Written by Elen Sentier, 2022
We’re on the cusp again, the Autumn Equinox, from now until the Winter Solstace there’ll be less daylight each day but, as ever, it will all turn around again come the Spring. I love this time of year. I go out first thing, often soon after dawn for me, and stand at the front door to breathe in … the scent of Autumn has begun along with that slight nip in the air, and I’m not the only one to notice. All our wild animals know the changing of the seasons too, by smell, the changing light, turning leaves and the fungi coming up. It’s in their bones.
There’s lots for us to see in Autumn. If you can, dawn and dusk are good times to watch. A vixen regularly forages our hedgerows for fruit, mice, voles and rabbits to sleek herself up for the Winter. Hares in the field are feeding up to get a layer of fat to take them through the Winter. Now the fields have been cut I can see the badger runs and follow their track to a sett. Dusk is good for this.
Up on the Mynd, I often see Roe deer, our most plentiful deer in Shropshire. Sometimes fallow and occasionally reds. The reds are in rut now, the barking and roaring is very impressive, as are their huge racks of antlers. Make sure you don’t let your dog off the lead if you see them, and don’t get too close.
In the woods, there’s lots of small mammals to look for. Look out for hazelnuts in the copses and woodlands with a distinctive hole in them. They’re a sign of dormice, one of our rarest mammals and hard to see, but these hazelnuts are a sure sign –one of their favourite foods. If you find some please report the place you found them to the Mammal Society. This helps us know and map out where dormice live so we are able to protect them and their habitat for the future.
Wood mice, also known as field mice, are one of our most prolific small mammals. As their name suggests they live in woods and fields but take that very broadly. If you’ve rewilded even a small part of your town garden you’ve likely got wood mice there, especially if you have hedges with good underplanting to provide safe cover and food. They’re very pretty, golden-brown with a pale underside, large ears and eyes, and a long tail. They’re similar to the yellow-necked mouse who you might see as they’re creatures in your urban gardens as well as in the woods.
Then there’s the tiny harvest mouse, just the size of a two pence piece and extremely pretty, sandy brown on top, paler underneath with a blunt nose, small eyes and small hairy ears. Their most distinguishing feature is their tail, it hold onto grass stems when the build their round ball nests. Why not join the Mammal Society’s Harvest Mouse Survey this Autumn? Great fun, meet new people, learn a lot. Click here to join in and learn more.
As the trees lose their leaves you’ll see grey squirrel dreys – their Winter nests. They look like big untidy rook nests, big bundles of twigs in the forks of tree branches. The easiest way to tell the difference is that rooks are colony birds so you’ll see a tree-full of their nests, while grey squirrel dreys will be solo and likely have lots of brown leaves stuffed into them.
And that brings me to one of my favourite mammals, the pine marten. I love all the mustelid family, stoats, weasels, badgers, otters, polecats and the non-native mink. Pine martens nearly went extinct in Britain, partly for their beautiful fur but also because game shooting estates accused them of stealing game birds. They’re protected now and increasing in many places all over the UK and we’re lucky to have them here in Shropshire.
All the mustelids may be around you when you go for a walk, depending on your location, but you’re unlikely to see them. They can hear, smell and see you coming long before you can possibly be aware of them and will hide away. The best way to see them is via a trail cam, your local Wildlife Trust will help you set that up and be very pleased for you to join the picture and record gathering of them so we can find out more about them and preserve their habitat.
Pine martens also help control grey squirrels by preying on them. As the greys get less prevalent and change their aggressive behaviour our much smaller, native red squirrels may return to our woods. They already are in several places around Britain. As the martens spread it is hoped that the red squirrels will too.
Please report what you find, and where, to the Mammal Society. This really helps us map out where species live and so protect them and their habitat for the future! Learn more about reporting mammals here.
To learn more about all the mammals in this article visit our Mammal Hub.
This article was updated on the 27th of September 2022.