Take a break from Christmas shopping and get outside for an icy breath of fresh air. In the latest instalment of my monthly series for Bloom in Doom magazine, I’ve shared some of the British wildlife highlights that can be seen during December.
Wader season is in full swing and estuaries are packed out with overwintering ducks, geese, swans and other water-dwelling birds such as dunlin. In the fields there’s still plenty of activity from finches and buntings including yellowhammers and, if you’re lucky, the occasional brambling or hawfinch. Owls and raptors such as hen harriers can also be seen more regularly at this time year – numbers of short-eared owls can increase dramatically as resident birds are joined by others overwintering from Europe.
Contrary to popular belief, not many British mammals actually hibernate during winter. Some, such as badgers, reduce their levels of activity during the colder months and sleep for longer periods, but this is known as dormancy. None of the changes that occur during hibernation happen during dormancy. The only mammals in the UK that truly hibernate are bats, hedgehogs and dormice. While sleep is essential for every animal, hibernation is an adaptation to changes in climate. It’s optional and actually quite a dangerous undertaking. The body temperature drops significantly and blood circulation, heart rate and immune function slow right down. The body temperature of some species of bats has been recorded as low as 2°C.
While some mammals slow down during winter, others are at their most active. It’s the breeding season for foxes and you might see them moving around in pairs while the male waits for the female to come into season. December is also the time for the rut of the Chinese water deer, a curious-looking fanged species that escaped from captivity in the 1940s and has now become well established in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and East Anglia.
Lots of festive plants such as holly and mistletoe spring to mind in December, but there are other wild plants to look for this month too. The aptly named scarlet elf cup fungus can be seen growing on rotten wood in small, round bowls of bright red. Also take a look at the lichen, which can often form beautiful shapes especially when coated in frost. Lichen is the result of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae – while the algae produces sugars for the fungi from photosynthesis, the fungi provides protection for the algae against the elements.