Whilst winter is something that much of the human population finds annoying, for our wildlife it is something to genuinely fear. For them, there’s no escape from it.
They must tough out the worst of the weather, doing battle with the elements daily to emerge with their lives the following spring. It’s a monumental task they face to combat the cold.
Perhaps the first that comes to mind is hibernation. It’s something we’ve all wished we could do at one stage or another. Curling ourselves into a ball and sleeping until the spring sounds ideal, but it still has its risks to our wildlife.
It may surprise you to know that only three types of British mammal go into full hibernation – hedgehogs, bats and dormice. To put on enough fat reserves to survive until April, these animals must forage relentlessly in autumn in a race against time before the cold weather strikes.
The most dangerous part of hibernation is being woken up too early. To wake up, a hibernating animal must use lots of its fat reserves to restore its body to a normal functioning level.
With not enough food around to put on the fat required to return to hibernation, accidentally waking slumbering animals can prove to be a death sentence. However, there is one winter survival behaviour that we can revel in.
Birds are incapable of hibernating and so must find solutions for dealing with winter’s dangers. Many species become much more social in winter than any other time of year and become part of flocks that aid their survival.
Having more individuals searching for food makes you more successful in finding it, whilst those extra eyes are also useful for looking out for hungry predators.
There is one species whose winter flocks are the stuff of legend and who create a sight to rival any natural spectacle in the world. Starlings can create flocks hundreds of thousands strong, and the reedbeds of Middleton Moor, near Stoney Middleton in the Peak District, have provided breath taking seats for this most jaw dropping of natural shows in recent years.
The size of the flock is weather dependent, with colder temperatures drawing birds from miles around as they seek the sanctuary of the flock.
When these gatherings come into roost in the evening, they create murmurations – swirling masses of birds that twist and turn in awe inspiring unity. They wisp like living smoke, conjuring shapes never seen before that will never be seen again as they dance in the twilight air. Then the sky drains as they plummet into cover, disappearing like the light as it fades from dusk.
Their constant chatter is now the only clue to their presence, bubbling out from the vegetation as the darkness descends. I can think of no better sight worth braving the cold for this winter.
- Wildlife and outdoors enthusiast Jack Baddams gives his insight into the world of nature