Ding dong merrily on high, in Lifton the bells are ringing… Christmas at the Arundell

Flora and Fauna

“To all things there is a season”; Ecclesiaistes, Chapter 3, Verses 1 to 9, if you would like the complete quote.

“Never was this more true than in autumn, when the urgency of the changing season really starts to make itself felt. Every day out in the country is one full of magic, but it all seems just that little bit more special as summer is closing down, with signs of the impending winter showing in every hedge, woodland and meadow”.

Transpiration ceases, abruptly, around the end of the first week of September, with the trees closing the capillaries which feed sap and moisture to the leaves. This signals the colour change, through every shade of russet, orange and gold, and finally, for the beautiful birches, fading to the palest of yellows, before the leaves fall. The summer growth of rank riverside herbage is also dying away, the tall canary grass now bleached and straw-like, the cow-parsley browning and brittle. Very few flowers are left, the bees getting their final fill of nectar from any Michaelmas daisies they can find, before they too shut down for the winter. On the hawthorns, clusters of bright red berries await the ravages of the packs of redwings which will surely arrive soon. One of the prettiest of the autumnal shrubs is the spindle tree, we are blessed with several of these delicate little trees along our rivers. The spindle berries, bursting their Chinese lantern cases, show bright orange, while the foliage gently fades from a rich green through into a blush of pink and apricot.

Swallows and Martins gather in large flocks before migration, swooping low over the water at Tinhay Lake, with most of them gone by the end of September. No birdsong now carries through the still, misty air, save the rather sad, descending and melancholy trickle of notes from the robin. Silent and unseen, the warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats slip away, we will not hear them again much before the spring equinox next year.

Winter birds come drifting down, as the arctic nights close in and the waters freeze. Fieldfares, redwings and mistle thrushes now populate the hedges and fields. For the sportsman, autumn brings fresh quarry. Snipe, woodcock, and many species of migrant wildfowl are moving in. Snipe will be on Bodmin Moor before September is out, and the golden plover will not be far behind them. The resident mallard now have to share their waters with teal, wigeon and sometimes the lovely pintail. Diving ducks, pochard, tufted and goldeneye, can be seen at Roadford lake. The first woodcock will be here only days after the salmon fishing closes in mid-October, although traditionally it is the first full moon in November, the Hunter’s moon, which sees the biggest falls of woodcock.

For the fly fishers, much of our summer-time sport is now over. The sea trout and trout season closes with September. The fish are nearing their time for spawning, and the hen fish will show the bulge of growing eggs in their bellies. The cock fish will be very brightly coloured, never has the term ‘butter-bellied’ been more appropriate than now for the wild brownies. The maturing males develop a longer jaw, which in the case of the salmon, is even more prominent and turns up on the end of the lower jawbone to produce the hooked kype. We do not really know what this changing profile is for, but it is true that cock salmon fight aggressively over hen fish before and during spawning, and the hooked jaw may be useful in proving a point to smaller rivals. It may of course also be instrumental in the choice of a mate for the hens, along with the much brighter colours of the ripe male. Some cock fish look more like tigers at this time of year.

Only the grayling can now legally be taken, although in today’s times of catch-and-release the significance of the close seasons has become rather muted. While seeking autumn grayling it is not unusual to catch an odd sea trout, all of which still fight with the explosive runs and leaps with which they have been terrifying is us on the warm, velvety summer nights, which suddenly seem such a long time ago. Brownies and salmon parr also readily take our weighted nymphs, so never was the need for barbless hooks more acute. It has been my good fortune to catch three adult salmon over the years while after grayling, a real bit of fun on a 5-weight rod, size 14 hook and 4lb nylon!

A fine dry day in the autumn, with the river not too high or dirty, offers the finest chance for grayling. Right up to the end of October, and even into early November, there will be a few stoneflies around. If a sunny break in the clouds occurs and warms the riverside where they have been waiting, these flies will troop out over the river to lay their mustard-yellow egg-sacs, often dropping the eggs from several feet above the water. The spent females then drop, dead or dying, to drift on the surface, and can induce a nice rise of grayling, such excellent fish to catch on the dry fly.

With no fly or rising fish to be seen, then the nymph comes into its own. If there is a strong flow on the river, weighted patterns with either bead-heads, or some extra ballast under the body, will be needed to get down to the fish. The grayling, although perfectly capable of rising and eating surface fly, is still primarily a bottom feeder, as shown by the underslung jaw. Some form of indicator is needed to transmit the take to the angler, a small scrap of coloured wool being ideal. Should this indicator suddenly dive down, or stop, or even tremble, strike, and quickly. The grayling can take and eject a fly with lightning speed, it is actually possible to cast and watch the fly pass over a clearly visible fish and see this happen, with the indicator failing to register any movement at all.

The salmonids will now be moving upstream to find their chosen spawning grounds, and on any significant rise of water can be seen leaping the weirs. One can only marvel at the sheer determination of these fish to get up and over any obstacle, many failing and falling back, to try, try, and try again. I used to make a point of taking my children, when of primary school age, to see this spectacle at one of the weirs on the Lyd, truly one of Nature’s wonders. The brown trout will spawn in some of the tiniest streams, and even the much larger sea trout will push a very long way into the headwaters to spawn. The salmon needs a bigger stream, but their entire raison d’etre is to lay their eggs in a good place for their young to flourish, and they will sometimes be found in pools where they can barely turn around. As the Hunter’s moon shines down the valleys, we wish them all well for the future.

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