North East wildlife goes into the 'big sleep'
PUBLISHED: 00:16 26 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:21 20 February 2013
We're all doing our best to keep warm this time of year, but the North East's wildlife has one of the most efficient energy conservation schemes around - it's called hibernation
Conserving energy has never been more important. Steep winter utility bills and the need for a bit of extra belt tightening - especially after the Christmas excess - makes fuel efficiency key in the early months of 2011.
Its pretty much the same in the animal world. Short periods of daylight, and persistent cold snaps, make it harder for them to find what little food is available, so curling up and shutting down the system until things warm up a bit makes sense in an all-important bid to conserve energy.
Right now, as we reach for another jumper and fiddle with the thermostat, that sounds like a really good idea.
Most of us probably imagine this customary shut-down of our local wildlife in winter involves actually going to sleep, but hibernation isnt quite the same thing. When an animal hibernates the bits of its system it doesnt really need, because its inactive, are switched off, but some bits, the essential things it needs to stay alive continue to function, albeit at the slowest level possible.
Another common misconception is that hibernation is triggered by plummeting temperatures, and is the animals instinctive response to the cold weather, when in fact its more to do with the lack of food thats available for them at this time of year.
Not all species take advantage of this clever energy conservation scheme. For some the big sleep is a requirement, and the only means of survival, for others its a useful option - a fallback or contingency plan. So which animals hibernate and which ones dont?
Its a myth, for example, that the regions beloved red squirrels hibernate throughout the winter, having busied themselves in the autumn stockpiling nuts in readiness for the onset of the chillier months.
Yes, they do hibernate, but only for short periods. The nuts they eat might be in short supply during the winter, but theyre still around, so red squirrels wake up when its a bit warmer and go foraging for food. The upside of this is that local red squirrels are less likely to be affected by global warming than
some of our other native animals
because they dont have to hibernate as
a means of survival.
So if our winters continue to get milder, as they have done recently if you dont count last year, red squirrels could well end up as a year-round tourist attraction for locals and visitors alike.
Badgers behave in a similar way, although they dont actually hibernate. A lot of people used to think they did, but because theyre sometimes seen snuffling about in mid-winter when people are out and about it became quite clear they didnt. So badgers dont hibernate in the strictest sense, but do hole up in their dens for quite long periods when the weathers bad.
Dormice are a good example of a species that does shut-down for the winter. They will go into hibernation for the whole season in the right situation and will only appear again come spring when fresh food supplies become available.
Climate change is having an impact on their hibernation habits, however, and theyre now hibernating for five weeks less these days than was the case a couple of decades ago.
Ladybirds hibernate and can do so in large groups, sometimes in their thousands. Frogs, toads, newts and hedgehogs also hibernate. The insects they eat arent around in winter so being active then would simply result in the animals starving.
Frogs hibernate under leaves and stones at the bottom of ponds. Like dormice, these species that rely on hibernation for survival, are much more at risk from climate change than those species like red squirrels that happily pop in and out of their winter slowdown. For example studies have been carried out revealing a link between milder English winters and female toads laying fewer eggs than in the past.
The habits of other hibernating species, including butterflies are also changing as a result of global warming. Not every species is embarking on quite the long winter sleep they used to, so, where once it would have been quite rare to see hedgehogs shuffling around in mid-February, nowadays its not such an unusual occurance.
Some animals that would normally hibernate arent doing so now, while others are emerging from their winter slumbers much earlier. This might not be a problem for all species, but for some the disruption to their sleep patterns can be a big problem.
Warmer weather is the usual wake-up call encouraging animals to emerge from hibernation. But when mid-winter temperatures approach those normally experienced in April, it can upset things a bit. If a species begins its spring lifestyle too early there may not be enough food readily available to sustain it and theres likely to be increased competition food.
The same scarcity of food that drives a number of local native wildlife species to shutdown for the winter months seriously impacts on the survival rates of those that stay awake and expend all their energy finding enough to eat to stay alive.
Small birds, for example, lose a huge amount of their body weight each night just burning enough fuel to keep warm.
Put up a few feeders, provide a range of different nuts and seeds to suit a variety of species (for example, siskins and goldfinches love nyger seeds and sunflower hearts) and continue feeding right through winter and on through the breeding season in spring and early summer. So help them if you can.