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October deer rut, insects and farm animals

Other October pages: Introduction to leaf fallTree by tree - the autumn sequence Berries, nuts, seeds and shrubsFlowers Birds • Weather

Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here see more October butterfly, insect and deer rut photos.

The first half of October sees the climax of the red deer rut that starts in late September. A wonderful place to observe this is Richmond Park or Windsor Great Park, where dominant males gather harems of females (or rather the females gather round the male – it is they who choose where to be) and mate with them, while defending them against challengers. They mark their territory in many ways, the most noticeable of which is their load roar. Younger males who fancy their chances tend to linger just out of range of the dominant males, looking for a chance to challenge, or waiting for the dominant male to get tired (it being an exhausting business defending a harem and one which gives the dominant male little time to eat or sleep). Females can, and sometimes do, change their mind about the male they have chosen and just wander off.

Red deer are no longer a wild species in southern England (unless you count the ones in Richmond Park, which date from a time when the species was common here), but fallow and sika deer also rut in the wild about the same time as red deer (roe deer, the other common wild species, rut in late July and early August). Fallow deer make a very distinctive bark (sometimes wrongly thought to be the sound of a wild boar). If you are lucky enough to hear this in the woods, keep your distance, however. The deer in Richmond Park also need to be treated with respect, but are obviously more used to being watched by humans.

After the rut, red deer seem to congregate in large mixed herds, with a dominant male still occasionally roaring, but all the others sitting placidly around. Later they split, with the females and males living in different groups.

Insects and butterflies

Most insects have either died off by now or gone into a dormant state for winter - spiders and woodlice hiding under logs, while seven spot ladybirds conceal themselves in leaf litter or plant debris (or sometimes domestic window frames). Crane flies and shield bugs also lie dormant, the latter having emerged as adults in September with the aim of mating in May. Early in the month you may still see some spider's webs but these soon disappear. Even late in the month you can see the threads of money spiders trailing across rough grassland, however. These are created as they "balloon" out across fields, attaching their thread to vegetation and then letting the wind carry them.

On a sunny day you may also see the occasional bee. Honeybees remain in colonies all winter, living on stored honey but emerging if the weather is warm and there is pollen still to be had (for example on ivy bushes or any remaining flowers). Any bumble bee you see now is almost certainly a queen, looking for a nest or to feed up before hibernation. Having already mated in late summer, she alone will survive till spring to carry on the species. The same is true of wasps, where queens look for a cosy hole to pass the winter in, though a surviving worker from the summer is not entirely out of the question early in the month. Some solitary bee species also overwinter as adults and may still be active in early October.

Other flying insects have mostly disappeared, but you can still find a surprising range of flies around ivy flowers early in the month, including hoverflies some years. Notice too the winter gnats that mill around on calm days. They have evolved to breed at this time of year when there are few predators. You can still sometimes see dragonflies early in the month - for example the beautiful green-blue southern hawker - or perhaps a grasshopper or cricket. On still river water I have found pondskaters still active as late as the 28th of October.

A few butterflies may also appear if the weather is mild. Early in the month you can see the occasional small white, brimstone or speckled wood, and small coppers or clouded yellows are apparently also not unknown. Then just when you assume that butterflies are all at an end for the year, you are surprised to see a comma, peacock or a red admiral flying around, often near a flowering ivy bush.

Both the comma and the peacock overwinter as adults (as do the brimstone and small tortoiseshell and some speckled woods). They find a sheltered spot and then switch off their metabolism entirely, a process known as diapause. Though to all appearances dead, they can come back to life instantly if disturbed. Despite being a migrant which should have long ago fled southwards, some red admirals also seem to manage the same trick, because they re-emerge on mild days in winter or spring.

Other butterflies overwinter as eggs or caterpillars - a surprising number do the latter. It is these, as well as the caterpillars of moths, that birds such as great tits and blue tits are searching for on tree branches on winter days.

Farm animals

Pasture animals should have largely disappeared from the fields by now - either to go to slaughter (as is the case with lambs) or to go into barns to be fed on hay for the winter (dairy cows). But when this happens varies from farm to farm and year to year. While grass is still growing early in the month and as long as the ground is not too soft to be churned up by hooves, animals still may be kept out in fields.

In particular you can see quite a lot of beef cows and calves still in October, or herds of relatively mature bullocks that are presumably not long for this world. Breeding ewes are also often still out in the fields, already pregnant with next year's lambs.

More October pages:


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