Monthly wildlife column

A Redwing feasts on berries.
A Redwing feasts on berries.
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Lincolnshire Wildlife Trist’s Rachel Shaw writes about autumn’s natural harvest, berries.

It’s a tell-tale sign that the blackbirds have been eating blackberries when their droppings turn purple. Apparently in some places blackbirds and thrushes are eating so many berries that their droppings actually stain patios and occasionally clothes left hanging out to dry.

The mild, wet winter followed by the warm sunshine of spring and summer has resulted in an abundance of berries: elderberries, rosehips and sloes – as well as damsons, plums and apples. Hedgerows have turned red with hawthorn berries, blackthorn branches are adorned with bluish-bloomed black sloes, and on the coast the spiky buckthorn bushes are coloured orange with masses of berries.

While the fruit of blackberry, hawthorn, elder and rose are hopefully familiar to most, there are many more berries and fruits, some of which take a little more seeking out. Among the more scarce berry-bearing trees is the wild service tree, found in the woods of the south-west of Lincolnshire. Inconspicuous for much of the year, their white blossom in spring and crimson leaves in autumn give them away. The small fruits are reddish-brown and used to be sold as ‘chequers’. They are said to taste like dates once they are over-ripe.

Perhaps one of the most exotic looking berries of an English hedgerow is the spindle. The unusual fruit is a bright pink capsule that splits open to reveal an even brighter orange seed. Clusters of these bright pink and orange berries hang from its twigs. The berries of spindle are eaten by a variety of animals including mice, birds and even foxes but are poisonous to us.

Eating wild blackberries and collecting wild berries and fruit to make jams, jellies or wine is one of the delights of autumn, but should be done with caution as some are toxic to us. Never eat anything from the wild unless you are certain it is edible.

And never take the entire crop; always leave some berries on the tree for wildlife. Berries and fruits can be a real life saver for wildlife: migrating birds such as redwings and waxwings will feast on berries once they have arrived from northern Europe; mice and voles will fatten-up during this time of plenty before the onset of winter; even butterflies such as red admirals and painted ladies will feed on the juices of blackberries and other fruits.