SOARING temperatures and flash floods marked a summer where climate change concerns were never far from people’s minds.
So after an unseasonally mild October, perhaps it’s a relief to finally feel the chill in the air on a starry Chilterns November night.
Back in the hot, dry summer, temperatures soared to a new UK record temperature of 40.3C in Lincolnshire and much of the local countryside looked brown and parched, with hosepipe bans in place across large areas.
The joint warmest summer on record for England, and the fourth driest, it meant wildlife enthusiasts having to rise early to catch the countryside at its best before the searing heat of the midday sun.
It takes patience and perseverance at the best of times to capture our native species on camera, but all the more so when they are taking refuge from such unpleasant heat.
What a delight, then, to savour the mellower temperatures of autumn and watch the sights, sounds and smells slowly switching to a different pace and palette.
Suddenly it’s crisper and colder in the mornings and darker evenings, though the woods are ablaze with colour as families look out their scarves and winter coats to make the most of the seasonal spectacle.
With Autumnwatch back on our screens and pumpkins suddenly swamping the shelves of local farm shops, a host of animals and birds are stocking up for the winter months.
And from the banks of the Thames to Ivinghoe Beacon, there’s no better time of year to venture outdoors to smell the ripening fruits and admire the beauty of the leaves as they change colour.
In just a few short weeks, the landscape has been transformed: from the August fields of sunflowers ripe for the picking, we have seen the dust of the combine harvesters blowing across the land and subtle changes in the light deeper in the surrounding woods.
In the grounds of Windsor’s Great Park the autumn rutting season may have had an extra resonance for visitors this year following the death of the Queen.
After so many thousands swamped the town to pay their final respects, many returning ramblers might be only too keenly aware of the monarch’s absence from her beloved castle, with the current herd all descendants of 40 hinds and two stags introduced in 1979 by the Duke of Edinburgh.
And from the historic Ridgeway to the depths of Burnham Beeches, a myriad other changes are taking place in this ancient and fascinating landscape, most noticeably the sudden golden glow as nature puts on its most spectacular fireworks display of the year.
The autumnal leaf fall is a clever form of self-protection, allowing deciduous trees to drop thin leaves that would otherwise rupture during the winter, making them useless for photosynthesis, giving the tree a fresh start in the spring while the nutrients from the decaying leaves are recycled to help grow the next generation.
Amid all the leaf mulch, autumn is also one of the best times to head out foraging, with woods and hedgerows filled with a feast of delights from hazelnuts and rosehips to blackberries, sweet chestnuts and crab apples.
The woods play host to a formidable array of mosses, lichens and fungi too, but not all of the intriguing range of shapes and colours to be found among the soaking foliage are safe to eat, as their spine-tingling names might suggest.
If you can’t tell a tasty morsel from a destroying angel, funeral bell or death cap, it’s perhaps best to give those colourful mushrooms and toadstools a wide berth.
Widely regarded as magical and equally frequently mistrusted, toadstools and mushrooms are associated with ancient taboos, dung, death and decomposition.
But as the Woodland Trust explains, trees and many other species rely on fungi and we’re only just starting to fully understand how close this relationship is: great woodland networks that link and support life.
As Gillian Burke explained in a previous Autumnwatch series: “90 per cent of our plants are utterly reliant on fungi for survival. By breaking down dead wood, cleaning the soil and recycling nutrients by the most intimate relationship with living plants, fungi are vital to life on Earth.”
At this time of year, those forest floors and woodland glades are full of colourful and intriguing characters, from puffballs and stinkhorns to earthstars and jelly fungi – and while many of them could be poisonous for us to touch and eat, it’s fascinating just how important they may be for our survival.
As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work.