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October deer rut, insects and farm animals

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

Picture: red deer stags rutting in Richmond Park. Click here for 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. Good places to observe this are Richmond Park, Windsor Great Park and the Knepp Wildlands south of Horsham. Here 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 seeing off any challengers.

The red deer males mark their territory in many ways, the most noticeable of which is their loud roar. The louder and deeper the roar, the more attractive they are to females. 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.

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.

Fallow and sika deer also rut in October, while roe deer rut in late July and early August. (Muntjac deer do not have a specific breeding season.) All these species are found in the wild in southern England, but fallow deer are also commonly kept in deer parks, which is the best place to go if you want to see their rut. Good locations include Hampton Court Home Park, Knole House near Sevenoaks, Knepp Wildlands and Boughton Monchelsea on the Yalding to Sutton Valence walk (the churchyard there gives you a grandstand view). Fallow deer stags either seek out groups of females, or hold a barking competition in a lek, or competition arena, making a noise that sounds like it comes from a wild boar or an oversized frog, according to your imagination. The females graze placidly nearby, presumably watching the action with interest, but not necessarily forming harems around a favoured stag, as red deer females do.

Insects and butterflies

Most insects have either died off by now or gone into a dormant state for winter. Spiders and woodlice hide under logs, for example, while seven-spot and harlequin ladybirds conceal themselves in leaf litter, plant debris or wooden window frames. Crane flies, shield bugs and dock bugs also lie dormant, the latter two having emerged as adults in September with the aim of mating in May. All of these may just emerge on a very warm day.

Early in the month - and sometimes later if it is mild - you may still see the classic concentric circle web of the orb weaver spider in your garden. The female sits doggedly in the centre of this, guarding her eggs, which will go on to hatch in the spring. It seems a forlorn hope that she will catch any insects, and eventually she dies of cold. Even late in the month the autumn dew or low sunlight can pick the threads of money spiders trailing across rough grassland. These were created earlier in the year as the spiders "ballooned" out across fields to avoid mating with their siblings, 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 winter resting place or feeding up before hibernation. Having already mated in late summer, she alone will survive till spring to carry on the species.

Common carder bees (a type of bumble bee, but looking rather different from the familiar ones due to the ginger hairs on their thorax) may also be on the wing early in October. Some solitary bee species overwinter as adults too and may still be active on warm days - the ivy bee being one which looks like a diminutive honeybee and synchronises its lifecycle with the flowering of ivy.

The lifecycle of wasps is like that of the bumble bee, in that only the new queens survive the winter. They look for a cosy hole to do that in, so you might see one on that mission. Some workers also survive until late in October, though they will eventually be killed by the cold - again, flowering ivy is the most likely place to see them.

Other flying insects have mostly disappeared, but you can still find a surprising range of flies and even a few hoverflies around ivy flowers or other sources of food if the weather is mild. 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, the blue and chocolate-coloured migrant hawker, or the red or yellowy-brown common darter - and perhaps a grasshopper or cricket. On still river water I have found pondskaters as late as the 28th of October.

A few butterflies may still be on the wing in the first half of the month, including the occasional small white, speckled wood or small copper. On the Sussex coast some clouded yellows and walls may also survive until the second or third week. Then just when you have concluded that butterflies are all at an end for the year, you are surprised to see a comma, peacock or a red admiral (or very occasionally a brimstone) flying around, often near a flowering ivy bush.

Commas, peacocks and brimstones all overwinter as adults, as do small tortoiseshells. 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. They are also looking for the larvae of other insects, for example by breaking open galls.

Farm animals

In theory lambs should have gone to slaughter by now, but it does not seem to be as cut and dried as that. Certainly sheep you see in the fields now are only of one type, but it is impossible to tell whether they are lambs having their last feed, or (already pregnant) breeding ewes who will stay in the fields all winter.

Dairy cows should go into barns in late October, to be fed on hay during the winter: this will happen once the ground gets too soft for them to graze without churning it up, or when the grass stops growing. But actually dairy herds are not such a common sight in the south east. Instead any cattle still in the field this month tend either to be beef cows and calves, or relatively mature bullocks that are presumably not long for this world. Some horses remain outside during the winter too, often wearing a jacket for warmth once temperatures cool.

More October pages:


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