I love autumn: crisp leaves on the ground in golds and reds, berries and nuts in the hedgerows, mist in the morning and a refreshing nip in the air. But that’s not how it’s gone this year. This year blackberries were ripening in July, acorns falling and trees losing their leaves in the sweltering heat of August. What’s going on? And how will it affect our wildlife?
What Is False Autumn?
The changes that we usually see in autumn are a natural response to the changing seasons. Nuts and berries ripen after basking for many months in the sun. As temperatures fall and daylight hours shorten trees respond by shedding their leaves and shutting downs for tier winter rest.
But not this year.
This year autumn arrived in August, and rather than being a part of the naturtal cycle it has been a stress response to the extreme weather we have experienced this summer.
Extreme heat has caused fruit to ripen earlier than it should and to be smaller since it simply hasn’t had time to grow to full size. We were picking blackberries in July – just weird!
Then the trees needed to cope with the drought. To survive on scant water supplies many were shedding their leaves in July and August, doing what they do naturally to conserve energy.
Many young trees simply didn’t have the established root system needed to cope with the weather and have not survived.
Now the heat has subsided and we’ve had some rain, other trees are growing new leaves, in a “false spring” following false autumn. No one knows how these trees will react in a couple of months when actual autumn arrives.
How Will False Autumn Affect Us and Our Wildlife?
We are all breathing a sigh of relief now temperatures and rain are falling.
But the effects of the extreme weather we’ve had in the summer, and the false autumn it has caused, are only just starting to be felt.
Impact on Humans
This year’s false autumn is going to make many staple food crops less plentiful and therefore more expensive than we are used to.
Farmers warn that carrots, onions, potatoes and cabbages are all affected. We will be seeing more wonky veg in the shops – and it won’t be on offer for bargain basement prices.
Even the halloween pumpkin harvest has been under threat with farmers alarmed by pumpkins ripening way too early, and much too small.
The Impact on Wildlife
We humans may only feel the impact of this false autumn through one season’s crops. For wildlife we can’t tell what the long term consequences will be.
Nature is a delicate balance. Animals have evolved to depend on certain foods at certain times. If those foods aren’t available they can’t easily switch to something else.
So, hedgehogs mainly eat ground dwelling invertebrates, A hedgehog can smell a tasty bug inches underground. One of the reasons hedgehogs hibernate in the winter is that worms and other invertebrates can’t be extracted from frozen ground.
For much of this summer the ground has been so hard it may as well have been frozen, hedgehog rescues up and down the country have been inundated with new arrivals, starving because they simply couldn’t access their food.
Garden birds have done a little better so far. Many of our birds live on insects and other invertebrates in the summer, switching to berries and seeds in the autumn and winter.
So during this false autumn, although there may not have been a worm to be had anywhere, birds made the switch and filled up on early-ripening seeds and berries.
The RSPB and other conservation organisations are extremely worried about what birds will now eat when the real autumn and winter set in, with most of the berries and nuts already gone.
Lack of food is going to impact on survival rates of many species over the winter, which in turn will mean fewer individuals starting the breeding season next year, fewer young, and so it goes on.
We don’t know what the long-term ramifications of this year’s false autumn will be for our wildlife. What we do know is that it is creating still more challenges for creatures already under threat.
How Can We Help?
Our gardens are an increasingly important haven for wildlife. We can supplement food and water sources and manage our little bit of the environment to create beneficial conditions. This year that’s going to be more important than ever.
Put out plenty of food for birds and hedgehogs. Typically at this time of year, we would be seeing such abundance in nature that there might not be that much demand for the food you have to offer.
That won’t be the case this year: whatever food you offer will be snapped up.
Water is always important, but this year more than ever. Although we have had some rain now, many of the water sources that have dried up over the summer will not yet be replenished,
Dishes of water around your garen and a bird bath or two, will make all the difference.
Remember to keep the water fresh and the dishes clean.
Don’t Cut Back
Resit the urge to tidy up in the garden. Every seed head and bit of dead or dying vegetation provides food or shelter for something, Leaf litter is home of a whole host of bugs that can make a meal for hedgehogs or garden birds.
So we know it’s going to look messy, but please try to resist the urge to tidy up too much in the garden this autumn. Leave as much old growth as you can in place until next spring when new green shoots start to appear.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
False autumn is a direct result of climate change, it’s a problem we humans have created.
If we want to avoid problems like this becoming a regular occurrence, with the devastating effects that would have on our wildlife, we need to take climate change seriously.
We all have a pretty good idea now of the impact we have on the environment – positive or negative – through our daily choices and activities.
Our wildlife, by and large, doesn’t have choices, and has to live with the consequences of the choices we humans make.
Now’s the time for us all to make the right choices and do the right thing.