The big sleep


WE still haven’t had a frost here in Lancashire, but it surely can’t be long. Meanwhile many animals are preparing to deal with winter by stoking up to hibernate.

For example this chubby little fellow appeared in several papers yesterday. 

It’s a dormouse which entered a bird feeder on the Isle of Wight then gorged for several hours on the tasty contents, by which time it had got so fat it couldn’t get out again.

Dormice are among three types of British mammals which hibernate. The others are bats and hedgehogs. All eat as much as they can in the autumn to build their fat reserves. Once they’re ready to hibernate, their metabolism slows to around 5 per cent of its normal rate to use as little energy as possible; their heart rate drops, as does their breathing. Usually they stay in this state until spring, but if there is an unusually warm spell they may wake for a few days, then go back to bed.

Hedgehogs build nests under hedges or sheds.

If you are planning a winter bonfire you should check it has not been requisitioned by a hedgehog. They don’t seem to have perfected their breeding timetable as young are often born too late in the year to build enough reserves for hibernation. They then rely on kind rescuers to look after them till spring.

Bats often leave their summer roosts in trees or roofs and move into caves, where the temperature is constant, for winter. These are lesser horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus hipposideros).

Dormice roll themselves into a ball in a nest of leaves and grass.

We see quite a few grey squirrels in the garden and they behave as if they are preparing to hibernate, feeding like mad through the autumn. By now they are almost spherical.

However they do not hibernate. They become less active when it is cold and sleep a lot, often huddled together for warmth in their nests or dreys. The same applies to red squirrels if you are lucky enough to have them around.

Badgers also feed up in the autumn to keep them going, and reduce their activity in the winter. Foxes, weasels and stoats keep going as normal.

Here’s a great video of a stoat in its white winter coat (‘ermine’) hunting in Yorkshire.

Rats and mice cannot fatten themselves for winter, but they store food in the autumn for later consumption.

Every time I write this column I learn something, and this time it is that reptiles and amphibians do not ‘hibernate’, as I always thought, but technically they ‘brumate’. Because they are cold-blooded (or more accurately ‘ambient temperature-blooded’) the process is slightly different although the effect is the same. Snakes and lizards hide in crevices or under rocks, while frogs and toads find damp shelters such as compost heaps or they may go to the bottom of ponds, taking in their oxygen requirement through the skin.

Some insects hibernate either as larvae, in the soil or in water, or adults, when they may find shelter in a house or garage. I have had a red admiral butterfly on my bedroom wall for two months or so.


There are some weird folks out there. Someone in our area has been leaving lumps of poisoned cheese and meat around places where people walk their dogs. This week a friend’s vizsla ate one but fortunately the vet was able to save it – apparently the dog was treated with charcoal. It is a great worry for owners. Many want to let their dog off the lead so that it can run and get better exercise but once it is out of sight anything can happen. I simply cannot understand why someone would do this.


One Reply to “The big sleep”

  1. Cruelty to animals is disgusting and cowardly. It is often in the news yet you rarely hear of anyone being caught and prosecuted for it. I have often wondered if prosecutions are kept quiet and if those prosecuted for it are protected in some way, because the authorities know that the public will want to take out their own punishments.

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