Month of change in the wild world

The first autumn colour on a Virginia creeper.
The first autumn colour on a Virginia creeper.

by Heather Elvidge

October brings big changes in the wild world. Thousands of birds are heading south and our swallows are among them.

We don’t always notice migrating birds even when they travel in huge flocks, because they often fly very high. Birdwatchers are looking out for them, and have a way of estimating their numbers. On September 22, an amazing 34,000 swallows and 1,000 house martins were counted as they passed over Dorset on their way to South Africa.

Our swallows were still here then, so those were likely to be Scandinavian birds. Then a couple of days later our swallows were lining up on the telephone wires, and soon they too were gone.

But as some leave, others arrive. The first pink-footed geese from Greenland have been spotted, honking as they fly overhead.

Most of us don’t fly abroad for the winter, so we’re starting to wonder what’s in store. Our rural ancestors had even more need to know, which is why October is so well served by weather lore.

This was the month for salting, pickling and drying food, repairing winter clothes, and stocking up with enough wood or peat to see the family through the cold months. The amount of fodder governed how many animals could be kept over winter, and how many would have to be sold or slaughtered. It helped to know if the winter would be a hard one, and they thought that this month held the key.

Weather watch

Folklore says that cold weather in October is a sign of a mild winter; but when the month is unseasonably warm, with late leaf fall, a cold winter is on the way. The Met Office concedes that there’s some truth in that.

You can rely on this, too: if there’s no frost by October’s full moon, then you’ll be frost-free until November’s full moon.

Everyday life brought our forebears into contact with creatures both wild and domestic, and this familiarity led to sayings based on animal behaviour. Signs of a hard winter included tubby badgers, noisy foxes that barked more than usual, and squirrels making an early start on stashing away 
nuts.

The most obvious sign of cold weather to come was an animal sporting a cosy pelt: “If the hare wears a thick coat in October, lay in a good stock of fuel.” This works equally well with our pet dogs and cats, providing they spend enough time outside every day.

For a month associated with mists, October can be surprisingly mist-free. But should they occur, be sure to keep a record because, “For every October fog there will be snow in winter, heavy or light according to the fog.” Only count the ones that linger all day, not the dawn mists that are chased away by the sun.

So why bother with all this, when we’re bombarded with weather forecasts? Well, it’s harmless. It’s fun. And if you’re wondering when to bring in your geraniums, it can also be useful. While professional forecasts cover large areas, forecasting by folklore is very local — a sign only applies to the parish in which it is seen.