Life in the margins

Outdoor Living

BITTERSWEET An abundance of wild fruits in the hedgerows was once believed to foretell a hard winter ahead.

Hedgerows sustain wildlife through the winter

Nature and Rewilding
Pat Fahy

The Autumn Equinox has passed and the season of change has arrived. While there are still lots of flowers, and some days it seems that summer lingers on, autumnal colours are bringing a mellow mood. We know that every fine day might be one of the last for a while, making them precious until the next unexpected rays of sunshine.
A season of renewal in some ways. If there were no autumn there could be no spring. Autumn can be a beautiful season. You can see it in the leaves and the ripening of fruits and berries. In the shortening of days and the chilly air. We don’t get the blaze of colour in our forest canopy like other regions due to our mild climate, but there are hints of it here and there.
Instead, I look to our uplands where rough grasses like common sedge put on quite the display, sometimes in between a shower the sun shines brightly a spectrum of colours, maybe with the shadow of a dark cloud in the background to create sharp contrast, brightening the landscape further. Each blade containing a range of colours from verdant green to reds and russet, burnished gold and shining yellow. A magical display which is all well and good for anyone interested in nature, but it has to be remembered that few places are more important to wildlife at the moment than our hedgerows. This is where many of our birds and mammals are busy right now, raiding nature’s larder to see them through the harsh winter months.
In some years there is a bountiful abundance of wild fruits in the hedgerows, once believed to foretell a hard winter ahead. The trees knew, it was thought, of a harsh season to come and were providing bountifully in advance for the birds and other creatures, which depend on this natural harvest to see them through.
Instead, there’s a lot more happenstance involved to autumn’s bounty than that, with a number of factors coming into play. If the flowers in spring escape damage by wind, rain, frost or birds, if the pollinators like bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies emerge at the right time, if the rain falls at the right time to swell the berries followed by sunshine to ripen them, if all of these things happen right on cue, then our hedgerows will burst with the season’s abundance.
All this can be undone, however, during very hot and sunny summers. When some fruits ripen earlier than usual, the birds and mammals will invite themselves to the mini banquets, spotted and snaffled long before we even know they are there.
Now each of the flowers of spring has turned into the fruits of the forest and hedgerow. A multitude of autumn fruits sustain a multitude of wild creatures throughout the months ahead. It has to be said that although it is now permitted to cut the hedgerows, it is really best for our wildlife if they’re left for another time. At this time of year, they are heaving with fruits, nuts and berries, so much better to give the hedge-cutters a rest just yet. In a short time, wild creatures have built their stores for winter, and you will have done a power of good by cooling your jets.
An important time of year for flora and fauna, the wild plants of our hedgerows don’t want their generosity to go unnoticed. Most berries are red or black making them easier for birds and mammals to spot. In general plants which haven’t shed their leaves produce red fruits while black berries stand out against bare foliage.
Garden birds are noticeable by their absence; they’re way too busy searching the hedgerows during harvest. Blackbirds, blue tits, great tits, starlings, song thrush, robins all depend on wild fruits. The seeds are often distributed far from the parent plant with a generous dollop of fertiliser for good measure in the circular cycles of nature.
Season to season, the delicate balance of our ecosystem plays out, each actor playing its part, the hedgerow a leading role.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.