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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. A wonderful place to observe this is Richmond Park, Windsor Great Park or the Knepp Wildlands south of Horsham, 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 seeing off any challengers.

The red deer males mark their territory in many ways, the most noticeable of which is their loud 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 in this part of the world), but fallow and sika deer also rut in the wild (as well as on the Knepp Wildlands) 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, seven-spot and harlequin ladybirds concealing themselves in leaf litter or plant debris (or sometimes 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 webs of orb weaver spiders in your garden. The female sits doggedly in the centre of these, 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 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 a lot like a honeybee and which 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 early in the month. Some workers also survive into 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 around ivy flowers or other sources of food 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 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 if the weather is mild. Early in the month you can see the occasional small white or speckled wood, and small coppers or clouded yellows are 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 (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

Most pasture animals should have 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 left out to graze.

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

More October pages:

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