Six things to see on an autumn woodland walk

Child in autumn woodland

Taking a walk in a woodland is great for both body and soul. An autumn woodland glowing with colour and rich with the smell of damp earth is a wonderful, uplifting place to be.

National Trust Ranger Chloe Bradbrooke has suggested some mini wonders of nature to look out for when you head to the woods this autumn.

Falling leaves

Leaves are the powerhouses of trees. A mature oak tree has around 700,000 leaves, providing food for the tree and enough oxygen for 10 people for a year.

As leaves start to die in autumn, the tree takes back reusable proteins and green chlorophyll. This reveals the yellow and red pigments produced by sugars remaining in the leaf. The best and most long-lasting colours develop with warm, bright days and cold nights, slowing the transport of sugar from the leaf.

Try and catch a falling leaf on your autumn walk, it’s trickier than you think.

Fungi

As the leaves disappear, you start to notice everything else that lives in the woodland - mosses, lichens and fungi.

Fungi don’t have chlorophyll, so they can’t make their own food like trees. They break down plant matter into simple substances they can feed on. Without fungi, the world would choke on its own waste.

Oak and birch trees are good places to look for fungi. (Look, but don't eat, and wash your hands after touching). The classic red and white spotted toadstool (Fly Agaric) is often spotted near a birch.

Bracket fungi gain height to spread their spores further by attaching to the trunk of a tree. Cup fungi such as the orange peel fungus shoot spores out like bullets from microscopic guns - you can sometimes hear the pop. Puff balls (like soft footballs on the ground) release spores like puffs of smoke when rain drops hit them.

Step into a wood and you'll be surrounded by fungi
Step into a wood and you'll be surrounded by fungi
Step into a wood and you'll be surrounded by fungi


Seeds and fruit


Autumn is a great time to forage in woodland as seeds are ripening. Heavier fruits such as hazelnuts, acorns, beechnuts and conkers rely on squirrels or jays to spread them around the woodland.

Other trees use their height to distribute their seeds. Ash keys can travel up to 50m in the wind. Sycamore and maples also have wings like helicopter blades to whizz them away from the parent tree.

Some trees, such as hawthorn or yew, use fruit to attract birds to eat them and poo out the whole seeds, distributing them around the area. Clever things, trees.

Nuthatch feeding at the bird hide
Nuthatch feeding on a branch
Nuthatch feeding at the bird hide

Nibbled nuts

A good way to tell what wildlife you’ve got in your woods is to look at the nibbled nuts. They’re an excellent high protein food source and important for fattening up for winter.

Dormice gnaw neat, smooth, round holes with angled scratches on the outer rim. Bank voles take off the narrow end. Wood mice gnaw a rough hole surrounded by parallel scratches. and Hawfinches split them in two. Bashed open ones with shattered pieces are probably the work of birds like woodpeckers and magpies, or squirrels. A pile of broken beech husks is a sign of the wood mouse.

Feathers

It’s a good time to pick up feathers in autumn. Birds moult at this time of year as they’ve finished nesting so don’t need to be looking their best to find a mate. It’s hard work growing new feathers, and the abundance of fruit and seeds around helps keep up their energy levels. Birds shed the worn feathers and grow strong new ones to keep them warm in winter.

Individuals can look a bit odd - particularly juveniles as their new feathers come through. Often the head is that last to change so you might see a sleek dark blackbird with a spotty brown head or a white-spotted winter-plumaged starling with the pale brown head of a youngster.

A badger in the evening sunlight, Derbyshire
badger, sunlight
A badger in the evening sunlight, Derbyshire

Wildlife

There are lots of animals feeding up in the woods before winter. Badgers feed on berries, nuts and fungi. Foxes will stock up on well-fed small mammals to grow their thick winter coat. Deer will also eat acorns and fruit to supplement their diet.

As the weather gets rainier and the ground wetter, you can spot tracks in the mud. Badgers have a wide footprint with five toes in a curve and claw marks, fox tracks are similar to small dogs’ but more long and narrow with two prominent toes at the front and clear claw marks. Deer have a cloven hoof made of two elongated tear shapes. Rabbits have five toes and an elongated pad.

Try taking a photo of tracks you find for easier ID when you get home.

Head to the woods for a leaf-crunching, nature-spotting ramble in the golden light of autumn.