Scandinavia, with many hundreds flying over on some days. Starlings, too, have been building in number, as migrant birds fly in to spend the winter here, bulking up the flocks of more local birds. Our hedgerows are a vital source of food for hungry birds at this time of year, particularly the migrant thrushes, which drop in to happily gobble up the berries. Unlike a lot of farmland hedges ours are not flailed but laid cyclically, meaning they are allowed to grow freely, flower and fruit for several years before laying. Each time the hedge is laid it gets denser and more vigorous, providing more food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife but also negating the need for any fencing to keep livestock in the fields.
Another bird that is often seen in large numbers at this time of year is the humble Woodpigeon. It’s not uncommon on clear and crisp mornings in late October and November to see many hundreds or even thousands of them on the move overhead. It’s thought that these are mostly British birds simply flocking together to find good feeding areas but, as is the case with most of our resident species, they are probably joined by some birds from overseas.
It’s tempting to feel at this time of year that, as the meadows have been cut and the autumn colours on the trees have gone, that the landscape is now drab and devoid of colour. This couldn’t be further from the truth as the dramatic skyscapes of winter bring out the greens and browns in the meadows against the inky blue of the clouds. Look closer around the meadows and you will find there is still much in flower, from Knapweeds to Stork’s-bills. In one of our recently created ‘groves’ (the fenced-off areas you may have seen in the meadows) a young Gorse bush is in bloom as I write this. Their coconut-scented golden flowers add a wonderful dash of colour to even the dullest of days. Although the main flowering season is in spring, Gorse can and does flower at any time of year, hence the old country saying ‘when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion’.
A glance at either of the ponds at Clandon Wood may lead you to think that things are rather quiet at present, but there is still lots going on. We saw Common Darters egg-laying well into November and the larvae of many other dragonfly species will already be active under the water, feeding up ready to emerge next spring and summer. In terms of water birds the West Pond is still playing host to a single Little Grebe and we’ve had occasional visits from a Mute Swan or two, though the summer drought means the water level may still be a little low for them.
We’ve continued to capture footage of a Water Rail skulking around the edges of West Pond, though I’ve still yet to see it in the flesh. All attempts by a licensed bird ringer to try and catch this bird and ring it have failed, unfortunately, but it’s great to know it’s stuck around for a while now – clearly the habitat is to its liking. Another revelation from the trail camera here has been small numbers of Teal visiting during the night. The smallest of the dabbling ducks, this is another species that breeds in the UK in small numbers but the population is massively boosted in the winter by immigrants from Scandinavia, Siberia, Iceland and the near continent.
We are still seeing our little local gang of Roe Deer from time to time, often along the northern boundary of the site, and have also found footprints in some of the muddier areas of the site.
It’s getting rather late in the year now for the majority of insects but in November we still saw the odd Buff-tailed Bumblebee or butterfly including a Painted Lady on the 2nd. Even as we enter the depths of winter a mild, calm day and a bit of sunshine can be all it takes to coax a Red Admiral or one of the other overwintering species out of their winter hiding place. I have even seen one on New Year’s Eve before!
Year on year, the benefits of our more sensitive style of land management here at Clandon Wood should become apparent. There can be few better indicators of this than our fungi population which I have certainly seen increase in just the three years I’ve been working here. Fungi perform a variety of vital roles in any ecosystem, from helping transfer nutrients from the soil to plants, to breaking down all sorts of organic matter. They are all around us in the soil and plants though only become visible when they produce fruiting bodies, some of which we know as mushrooms or toadstools, although fungi fruiting bodies can take on many forms. New species we have seen this autumn include White Dapperling and Meadow Puffball while regular favourites such as Shaggy Inkcap and Yellow Fieldcap have also been much in evidence.