Winter can mean a struggle for wildlife to find food.
- Credit: Margaret Holland
Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy tells us about some of the winter berries which keep our birds and mammals fed
After the abundance of autumn, winter can seem rather like an empty cupboard. But despite the extra pressures of long nights and cold weather, our wildlife does have a few options to rely on during the leaner months – our winter berries.
When softer fruits like blackberries, raspberries and elderberries have all been gobbled up, there are a number of tougher berries up for grabs. They cling to our trees, bushes and climbers, barely moved by the wind, sleet and rain. Many are highly poisonous to humans, or just too sour to enjoy, yet they are often high in vitamins and calories, keeping our hardy winter wildlife powering on until spring.
The rowan is one of our most impressive trees during winter, shedding its leaves to reveal large clusters of orangey-red berries. With branches weighed down with fruit, these trees bring in droves of hungry birds including thrushes, blackbirds and most excitingly the exotic looking waxwings, which pay Britain a few scattered visits each winter.
Hawthorn too spends the winter covered with red berries, though less densely packed than the rowan. Like rowan, Hawthorn berries they are high in vitamin C and can be eaten by humans, though both are mostly cooked for jams and jellies rather than being eaten raw, when they often taste sour. The berries themselves are known as ‘haws’, and are likely to have given their name to the hawfinch, who will happily eat both the flesh and the seed. With its parrot-like beak, the hawfinch can merrily crack open some of the toughest pips and stones, and is particularly fond of cherries and plums.
Once the berries have fallen to the ground they can become food for other animals such as the wood and yellow-necked mice. Both species remain active during winter as they don’t hibernate, however they do spend more time underground, living off their stores.
It’s not just trees and bushes that are a valuable source of winter fodder; climbers like the honeysuckle can also offer their bounty. During the summer this trailing plant opens its long tubular flowers, emitting a strong fragrance to call in insects. But even once its valuable nectar source has dried up it benefits wildlife by bearing large, slightly translucent berries which are eaten by smaller birds, like the rare willow tit, marsh tit and the wonderfully rotund bullfinch.
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While many species feasting on our winter berries are used to a fruit-based diet there are also many which simply take advantage of the available food. The robin, for example, certainly prefers a good centipede or leatherjacket, but will happily make use of berries produced by trees like spindles, dogwoods or even hawthorns. The fruit of the spindle is a particularly unusual sight, looking rather like an alien spacecraft coming in to land. Bright pink and rather square, the ripened fruit eventually splits to reveal the four large orange seeds. Highly poisonous to humans, they are never the less greatly enjoyed by both birds and rodents, with even larger mammals like foxes being known to take a mouthful.
Sloes are potentially our best known winter berry, largely because of the popularity of homemade sloe gin. Large, dark and plump, sloes look like a tasty blueberry, yet take one bite into the bitter flesh and you’ll understand why bags of sugar are required to make these hedgerow treats palatable to humans. Winter wildlife however can’t afford to be so fussy and many birds and small mammals rely on the bountiful blackthorn bushes for their sour sloes.
One particular berry lover is so well known for its penchant that it was named after it – the mistle thrush. This large brown bird, its chest attractively speckled, can gulp down dozens of the highly poisonous mistletoe berries. This parasitic plant attaches itself to the branches of trees and shrubs, taking advantage of their rich supply of water and nutrients. Its pearl-like berries are slightly sticky, causing thrushes to wipe their mouths on the branch of whichever tree it has landed on, helping the plant to spread.
And yet the mistle thrush isn’t just a mistletoe specialist. In fact another name for this species was once the ‘holm thrush’ meaning holly thrush. Toxic to humans, holly berries are well sought after by our hungry winter song thrushes, fieldfares and redwings. Yet if a mistle thrush has found the festive tree first they’ll have little chance at the harvest, as he will defend a fruiting holly bush from all other would be diners. In fact even the thrush himself won’t be eating the berries. Not, that is, until he’s secured a mate and started nesting. The holly bush will provide for their offspring, which come earlier in the year than many other species.
One of the hardiest berries has to be that of the evergreen ivy. Ripening in winter, long after most other berry bearing plants, ivy berries grow in large dark clusters. Its laid back attitude to flowering is actually a great advantage to wildlife, producing an excellent source of nectar late in the summer season, when not much else is coming into bloom. Its late berries are also beneficial, giving hungry creatures a boost just as the months are seeming to drag. High in calories, one berry is thought to be the equivalent to a Mars bar, though undoubtedly not as tasty.
The winter larder is therefore not as empty as it seems. Yet with fewer mature hedgerows, trees or ivy covered buildings there is certainly less in the cupboards than there once was. By planting these species, and other native berry bearers, in our gardens, parks and at new developments we can provide food for our winter visitors. And who knows, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a flock of waxwings perched on top of your rowan, or a mistle thrush calling out its winter challenge from your holly bush. But whoever comes to visit, you can be sure they’ll be pleased to see a tasty red haw, or a plump ripe sloe, waiting for them despite the winter’s chill.