Nature may slow down over winter but… On the heathland gorse came into bloom in early autumn and will continue through the winter. The group of amazing volunteers will continue working every fortnight mending paths, clearing invasive scrub and birch trees, enjoying the resulting bonfires of brash, and logs to take home. Their work replicates the centuries of grazing and harvesting that preserved the heathland and the rare and fragile habitats that give Hothfield Heathlands its SSSI designation. Ian hopes that by December winter migrants will be arriving including snipe, meadow pipit and big flocks of linnets and tits. Small rodents will scurry about hoping to avoid the hunting owls and other predators. Winter fungi may appear, mosses and liverworts glow greener than the grass as they continue to photosynthesize.
Many insects and invertebrates are now hibernating as adults, larva or pupae, underground, in autumn debris and grass tussocks, in tree bark, in the heather, even in hollow thistle stems. The varied habitats of the heathland suit a wide range of over-wintering wildlife which will emerge to mate and increase next year. You may not know who or what you are walking past, but the birds will know where to look for their winter food. Sadly, long-term data for over 100 European nature reserves published by the Krefeld Entomological Society this year shows that many insect species have disappeared from large areas where they were once common, creating shortages for the animals and birds higher up the food. No simple cause has yet emerged. Winter conditions for wildlife in gardens can be improved by leaving leaves in untidy corners, not cutting down seedheads that will feed birds, or the dried stems that will house insects, making log piles, bug houses, putting up more bird boxes, keeping some grass long and tussocky and making even a tiny pond.
We enjoyed magnificent autumn colour through November, deciduous trees holding their leaves late into the month. The carotenoid pigments that produce the golden and russet hues have been present in the leaves throughout summer, masked by the green chlorophyll which degrades in autumn. The reds and purples are caused by anthocyanins which are not manufactured in the leaves until late summer and again become apparent as supplies of chlorophyll diminish. These are all very complex chemical processes triggered by a variety of factors including temperature and day length.
The shortest day approaches and I can now mention Christmas. Cuddly versions of two Hothfield Heathlands icons, the highland cow and barn owl, are available as part of a Kent Wildlife Trust Adopt a Species package, an ideal Christmas gift for a young enthusiast. The other species for adoption is the grey seal, which does sometimes come inland but not as far as Hothfield! The deadline for Christmas orders is Tuesday 19th December.
For enthusiasts of all ages book something from the 2018 programme of Kent-wide walks, talks and courses, and events. The fascinating walks include the beaver enclave at Ham Fen which can only be visited with a guide.
Hothfield Heathland is open to all including on Christmas Day. Please keep dogs in check and clean up. Various trails are signposted and indicated on the maps at entrances, which also give the location of the livestock. The noticeboard down the main slope from the Cade Road car park gives recent wildlife sightings. For email alerts on the location of the livestock, or to join the volunteers to help maintain the reserve or check the cattle contact the Warden on 01622 662012 or at firstname.lastname@example.org