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‘Strictly squirrels and sika deer: an autumn-watchers guide to wildlife’

Posted October 25, 2013 - Blog Posts

Autumnal leaf scene

Who doesn’t love autumn? Piles of golden brown leaves to kick, shiny purple-black sloes hanging from the blackthorn trees, daddy long leg crane flies flying out of the long, wet grass…

Actually, I’m never quite sure. Autumn also brings bucket-loads of rain, gales and the promise – if that’s the right word – of frigid temperatures blown straight from the Russian Urals, bitter winds biting into your skin through 16 layers of clothing.

Not a bad reason to stay indoors, I suppose, and watch other people being buffeted about, and look what’s coming up – Autumnwatch, of course, with a new series starting on Tuesday 29 October on BBC2.

It’s now a staple of the BBC’s schedule at this time of year, the programme-equivalent of an over-sized pumpkin made into a jack-o-lantern, and as resonant of the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Strictly Come Dancing, though not quite as popular. Not with my girlfriend, anyway.

In truth, though I will be settling onto the sofa come Tuesday night with Chris, Michaela and Martin, I’ve got a bit of ‘autumn-watching’ of my own to do in the interim. My family – partner Louise and two young children, Sam and Mungo – and I are off to Dorset, first to visit Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour ( to see their red squirrels – the UK’s native squirrel that has been ousted from much of mainland England and Wales by the American grey.

Autumn’s the best time to see the reds, apparently, because they are more likely to be seen on the woodland floor, busy gathering in and caching as many nuts as they can before winter arrives. No one – and certainly not a self-respecting red squirrel – gathers them in May.

I’m not sure what our two boys will make of the squirrels, if I’m being honest. They tend to be small, frisky and difficult to see, and in any case Sam and Mungo are far more fascinated by mechanical stuff – planes, trains, tractors and so on. They should at least enjoy the boat ride over from Sandbanks – oh, and the chocolate buttons, or whatever bribe we come up with, to ensure that the adventure runs as smoothly as possible.

We’re also going to look for sika deer at nearby Arne RSPB Reserve ( Sika deer? Well, they’re relatives of our better-known red deer, and they are chiefly remarkable for making calls during the rutting season (that’s now) that, depending on your point of view or worldly experience, either sound remarkably like a rusty gate swinging on its hinges or a highly unusual pod of humpback whales.

Funnily enough, I first heard about the sika’s unusual rut on Autumnwatch, and you can still view that clip from 2010 here (, and there are plenty of other memorable pieces of TV in the archives.


One that leaps to mind is footage of, er, leaping salmon taken with a super slo-mo camera from 2011. As time slows virtually to a standstill, the fish appear to defy gravity as they make their way up a six-foot waterfall, though as presenter Charlie Hamilton James points out, six foot is nada: the record for a salmon leap is an astonishing 12 foot – or more than twice my height, as it happens.


This year, the Autumnwatch team has promised us starling murmurations over Leighton Moss in Lancashire, and something I’m particularly looking forward to, which is rutting feral goats. I like to think I know something about this – I’ve played the troll to my son’s Billy Goat Gruff (and been tossed off the bridge) enough times. He delivers one mean goaty head-butt.

Closer to home, I’ll also be doing what I can to prepare my garden pond for winter. Many of our local frogs, toads and newts will spend the winter dozing in its murky depths (not much more than a foot or two, admittedly), and if I remove some of the dead vegetation down there, and even more importantly, break the ice when it freezes over, they’ve got an excellent chance of making it through to the thaw in February or March next year.

And there, perhaps, is the chief joy of autumn (and I can’t claim this idea for myself, but must credit the poet Percy Shelley) – “lf Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” And so the whole cycle begins again.


James Fair is a wildlife and environment writer living in South Gloucestershire. You can read about his attempts to introduce his children to wildlife and wild places at or follow him on Twitter @deepdarkwood

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