What to look for
Fabulous fungi, marvellous mammals and easy-to-spot birds – there's so much to see in autumn, and it's a beautiful time of year to explore the countryside
Autumn is a fantastic time to get out and about to enjoy the natural world. With hedgerows bright with berries, leaves turning shades of red and gold, and mist hanging over rivers, trees and fields, it's the time of year when the countryside is at its most beautiful.
As trees lose their leaves, birds are easier to spot amongst the branches. Animal tracks may be visible on frosty paths. And, if you're lucky, you may even spot the animals themselves as they feast on autumn harvests of nuts and berries.
Here are a few of our favourite things to look out for in autumn.
There are more than 15,000 species of fungi in the UK, and autumn and early winter are the best times to spot them.
Forests and woodlands create an ideal habitat for mushrooms and toadstools – they like it dark and damp. You'll find a wide variety of sizes, structures and textures if you look carefully – from tiny, delicate parasols growing in leaflitter to dinner-plate-sized bracket fungi clinging to tree trunks.
One of the most recognisable of the UK's fungi is the red and white-spotted fly agaric. These large, brightly-coloured, poisonous toadstools can grow up to 30cm tall and 20cm wide, and are commonly spotted on forest floors.
UK mushrooms often have intriguing names – sometimes rooted in folklore, and usually highly descriptive. It's easy to see how shaggy inkcap, puffball, jelly ear or slippery Jack, for example, got their names.
And some fungi names refer to the effect they will have on you if consumed. Death cap, destroying angel and funeral bell are three deadly mushrooms that are fascinating to look at – but shouldn't be touched.
Grey squirrels are not native to the UK however. They were introduced in the 1880s from North America, and are now the dominant species. This is partly due to the fact that grey squirrels carry and spread squirrel pox virus – the greys themselves are immune to this illness, but it is lethal to red squirrels.
Decimation of suitable forest habitat has added to the red squirrel's plight. They are now a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, and can only be found in small pockets of countryside where there is suitable habitat and no threat from greys.
Most of the UK's red squirrels can be found in mainland Scotland, with the largest populations in remnants of Caledonian Forest in the Highlands. They can also be spotted in the Galloway Forest Park in southern Scotland, are on the Scottish island of Arran.
In the Highlands, the is providing much-needed hope for this endearing mammal. Although the Scottish Highlands is the largest remaining stronghold for red squirrels – supporting around 75% of the UK's red squirrel population – the animals remain absent from much of their former range.
Trees for Life is helping to remedy this by relocating healthy animals to suitable habitat where they can thrive. So far, more than 200 red squirrels have been translocated, creating 10 new, healthy populations.
In England, places where you might see red squirrels include Northumberland, the Lake District, and Brownsea Island in Dorset.
Anglesey has the largest population of red squirrels in Wales, helped by ongoing action to improve suitable habitat – and the fact that there are no grey squirrels on the island. Anglesey's red squirrel population has increased from less than 40 to 700 within the past twenty years – a true biodiversity success story!
Red deer rutting
Red deer are the largest land mammal in the UK, and are easily recognised by the male's magnificent antlers.
From September to November, males take part in the autumn rut – a spectacular, noisy mating ritual in which stags lock antlers to compete for females by showing off their strength.
One of the best places to witness this natural spectacle is the Peak District. The Eastern Moors and Longshaw Estate, near Sheffield, are home to a large herd of wild red deer. During the rut, if you visit just before dusk, you might be able to hear the animals' extraordinary bellows echoing across the moor – and, if you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the males locking antlers.
If you do encounter red deer stags rutting, remember to keep your distance. Rutting males can be dangerous, and getting too close can stress the animals. For the same reason, dogs should be kept on a lead.
In autumn, around 100 bird species arrive from colder climes to spend winter in the UK – including redwings and fieldfares from Scandinavia, white-fronted geese from Greenland and Siberia, and pink-footed geese from Iceland.
Many of these winter visitors end up in our gardens – as natural food sources such as hedgerow berries become depleted, the birds begin to rely more heavily on garden bird feeders.
Siskins are small lively finches with a distinctive yellow-green colouring, and – in the male – a black bib and crown. There are year-round breeding populations of siskins in the UK, but the birds are easier to spot in winter when their numbers are swelled by flocks of birds arriving from Europe. To attract them to your garden, offer feeders filled with sunflower or niger seeds.
You might also spot redwings and fieldfares. These colourful members of the thrush family migrate to the UK from northern Europe, and are most commonly seen in large, mixed flocks around farmland – but may venture into your garden during cold weather, in search of food. They love berries and fruits, so you can attract them by putting out apples on the ground, and leaving any windfalls under fruit trees. Also try growing trees and shrubs that provide berries – rowan, hawthorn and holly, for example.
They are colourful little birds, with a bright orange and white chest, and black, white and orange wings. They can sometimes be seen with chaffinches in large mixed flocks – and may visit garden bird feeders when woodland nuts, seeds and berries are hard to find.
Redwings and fieldfares look similar, but the redwing – as the name suggests – can be identified by a rosy patch of plumage just under the wing.
In woodlands – especially where beech trees grow – look out for bramblings. These small finches are a similar size to a chaffinch, and migrate here during September, to avoid harsh winter conditions in Scandinavia and Russia. They stay in the UK until March or April.
Little Green Space October 2023
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Brambling by on
In fact many of the UK's fungi are extremely poisonous – so it's important not to gather wild mushrooms for consumption unless you have experience of this sort of foraging, and know exactly what you're picking.
In the garden, you can provide a habitat for fungi – as well as beetles and other invertebrates, and hibernating animals such as hedgehogs and slow worms – by piling up logs or branches in a damp, shady corner.
There are two types of squirrel in the UK: red and grey. Grey squirrels can be found right across the country in woods and parks – and are especially easy to spot in autumn, when they are busy collecting and hiding nuts and acorns for eating through the winter.