Nuts and Berries

Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

As the trees drop their leaves and temperatures fall our wild spaces can begin to look a little barren at this time of year. You might wonder what birds and mammals eat, as insects tuck themselves away for the winter in leaf litter, log piles and amongst rocks.
The answer in many cases is nuts, seeds and berries; plucked from wild plants and even some of our more ornamental garden shrubs.

A Mast Year

Every 5-10 years trees in our native woodlands, mainly oak and beech, produce unusually high amounts of their seeds – known as a mast year. Perhaps you have noticed lots of acorns or the triangular beech nuts (known as mast) on the forest floor on a walk recently. Here in Hampshire, beech woodland is looking especially stunning as the leaves turn to shades of orange – so look out for mast when you visit.

Each year the amount of seeds produced by a tree varies hugely – sometimes it can be hard to find more than one conker or acorn, while other years they litter the floor of a woodland.

In years when production is low the birds, including jays, magpies and corvids, and mammals such as mice and squirrels, that depend on these nuts and seeds for high-calorie nutrition in winter, largely go hungry. In a mast year the food source is so abundant that they cannot possibly eat them all! This leaves lots of acorns, beech mast or pinecones, to germinate and renew our woodlands as well as lots of well-fed wildlife.

A splash of colour

Berries provide their own pop of colour in hedgerows, woodlands and gardens in winter. From the bright red of holly to the deep blue of sloes there is a berry of every hue out there. But some are better than others for wildlife.

One of the best sources of winter food for your garden wildlife is evergreen ivy. The autumn flowers give pollinators nectar until the end of the season, the thick leafy foliage provides shelter from the weather and predators and the berries, a dark bruised purple, are especially popular with thrushes and blackbirds.

If you have the space for a hedge in your garden then now is the perfect time to plant up small hedge trees like hawthorn, blackthorn and guelder rose. These three pretty, native species come alive with sprays of blossom in spring and are hung with calorie-rich berries in autumn and winter.

If you have limited space you could look at low-lying cotoneaster, whose red berries are favoured by robins and blackcaps.

blackbird on hawthorn

 Dawn Monrose