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Bumper year for nature's autumn harvest

Favourable weather conditions earlier in the year have led to an impressive crop of wild fruits in the countryside. In our hedges, woodlands and gardens fruit-bearing shrubs and trees are drooping under the weight of this year's harvest. And wildlife is already taking advantage of this bounty.

Orange Peel Fungus

The combination of an exceptionally wet autumn last year and an absence of spring frosts encouraged the production of an impressive fruit crop. Redwings, small thrushes newly-arrived for the winter from Scandinavia, are gorging themselves on hawthorns and sloes in the hedgerows, while summer warblers such as blackcaps extend their vacations to profit from their favourite autumn food of elderberries and blackberries. Wood mice, normally seen only on the ground, venture up into bushes at this time of year in search of juicy offerings.

On fell sides and in many gardens rowan (mountain ash) trees are replete with bright red berries. These are very attractive to blackbirds and starlings, and later in the year may provide a re-fuelling stop for an excited flock of that most exotic of winter visitors, the waxing.

Birch Bolete

October is also a fine time to look for fungi. Stimulated by the damp conditions of autumn, many species are at their peak this month. Fungi come in a bewildering range of shapes, colours and sizes. Some cling to the bark of trees, while others lurk in the leaf litter or in open fields. Some belie their presence with strong odours, such as the stinkhorn. This distinctive species begins life as an innocuous and edible egg-like structure, but transforms into a six-inch-long toadstool which stinks of rotting meat and is usually covered in flies!

On the continent fungi are avidly collected for human consumption and are an important feature of rural produce markets, in places such as northern France. Despite our climate being ideal for fungi, in this country we are less eager to exploit this wild food, perhaps discouraged by the poisonous varieties.

Woodlands are among the best places to look for fungi and Strid Woods near Bolton Abbey and Grass Wood close to Grassington (a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve) are among the prime sites in the Dales. Local naturalist societies and the National Park Authority often run 'fungus forays' at this time of year and these can be an excellent way of seeing many different types in expert company.

As the days shorten the last of the summer bird visitors slip away. Swallows and house martins have all but vacated our skies to begin their journey to Africa, joining the swifts which left in August and are already south of the Sahara. These have been replaced by species which have come from further north to enjoy our comparatively mild winter and abundant food supplies, including waterfowl and many types of finches.

A rare atmospheric phenomenon has recently brought a little bit of the Sahara desert to the Yorkshire Dales. The unseasonally warm temperatures of the last few days - reaching 22 degrees Celsius, among the warmest on record for mid-October - have been caused by southerly winds bringing hot air all the way from north Africa. This air-flow has given a 2,000 mile ride to Britain for minute particles of Saharan dust. The dust is most easily seen on cars after light rain, with conditions over the weekend of 13/14 October being ideal. So if you washed your car last weekend it is amazing to think you were probably getting rid of African dirt!

This is just another example of how the natural world links us to other parts of the globe in more ways than we might imagine.

Enjoy your time in the countryside in October.

Nature Notes

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