The couple of frosty nights we experienced in the opening week of November were, it seems, just an anomaly. Since then, conditions at Forvie have been staggeringly mild for the time of year, with temperatures daily in the mid-teens. For our wildlife, this blurring of the seasons leads to confusion and ‘mixed messages’ – after all, the daylight hours are falling away rapidly, but the temperature isn’t – and this can cause real problems for species that rely on temperature changes as triggers for hibernation, dormancy, emergence or growth. For us, meanwhile, it creates a feeling of unease about the state of our climate, and our effect upon it. A November week this warm simply feels wrong.
It’s been noticeable here how many of our wild flowers are still hanging on, even at this late stage of the year. A handful of Daisies and Dandelions may persist through an exceptionally mild autumn and winter, but at the moment they’re still remarkably widespread, providing splashes of colour along the waysides. Red Campion is another plant with a long flowering season, and its pinkish blooms can also still be found around the Reserve as we head into mid-November.
Even some of our more specialised coastal plants are resolutely clinging on. Sea Rocket is a plant of the crucifer (cabbage) family, and its powder-pink flowers and fleshy leaves are a feature of the mobile dunes in summer. Yet here we are in late autumn, and some plants continue to bear a scatter of flowers.
Sea Mayweed is recognisably a member of the daisy family. However, like the aforementioned Sea Rocket and many other plants adapted for the arid and saline coastal environment, its leaves are succulent and fleshy, helping the plant to retain water. Again, we usually associate its cheery flowers with high summer, rather than the short days of November. Yet here it was, brightening up the estuary foreshore, and offering a free meal of nectar and pollen to any tardy pollinators still on the wing.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the discovery of some Wild Angelica in full flower. This species’ usual flowering season is from June through August, and by this time of the year the plants have usually long since died back. This particular plant, though, was at its absolute peak in the first week of November, and none of us could recall ever before having seen it blooming so late in the year. There’s no doubt that the mild weather has confused the flora at Forvie this autumn.
Inland of us, people have been reporting that the leaves have remained on the trees much later than usual this autumn, again due to the warm temperatures and lack of frost. Here at Forvie though, our trees and shrubs have already been substantially stripped – not by low temperatures, but by high winds, blowing relentlessly from the south and south-west. While most of the leaves are long gone (and are probably scattered far and wide across Buchan), in some cases the fruits remain. Dog Rose is one of the most prominent, and attractive, of the fruit-bearing shrubs; its lovely scarlet rose-hips will persist into the winter, providing a much-needed source of food for various mammals and birds during the colder months ahead.
The colourful berries of Bittersweet (or Woody Nightshade to give it its alternative and somewhat posher name) are also a feature of the late-autumn landscape here, and are easy to spot now most of the leaves have fallen. These fruits are popular with birds like thrushes and Blackcaps, and represent a welcome refuelling opportunity for these long-haul travellers when they make landfall from the Continent. This is a two-way street of course: the birds benefit from some life-saving nutrition, while the plant benefits from the birds’ generosity in terms of spreading its seeds.
Bittersweet is a native, wild plant, but it also makes an attractive addition to an informal garden (ours is very informal, so it looks right at home here). It grows and spreads rapidly, and can even be ‘trained’ along a fence or trellis in much the same way as Honeysuckle. It features attractive purple flowers and brightly-coloured fruits, is a magnet for wildlife, and is very hardy as well. That makes it the perfect garden plant as far as I’m concerned!
In addition to the rose hips and Bittersweet berries, and handful of Blackberries remain on the Bramble bushes, and likewise Sloes on the Blackthorn (though the latter are scarce in our local area). Just about all of the Rowan and Whitebeam berries are long gone though, having been decimated by the great raiding-parties of thrushes that arrived on our coast last month.
With autumn drawing to a close, and the clocks having shifted back an hour, we’re now in ‘winter mode’ in our working lives. But the continuing mild conditions have occasionally confused us too, and this week I found myself massively overdressed for the annual ditch-clearing routine. Sweltering under too many layers of clothing, I was forced to open my shirt-collar and roll up my sleeves to disperse the heat. On the up-side, the lovely orange ‘perma-tan’ that you inevitably get from working in ochre-stained ditchwater now extends to my elbows and neck. Next time I’m in the pub I’ll probably get asked “Ooh, have you been somewhere nice?” – errr, you could say so I suppose!
As we’ve explained before in these pages, we maintain a small network of ditches and drains to prevent the flooding of footpaths, tracks or neighbouring farmland where it naturally drains onto the Reserve. It’s surprisingly fulfilling and enjoyable work, perma-tan or otherwise, and always satisfying to see the results of your labours.
Working in shirtsleeves in crazily mild conditions, and getting a bright orange tan in the process, in mid-November? Ignore the 60mph winds, and the fact it’s dark by 4pm, and you could almost imagine you’re somewhere in the Mediterranean, rather than here at 57.3o north. As I said earlier on, it just feels a bit wrong: surely Forvie shouldn’t feel like this in November? But who knows, bitterly mild autumns like this one may turn out to be the new normal, if indeed there is such a thing.