In late spring the simple 'Cuckoo' song gently wafting along…
What do the months of November and December hold in store this year? Summer seemed to continue well into October and the normal September storms waited until mid-October to descend on us. Whilst writing in mid-October, with the temperature at 17 degrees C at 9.00 AM, storm Callum is overhead. Could it possibly be snowing hard in some 6 weeks time, as back in 2010? Our weather doesn’t seem to hold the seasonal patterns I recall over my lifetime. I only wish. As a great farming friend once told me when I entered farm management, keep a detailed diary of all the dates of harvest, sowing, fertilizer applications and weather and ground conditions etc., etc. I did, but frustratingly, I never wrote down with any regularity what the wildlife was up to. The distinctive call of the arrival of the Brent geese was always around 17th October when farming down in Sussex. This was like clockwork and was recorded and eagerly awaited, heralding in autumn.
I always record the first swallows to arrive and the last to leave. Unusually, I saw none in October this year. The odd few would normally be around to now before their long migration south. Thumbing through my more recent diaries, I notice that from mid-October I have normally seen the first few migrants from Scandinavia, members of the thrush family: redwings and fieldfares but none yet. I think it fair to say we will not see them until we get into November, especially if our more northern regions have as many rowan and hawthorn berries as we have this year. There is much folk lore about such bountiful quantities of wild fruit and how we are in for a hard winter. If there is an element of truth to this, we must be in for plenty of bad weather. Not only are the hedgerow trees laden with fruit, so too are the apple orchards and this year it seems difficult to give away any of the multitude of apples that did colour the sagging branches of nearly all the trees. This has been a great, even the best for crop for many years. Storm Callum left few remaining on the trees and I look forward to see what wildlife will benefit from all that is not stored, used for juicing or given away. So far, the neighbours bullocks have got in on several occasions and there is evidence of a few roe and red deer, badgers as well, all dinning to their hearts content on many different varieties. This I am happy to put up with, that’s until they start to eat the apple trees or as has happen before, the red stags used the few unprotected trees to rub their antlers on. Is this a form of aggression in the rut or are they just marking their territory? I am not sure, but this often removes most (if not all!) the bark and thus the trees die. Having grafted and planted these trees some 20 years ago, this is so disheartening and even more so to have to replant. Easily rectified! Just get down and finish laying the boundary hedge this winter, this may stop intruders next apple harvest season.
I now try to lay sections of hedge on a 10-year rotation. This is slightly quicker than most, however, I do so for a very good reason; a huge sense for satisfaction and achievement once completed. Also, the by-products are essential. Last year’s produced bushy hazel pea sticks, slightly bent hazel runner bean poles, and plenty of small ash for kindling for the wood burner. I get a great pleasure of seeing the hedge stock proof. Once completed, the interlocked branches provide sheltered nest-sights for many birds and the red deer don’t like climbing through the tightly interwoven laid branches. I suppose it is difficult to find sound footing on the top of the banks and it must be almost impossible to get a firm footing without making a noise and announcing their presence to all.
Some 10 years ago, when in the veg patch mid-November, my attention was drawn to a lot of splashing and water disturbance on the River Bray some 80 metres away. I paid little or no attention at first assuming the local mallards were in some form of dispute. As it endured for several minutes I heeded more notice and soon released it was spawning salmon. Though I still have never seen this at close hand, I watched from afar and enjoyed the rest from forking over the soil. November is the best month to see the female salmon cut a redd, which is to loosen an area of river bed gravel, forming a shallow depression in the fist-sized gravelled areas close to the tails of pools where the water flow is even. This requires a lot of effort on their behalf. Once done, the male or cook fish releases his milt to fertilize the eggs which then stick to the stones ready to develop. The river Bray has the best gravels on all the Taw system and that’s why it is thought to be the best spawning tributary of the river Taw. The drought of this last summer has meant salmon and sea trout fishing on all Devon’s rivers has been particularly bad. On the Mole, the worst I can remember, very few salmon have been caught, so we have little or no indication of the salmon population in the rivers this year. Thus, the only way fishermen have any idea of salmon stocks is by locating and counting the redds. This is not easy, last year the river Bray was often too high and the water too coloured to even see the base of the river, however, if the water has the right clarity then the gravel disturbance can be easily noticed. So, if a crisp November riverside walk takes your fancy this autumn, keep an eye out for these redds and get a glimpse of the part of the salmon’s life cycle that occurs in our rivers.
Wildlife encounters such as seeing the salmon spawning or just finding evidence of their presence, even hearing or, better still, seeing the last of the red deer rut in early November are so rewarding. The effort to get out on often not the most pleasant days of the year should be part of all the lives of those that live in this county. To that end, I try to provide a few photos of some of the exhilarating encounters I have had recently. One of the best was watching an adult peregrine with prey in its talons teasing it’s young away from the security of their nesting site. I witnessed this along the cliffs between Combe Martin and Watermouth in September unfortunately, I didn’t bring the camera out in my very small kayak! In the constant pursuits of photos of close encounters none could have been better than my latest. It was the last week in October and this article had to go to press and I needed more photos. Luck was on my side! Off to the moor on a cloudy, still warm afternoon, surely something of interest would show up. I was expecting a really special stag or better still, two big boys with antlers locked… it wasn’t to be. However sat on a lichen covered and weather old fence post, I came across the most obliging short eared owl some 15 metres from where I was and here is the last and best photo.