The Urban Countryside – Berries for the birds
by Albert Nolan
After the summer holidays the year seems to take on a faster pace as house routine blends in with the school week. Some birds have already returned to their wintering quarters and others like swallows are getting ready to go. Swifts have departed and for such a noisy species they leave without a murmur, absconding like teenage lovers in the middle of the night. Robins have started to sing again and our hedgerows are full of berries in anticipation of the cold winter to come.
Birds have a similar colour range to us and red immediately draws their attention. Many trees and shrubs use this knowledge to attract birds and ensure that their seeds are spread far and wide. In urban estates you will often find remains of field hedgerows that managed to survive the bulldozers when the houses were build. The green carpet around them has been replaced by a sea of concrete and grazing animals by ride on lawnmowers. But for the urban naturalist they often contain a rich variety of plants, insects and birds.
Hedgerows are very important for wildlife and over 1500 different insects and 64 species of birds have been found on them. They provide nesting sites for birds and allow creature’s safe access across the countryside, far from the preying eyes of predators. Hawthorn is the main tree species used in our native hedgerows. Their flowers are in full bloom during May and field and roadside hedges are turned a sea of white. Berries called haws are produced in autumn and they have a beautiful blood red colour. They are eaten by birds including redwings and fieldfares that are winter migrants. They can also be made into jelly and a delicious jam when mixed with apples.
Elderberry is a common shrub of the hedgerow and garden. Starlings love the berries and drop their seeds in new spots with a good dollop of fertilizer. The weight of its berries can often bend the branches and they have many different uses. They can be made into wine and jam. The leaves also contain a natural insecticide and when crushed will deter insects. Elderberry can survive harsh pruning and will send up multiple new shoots each year. If left alone it can grow to over 4 meters but most don’t get above two meters.
I think that blackberries are the most welcome berry for people and wildlife. The hedgerow near my house has been greeting me each day with delicious ripe fruit. These are at their sweetest after a cold spell as this brings the sugars to full flavour. There are many ways to enjoy them including blackberry pie, with ice-cream or just eat straight from the hedge. Foxes eat them as part of their autumn diet and bees also drink the juice of the blackberry.
Wild fruits of the hedgerow are very important for wildlife and help them to survive the winter months. If you are thinking of sowing a hedge this autumn why not consider one that will benefit birds, insects and butterflies. Tidy towns and residents group could explore their communities and see what hedges are there and put in place measures to conserve them. Comments to 089 4230502.