Friday, 9 November 2012

Autumn on the Common

tunnel of light
The Common is preparing for its long winter sleep – already waterlogged this autumn and very short on acorns, crab apples, hazelnuts and berries, which birds and small mammals rely on through the coldest months.

I ventured out into autumn sunshine after an absence of several weeks and my spirits lifted immediately as I approached the tunnel of light leading to my favourite stretches of wood pasture. It felt quiet and lonely without the grazing cattle, returned to the farmyard for winter, and the bush  where adders like to bask was abandoned.

woodmouse nest
But in the wildwood corner where we sited our dormouse nest boxes there were abundant signs of woodmice: boxes crammed full with dry brown oak leaves, and in one a family of four popping out of the back, one by one. They’re not fussy about who the boxes were designed for, just happy to make do with whatever shelter is available. Perhaps that’s why they’re so successful.

des res for dormice
A few days later, after a heavy frost, I found a very torpid adder snatching a few weak rays of sunshine before hibernation. He was like a stubborn child refusing to accept it was bedtime even though he was clearly cold and tired - so sluggish, I could easily have picked him up if I’d been feeling stupid.

torpid male adder
Our hot dry spring in March, followed by thewettest summer on record and a similarly drenched autumn, has been disastrous for most fauna and flora. Frogs found empty ponds when they wanted to spawn; many bats and dormice failed to gain enough weight to breed; songbird broods perished in torrential rain; it was too wet for bees to pollinate fruiting trees; butterflies foundered.

amethyst deceiver
Fungi, though, are having a ball in the sodden ground. The meadow margins are festooned with vivid colours, peculiar textures and weirder shapes, most of them nibbled by hungry mice. The amethyst deceiver dazzles me every time with the depth of its colour, its delicate shape and exquisite curvy gills. You would think from the name that it contains deadly poison – but no, it’s very edible.

fungi on dead log
A local fungi expert gives sound advice for an amateur forager keen to avoid poisoning herself: “Don’t eat anything with gills”. There are more than 4,000 species of fungi in Surrey alone, most with variable colours and forms and some extremely hard to tell apart, even by mycologists.


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