British wildlife in November

Milder winters mean there's more wildlife out and about in November than you might think.

Juvenile hedgehog in autumn, in Dorset. © Colin Varndell

If you are planning to see wildlife, please follow the latest government advice regarding coronavirus, and bear in mind that there are different restrictions in place between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in more localised areas as well.

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Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)

Leaping Atlantic salmon. © James Shooter
Leaping Atlantic salmon. © James Shooter

Surging rivers in northern Britain, Wales and Ireland, swollen with autumn rain, witness one of our greatest wildlife dramas. Rising water levels are a cue for Atlantic salmon to move upstream – traditionally between September and December – the penultimate stage in an odyssey whose climax is spawning.

These fish are the handful of survivors that dodged bigger mouths and fishing fleets to grow strong in cold Arctic waters, as far north as Greenland and the Barents Sea, a fabulously rich region, which writer Charles Rangeley-Wilson has called the “Harrod’s food hall of the oceans”.

After several years here, many salmon return to their natal river catchment, even the same part of it. Maybe they are guided by magnetic particles in the ‘lateral line’ along each flank, which might serve as a compass.

The famous salmon’s leap isn’t easy to observe. The fish may move after dark, lying low in shady parts of the river until conditions are just right, and salmon numbers in the British Isles have crashed in recent decades. But with repeat visits, a smidgen of luck and armed with local knowledge – ask anglers or river wardens, if you see them, or try one of the salmon viewing centres in Scotland – you’re in for a treat.


Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Pochard taking off Norfolk. © David Tipling
Pochard taking off Norfolk. © David Tipling

Though pochards breed here, mainly on eastern England’s lakes and reservoirs and on Northern Ireland’s loughs,
these ducks are primarily winter visitors. How many turn up from November onwards largely depends on weather conditions on the Continent.

The same is true of many wildfowl species: milder winters see birds remain further north and east, while sustained icy spells push flocks south and west. A drake pochard is unmistakable, with his smart, red-brown head. But even the plainer female is easy to identify, thanks to the species’ distinctive sloping forehead.


European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

Juvenile hedgehog in autumn, in Dorset. © Colin Varndell
Juvenile hedgehog in autumn, in Dorset. © Colin Varndell

A mix of external and internal cues prompt hedgehogs to hibernate, including longer nights, falling temperatures, waning food supplies and body condition. So, while more hedgehogs are now out and about well into November and beyond, rather than hibernating, it is hard to pinpoint the main reasons.

In 2019, the UK’s Big Hedgehog Map recorded an incredible 846 sightings of active animals in November, up from 354 in 2015. However, Grace Johnson, the popular project’s Hedgehog Officer, cautions that the rise in reports is probably due to greater awareness, rather than a true reflection of increased hedgehog numbers. The impact of warmer winters is fascinating, but complex.


Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Red admiral butterfly in Norfolk. © robinchittenden.co.uk
Red admiral butterfly in Norfolk. © robinchittenden.co.uk

Often the red admiral will be your last butterfly of the year, as well as the first you see the next. It is no longer unusual to see the species active in November, especially in southern areas, perhaps sipping sugar from fallen fruit or imbibing ivy blossom nectar on a tree or garden fence.

For such a common butterfly, there’s a surprising degree of uncertainty whether it can survive entire British winters, as either a dormant adult or caterpillar, or whether it relies on spring migrants to keep the population going.


Aspen (Populus tremula)

Aspen in autumn, Speyside, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. © Laurie Campbell
Aspen in autumn, Speyside, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. © Laurie Campbell

Aspen may be associated with North American forests and Rockies ski resorts, but it is a native (if uncommon) British tree, too. Mostly it grows in the Scottish Highlands, though it is often planted elsewhere because aspen foliage turns glorious yellow or red in autumn.

The leaves famously rustle in the breeze, a beautiful whispering effect produced by the structure of the stems, which are strangely bendy. Aspen looks much like silver birch, and grows in similar places, but it is related to poplars and willows.


Bay bolete (Boletus badius)

Bay bolete fungi in autumn, in east Anglia. © David Chapman
Bay bolete fungi in autumn, in east Anglia. © David Chapman

You know it’s time to explore the woods “when the air is sweet and winy with decay”, says Helen Macdonald in her new essay collection, Vesper Flights. A dank November sees all manner of fungi erupt into view, and woodlands – with their plentiful soggy leaf litter and rotting wood – host more species than any other habitat.

Many are tied to particular trees or soil. The bay bolete, however, appears in both coniferous and mixed woodland. Look for the chunky mushroom under pine, beech or oak trees.


Common blackbird (Turdus merula)

Male blackbird perched on mossy log in Pembrokeshire, Wales. © Drew Buckley
Male blackbird perched on mossy log in Pembrokeshire, Wales. © Drew Buckley

These thrushes don’t half make a fuss while they get ready to roost on autumn and winter evenings. Parents of young children may smile in recognition as the birds chase each other around the garden, worked-up and calling repeatedly. Here a ‘jink’, there a ‘jink’, everywhere a ‘jink, jink’. The rumpus continues until it is almost dark.

At this time of year, you can’t be certain that these or any other blackbirds are ‘yours’, as large numbers arrive from Scandinavia and eastern Europe to winter in the UK.


Common beech tree (Fagus sylvatica)

An autumn beech tree in a Scottish woodland.
An autumn beech tree in a Scottish woodland. © Kathy Collins/Getty

Thanks to two bestselling books – The Hidden Life of Trees by forester Peter Wohlleben, and Richard Powers’ Pulitzer- winning eco-novel The Overstory – the idea of trees as complex, sentient beings has firmly taken root. We no longer think it outlandish that they send chemical messages to one another. But this notion isn’t new. Trees talk in Enid Blyton’s evergreen classic The Faraway Tree, published almost 80 years ago, and many much older stories celebrate their power.

Autumn is a great time to commune with trees – when temperatures fall, the seasonal transformation of our deciduous woodlands can be dramatic. Traditionally, the optimum period for leaf-peeping was October to early November, with displays of gold and bronze beginning in the north then moving south. Climate change means the spectacle is now best enjoyed throughout November and sometimes well into December. Beech trees, pictured here, are among the first to turn.

Leaf-peeping is good for us. In a Forestry England study, 97% of people surveyed said that looking at autumn colours lifts the mood. So what are you waiting for?


Brown-lipped snail (Cepaea nemoralis)

Robin Bush
A brown-lipped snail on a blade of grass. © Robin Bush/Getty

“When I see snail trails,” writes Paul Evans in his book How to See Nature, “I am reminded of the artist Paul Klee’s idea that drawing is taking a line for a walk.” Sliding on mucus is a convenient but costly way for gastropods to get around – a snail spends a third of its energy producing the slippery substance.

At this time of year, snail slime also has another vital function: sealing the shell opening to stop the animal inside drying out while it estivates (shuts down) until spring.


Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)

Beautiful reflections in the still waters of the reservoir on a winter morning in the Upper Derwent Valley. Bracken covered in frost in the foreground.
Morning frost covering autumn bracken at Ladybower Reservoir, Peak District. © R A Kearton/Getty

Most ferns stay green all year, but bracken dies back in autumn, turning woodland clearings, commons and hillsides into a sea of yellow and burnished copper. The latticework of its fronds looks fabulously atmospheric when glistening in the first frosts – a popular subject for photographers.

Dry bracken was once widely harvested as bedding for livestock, as a fire-lighting material and (in an age before polystyrene and bubble-wrap) for packaging. Today, several enterprising schemes convert this vigorous native fern into biofuel.


Brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

European hare in an autumn woodland.
A brown hare in an autumn woodland. © Natalia Bubochkina/Getty

Classic hare habitat is ‘big sky country’ – exposed landscapes such as arable fields, chalk downs, upland pasture and coastal marshes. However, as winter approaches, hares also seek whatever shelter they can find, often entering the edges of woods. They will lie up in cover by day, but venture out in the evening to feed. Hares have a surprisingly wide diet, which at this time of year can include woodland vegetation, twigs and bark.

Like rabbits, they practice ‘refection’ to extract every ounce of nutrition from their food, immediately consuming their soft droppings to redigest them.


Slime mould

Fuligo septica is commonly known as scrambled egg slime mould because of its appearance.
Fuligo septica is commonly known as scrambled egg slime mould because of its appearance. © Matt Meadows/Getty

Neither plant nor animal, slime moulds used to be thought of as fungi, but are now classed as their own group of single-cellular organisms. They love damp autumnal woods and often form gloopy mats or mounds on wet leaf litter, logs and tree trunks.

Some species look like bright splashes of paint, though a few unfortunately resemble vomit. Don’t be put off – slime mould is fascinating. One species is grown in labs so that engineers can study how it spreads in search of food, in order to help them map the most efficient rail and road routes.


Common woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)

A wood pigeon in flight.
A woodpigeon in flight. © Dethan Pulanur

Woodpigeons are among the few British birds that can be identified just by the sound of their wings, and are able to breed in any month. Enormously boosted by modern farming – winter wheat and oilseed rape sustain them during what were once leaner months – ‘woodies’ are so abundant that to many farmers they are pests, while birdwatchers overlook them.

But even common species can hold mysteries. We still don’t know exactly where the huge flocks of woodpigeons migrating south in autumn are heading.


Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pup lying on beach, close-up
Grey seal pup on the beach. © Andy Rouse/Getty

Juvenile grey seals were in the news recently when research showed that captive seals could copy human speech and singing. In the wild, meanwhile, their wails and moans reverberate along rocky shores in November – the height of the breeding season.

Newborn pups have a fluffy, white babygrow but moult out of it in only two or three weeks. They pile on the pounds with their mother’s milk, which is up to 10 times richer than either human breast or cow’s milk.


Yellow-necked mouse (Apodemus flavicollis)

A yellow-necked mouse in front of its hole. Naturfoto Honal
A yellow-necked mouse in front of its hole. © Naturfoto Honal

Few, even wildlife lovers, have heard of this wood mouse lookalike. Apart from its band of tawny chest fur, seen clearly only at very close range, the species resembles its more-common relative, but its range and behaviour are somewhat different. Yellow-necked mice occur patchily in southern England and Wales, north through the Welsh Borders to Staffordshire. They’re also more arboreal than wood mice, spending much time foraging in hedges and trees. At this time of year you might hear them scampering around their nests in lofts and sheds.

Learn more about rodents in the UK:


Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus)

A whooper swan in flight at Caerlaverock, Scotland. Education Images/Getty
A whooper swan in flight at Caerlaverock, Scotland. © Education Images/Getty

Peter Scott noted in his 1980 book Observations of Wildlife that the breeding grounds of British and Irish whooper swans were a mystery. “We favour the Scandinavian/Russian theory,” he mused. Ringing has since shown that our wintering population is Icelandic. After an epic flight lasting 12–13 hours, close to the limit for such heavy birds, the ‘super whoopers’ make landfall in western Scotland and Ireland in late October or November. Then soon head on to favoured wetlands, trumpeting as they go.

The whooper swan is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific names are the same.


Common juniper (Juniperus communis)

Twig of common juniper with blue berries. © Picture Partners/Getty
Twig of common juniper with blue berries. © Picture Partners/Getty

The current craze for artisan gin has, ironically, coincided with a decline in the wild plant whose ‘berries’ (actually fleshy cones) provide the flavour. Juniper is among the most ancient trees in the British Isles, having colonised quickly after the end of the last ice age. It is one of just three native British conifers, the others being yew and Scots pine.

In recent decades, juniper has fallen victim of overgrazing by sheep, deer and rabbits, which strip out seedlings. Conservation projects are underway in its two strongholds: uplands in the north, and chalk downs in the south.


Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

A redwing foraging in grass. Arterra/Getty
A redwing foraging in grass. © Arterra/Getty

No natural sound is more redolent of autumn than the ‘seep seep’ of migrating redwings passing overhead at night – contact whistles that help flocks to keep in touch. They have a thin, reedy quality, so at ground level the effect is of half hearing something above you in the darkness (listen at xeno-canto.org).

Redwings pour into the UK in their tens of thousands from Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia, staying until March. Despite the name of our smallest species of thrush, it is the creamy markings on the head that first catch the eye.


Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

A hornbeam in autumn. Cora Niele/Getty
A hornbeam in autumn. © Cora Niele/Getty

One of Britain’s most overlooked native trees, hornbeam is frequently mistaken for beech. Its oval leaves are smaller, with deeper veins. But the clearest difference is the dangling clusters of papery winged fruit.

Like beech, hornbeam was traditionally pollarded to encourage new growth. It’s found mainly in south-east England and East Anglia; Epping, Hatfield and Hainault forests are famous for their many veteran pollarded specimens.


Dog whelk (Nucella lapillus)

Dog whelks feeding in North Wales, UK. Paul Kay/Getty
Dog whelks feeding in North Wales, UK. © Paul Kay/Getty

Folklore dictates we should only collect mussels in months with the letter ‘r’. Dog whelks don’t take any notice of such niceties. These sea snails target mussel beds year-round, albeit less intensively in winter. Having chosen a victim they drill a hole, pour in digestive enzymes and suck up the resulting soup. Attacks take a few days. If, when beachcombing, you find an empty mussel shell with a neat circular hole in it, you can be sure the occupant met a grisly end.


Eurasian wigeon (Mareca penelope)

Eurasian wigeon. © Bebedi/Getty
Eurasian wigeon. © Bebedi/Getty

November sees numbers of many duck species swell dramatically, as migrants flock to Britain’s wetlands to escape the harsher winters of the Baltic, Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland. The visitors include over 400,000 wigeon.

Drake wigeon are among our smartest ducks, their plumage a mixture of bold-brush contrasts on the head and subtle grey and peach tones elsewhere. Yet the first thing that draws attention is often a chorus of high-pitched whistles. As nature writer Mark Cocker wittily observed, their gleeful calls have “something of the child down the slide.”


Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

A woodcock in North Norfolk, UK. David Tipling/Getty
A woodcock in North Norfolk, UK. © David Tipling/Getty

The first full moon in November is said to be a ‘woodcock moon’, as it often coincides with an influx of these nocturnal waders. Tracking studies have shown that they visit Britain from as far away as Siberia and stay faithful to the same wintering sites.

Worm-eaters, they forage in boggy clearings and damp pasture and moorland next to woods. So perfect is their camouflage, your only chance of a winter sighting is if you flush one from its daytime hiding place.


Black bryony (Dioscorea communis)

Bright berries on black bryony. DeAgostini/Getty
Bright berries on black bryony. © DeAgostini/Getty

As hedgerow leaves die back in November, the shiny berries of black bryony suddenly become visible, appearing almost shockingly bright among the drab twiggy skeletons of bare trees and shrubs.

“Redder than remembrance poppies, riper than a bunch of tomatoes, poisonous as hell” is how nature writer Paul Evans describes these gaudy garlands in his book Field Notes from the Edge. Black bryony is a climbing, vine-like member of the mostly tropical yam family. But while many yams are important human foods, black bryony is best left well alone.


Oak bracket fungus (Inonotus dryadeus)

Oak bracket fungus. © T Bradford/Getty
Oak bracket fungus. © T Bradford/Getty

When it comes to fungi, some trees make more attractive hosts than others. Oaks – especially if decrepid, dying or decaying – are particularly rich in species. Among them are several distinctive bracket fungi.

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One to search for this month is oak bracket fungus, which looks fabulous, like oozing bread dough studded with glistening jellied fruit or droplets of honey. It persists well into winter, sometimes in groups of fruiting bodies, usually near the base of gnarly old trees.