When we were visiting my mother recently I was amazed to see just how much food for wildlife the old hedge alongside her back garden was presenting to the mammals and birds and of course the odd late flying butterfly and wasp. This stretch of hedge was originally an old field boundary and it illustrates just how much damage to Mother Nature’s larder the destruction of our hedges by intensive style agriculture actually causes. Here we have a 20 yard stretch of mixed natives with an odd cultivated plant creeping in from the garden that is a veritable larder for all sorts of wildlife.
Think of hedgerow food for wildlife and the first fruit to come to mind will be the Bramble or Blackberry. This may be simply because we enjoy a tasty nibble of these glossy black gems ourselves. We might also think of Roses with their red fruit following on from their beautiful pink or white flowers. As children we may remember them as natural itching powder – remember the effects of popping a crushed hip down a friend’s jumper? Admit it! Humans have also long collected the hips of the wild roses to produce Rose Hip Syrup.
Rose Hips have long been enjoyed by humans as well as wildlife, being used for jams, jellies, marmalades, wine and tisanes. More recently it has been appreciated for its medicinal benefits in relation to alleviating the effects of arthritis, gradually displacing glucosamine. Our pets also appreciate them as apparently they are given to chinchillas and guinea pigs as a treat.
A couple of hedge row fruits are also favourites of foragers, the Sloe and the Crab Apple as we readily turn these into tasty winter warmers Sloe Gin and Crab Apple Jelly. In this little length of hedge we found a wild crab and a cultivated crab growing a few feet away from each other. Our birds and mammals probably view them as equally important sources of winter nutrition. They will not be concerned that one has been planted to delight my mother with its spring blossom and red autumn fruits.
One important food source for wildlife is a little black berry that clumps together in spheres but this will not be until later on in the winter. For now the Ivy is still in flower and these tiny green florets are just starting to become berries. The Ivy plant is a vital for wildlife throughout the whole year. It provides shelter for all sorts of creatures from the tiniest insect to the plump Wood Pigeons, nest sites for birds such as Wrens, Blackbirds, Song Thrush and Robins and again the Wood Pigeon. In winter the Ivy provides warmth and secret hiding places for all sorts of creatures.
Less useful for wildlife are the cultivated plants that make their way into the hedge but the local Blackbird population will not turn their beaks up at the tiny long tear drop berries of the Berberis.
In contrast the deep red berries hanging in full bunches on the Hawthorns will be appreciated by many birds both residents and winter migrants. Once the Redwings and Fieldfares arrive on the back of the cold wet storms of autumn they will soon disappear.
The hawthorn berries have a place to play in human lives as well as wildlife, perhaps not yet seen as important as rose hip but it is being researched at the moment in relation to heart functions. For centuries it has been a part of the cuisine in China. Interestingly the name haw, which is now used to mean the berries, was originally a name meaning “hedge”.
So this short section of hedge of native shrubs mixed with the odd garden specimen will soon become the favourite restaurant for our avian neighbours.