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In the UK we are lucky enough to still just about have four distinct seasons. Each has its own highlights, whether it’s more hours of daylight, crisp wintry scenes or spring migrants. But autumn is without doubt my favourite season. Changing colours, the sight and sound of returning wildfowl and the sheer variety of fruiting fungi make this a special season. Some scientists predict that our changing climate will one day mean we only have two long seasons: summer and winter. If this is the case, I for one will mourn the loss of this beautiful season.
An Explosion of Colour
Probably the first thing most of us think about when we think about autumn is the colourful spectacle of our changing deciduous trees. Their leaves change colour as they start to slow down the process of producing chlorophyll to photosynthesise. Photosynthesis is how plants convert sunlight to food, but with the short, cold days of winter, many plants effectively shut up shop. As the tree no longer needs its green chlorophyll pigment, a host of less dominant chemicals reveal themselves. These are a range of yellows, golds, purples and reds and occur in different amounts depending on the species of tree. Ultimately, the tree sheds its leaves entirely for the winter to help preserve energy and retain moisture.
The phenomenon can be so spectacular that people will travel miles to see it. New England in the USA, for instance, has a huge tourist industry built around ‘leaf-peeping’; the act of heading out to see autumn colours. The intensity of the colours and timing varies depending on conditions. A combination of shorter days and colder temperatures triggers this process, but conditions earlier in the year also have a bearing on how dramatic the colours will be and how long they last. Record-breaking temperatures in much of the UK this summer led to what has been called a false autumn in many places. With heat placing extreme stress on the trees, many turned and then shed their leaves much earlier than usual in order to retain water and survive. As climate change continues to affect the natural world, this could be the shape of things to come.
It’s not just our trees who put on a show in the autumn. As the flowering period ends for many of our summer plants, a number leave behind incredible seed heads. Some of the most beautiful belong to the umbellifer family of plants that contains the carrots, parsleys and hogweeds. They often produce a range of hues as they turn from flower to seed head, and many will display different stages on a single plant as each flowering head goes to seed in turn. My absolute favourite is wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s lace. As the flowers go to seed, instead of keeping their upturned umbrella shape like the rest of their family, they curl up to form intricate nests. These provide refuge for invertebrates through the winter.
Another of my favourite seed heads belongs to bog asphodel. As its name suggests, this small but bright flower is a bog dweller. It flowers from June to August, producing smallish, yellow star-like flowers in a cluster around a spiked stem. They are a welcome splash of colour, contrasting with the more subdued browns and greens of bogs and damp areas. Once flowering is over, however, they continue to provide colour as their seed heads turn a fittingly autumnal orange. These last well into autumn and where there are lots of plants, seem to form a golden carpet across the peaty ground.
The cool, damp conditions of autumn are ideal for our fungi species. At this time of year many will produce their fruiting bodies. These are the visible parts of the organism that we see above ground. Underground, there are often huge root-like structures made up of millions of threads called hyphae. We already knew how important fungi are for decomposing material. We now know as well that they are part of a huge underground network, dubbed the ‘wood wide web’ that connects fungi, trees and bacteria to share nutrients and maybe even information in some form.
There are over 15,000 species of fungi in the UK, from the quintessential toadstool, the toxic fly agaric, to the descriptively named dog vomit slime mould. Some form distinctive brackets on certain species of tree, such as the birch polypore. Others grow out of leaf litter, such as the foul-smelling common stinkhorn. The terms mushroom and toadstool are fairly interchangeable names for the fruiting bodies, although some people use mushroom exclusively for species with gills on the undersides of their caps. Others use mushroom for edible varieties and toadstool for poisonous ones. Scientifically, there is no difference.
What is important to note, however, is that despite the popularity of foraging for wild food, you should only ever pick fungi to eat if you are experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to identifying species. Many are at best unpalatable and at worst deadly, with some species very difficult to tell apart. It is much better to observe these beautiful organisms and leave them as they are.
The Return of Absent Friends
Autumn is also when our wintering wildfowl arrive back to the UK from their Arctic breeding grounds. After the first isolated skeins of geese early in the season, by mid-October, in some places you can see and hear stream after stream of their V-shaped groups overhead. On calm days, you will often hear them first, as they chatter constantly. Britain is an extremely important wintering location for geese. Approximately 90% of the world’s pink-footed geese population winters here, with the biggest congregations around the Moray Firth, Montrose Basin, Norfolk and Solway Forth. Barnacle, tundra bean and taiga bean goose, along with two subspecies each of brent goose and white-fronted goose also winter here in varying numbers.
Many birdwatchers are awaiting this year’s return with some trepidation. Last winter, avian influenza devastated flocks on the Solway Firth, including an estimated 4,000 barnacle geese. In early spring, pink-footed geese began dying around the Moray Firth and by May numbers of dying birds had increased. This highly infectious virus has gone on to batter many of our breeding seabirds over the summer, with great skuas, gannets and some tern colonies some of the worst affected. If our wintering geese have managed a successful breeding season then there is hope that they can weather this worrying storm, but this winter will be a big test, with no one really knowing what to expect.
Autumn’s ‘Still Melancholy’
George Eliot loved autumn and its ‘still melancholy’ more than any other season. Although some might find the decay and sense of coming winter depressing, I am definitely in Eliot’s camp. The crunch of leaves underfoot, finding your first conker of the year, the explosion of fungi and the yapping of geese overhead combine to produce a wealth of stimuli for the senses. There is a particular quality to that last hour of golden sunlight in the evening, too, unlike dusk at any other time of year.
So, I don’t mind the shortening days and damp underfoot. There is so much to see and hear during this beautiful season. And as there might be a point when we no longer have a season that is recognisably autumn, I will be getting out and making the most of all it has to offer while I can.
George Eliot summed up autumn much better than I ever could. Read an extract from one of her letters on the subject here.
This beautiful anthology of writing about autumn contains original pieces as well as extracts from classic works by writers including Ted Hughes, Nan Shepherd and Horatio Clare. Perfect for dipping into.
Merlin Sheldrake’s fascinating book about fungi won the Wainwright Prize for Conservation Writing and the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. Entangled Life shows just how incredible and influential fungi are.
If you want to get to grips with identifying fungi, this is the book for you. Detailed descriptions combine with illustrations and confusion species are helpfully compared.