Stocking up for the winter

AS WE move from the so-called season of mists and mellow fruitfulness into the colder and shorter days of winter, humans are not the only creatures preparing for the seasonal change generally marked by Halloween.

The abundance of fruit and berries this year will be converted into food reserves by birds and other animals which have their own ways of surviving the long period of little growth. Wildlife has its own mechanisms for dealing with winter, and there’s more to hibernation than simply sleeping through it.

Our old friend the hedgehog is an animal many people associate with hibernation and it certainly does a disappearing act, probably in some quiet corner of the garden. But other animals, including rats, mice and squirrels, do not take a long snooze and it’s business as usual for them through the winter.

There are animals which save energy by having reduced appetites in winter, while squirrels, for instance, secretly store away food in times of plenty for later use. Deer, which have been busy mating during the rutting season, move from the mountains to the lowlands and they can also store body fat to be used up in more inclement times.

Seasonal changes in the weather can also dictate breeding patterns. If anything, nature is perfectly rational and has eminent commonsense. There’s a reason for everything that happens. It’s not an accident that most young are born when temperatures are higher and food is plentiful — they then have the best chance of survival. Deer that have lately mated will give birth next summer.

The reproductive ways of badgers are more interesting. Female badgers mate in late spring, or early summer, but there is delayed implantation. Were they to give birth in what might be described as a ‘’normal’’ gestation period, they would be producing young in the driest time of the year — not the best time for badgers. So, eggs fertilised in the female badger in the spring do not start to develop until around Christmas, with the next litter arriving the following spring.

According to the highly informative book, Ireland’s Wildlife Year, edited by Eric Dempsey, seals, stoats and pine martens use a similar process. Bats do it a bit differently. They tend to mate in autumn, but the female bats store the sperm and use it to fertilise their eggs after coming out of hibernation in spring.

“Nature has, indeed, invented an impressive variety of strategies by which mammals cope with living and breeding, in spite of the conditions a seasonal climate throws at them,’’ writes Dempsey and his fellow contributors, Declan Doogue and Tom Hayden.

And so the cycle of life goes on — even when we think nothing very much is happening in the natural months during winter.


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