Winter berries for birds

Bullace - M. D. Smith

Our Wild Learning Officer, Cathy Smith, explores the bounty and wonder of winter berries.

Frosted and lit by glancing winter sun, berries still hang like tiny red baubles in the hedges and gardens. It is fascinating to observe which remain in mid-winter and which birds select the remainder of the pickings. 

As we take stock of our gardens and plan for the new gardening year, it is worth considering adding fruiting trees and shrubs to your wish list. A wander past neighbouring gardens provides new inspiration and one of the best ways of understanding what will thrive in your local conditions. Bare-rooted trees and hedging plants sold in the winter can be purchased at a fraction of the price of their container-grown counterparts and give a head start to establish before any spring or summer drought.

There are so many more candidates for the wildlife berry garden. In his latest book ‘The Garden Jungle’, Dave Goulson includes his favourites, he reminds us that some of these plants are also attractive to pollinators or support leaf eating invertebrates. He has assembled the list simply by observing his own garden, something many of us can do. There is so much more to learn by quietly watching to see which delectable delights bring wildlife visitors flocking to our gardens, time well spent. 

There is a long list of berry-bearing options for gardeners, British Trust for Ornithology include one on their website. When stuck for choice, we recommend starting with the native varieties or select cultivated varieties with red rather than yellow or white berries.

Guelder rose - Karen Lloyd

Guelder rose - Karen Lloyd

Even this is not totally reliable everywhere. The native plant - guelder rose -viburnum opulus, despite having the most attractive translucent red berries, curiously is not the most popular food for birds in my garden. But elsewhere, blackbird, bullfinch and mistle thrush enjoy them. The flowers are great for insects.

Spindle - Philip Precey

Spindle - Philip Precey

Spindle,  Euonymus europaeus, has the most eye-catching yet poisonous pink fruits with bright orange seeds. The fleshy seed coverings, or arils, are high energy morsels particularly popular with robins as well as blackbirds and blackcaps. If you want to make a feature of it, there are garden varieties such as E. europaeus red cascade but the native variety is hard to beat, guaranteed to stop you in your tracks as you walk along the farm trails at our Foxburrow Farm reserve. If you grow broad beans, you might want to consider planting spindle a distance from your vegetable patch as it can host the black bean aphid. Don't let that put you off those, it's a fabulous little tree.

Where I live (writing in early January) the rose hips remain in the hedges - maybe the blackbirds in my garden are waiting for the frosts to soften them a little more. Dog roses scramble through a mixed native hedge creating a safe haven for nesting and wintering birds, with delicate pink flowers in the spring followed by red hips. Often cited as a good candidate for garden hedges, the garden variety Rosa rugosa, although laden with hips, is now listed as an invasive plant so best avoided. Several varieties of Cotoneaster, including C. horizonatalis have the same over-zealous nature.

Holly berries - Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Holly berries - Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Tradition has it that holly berries are used in seasonal decorations, but this year as in many previous years, the birds have taken every last one before I get to them. This year it was a flock of fieldfares enjoying the feast, whilst others report redwings enjoying them. The fieldfares also stripped the bullaces this autumn, yet last winter they held off until March to gorge themselves, so fruit selection doesn’t seem to be entirely consistent. Not with me, anyway!

Yew berries - Amy Lewis

Yew berries - Amy Lewis

Yew berries have also disappeared in my garden, but I missed noticing by whom. Famously poisonous, yew berries take some careful handling, greenfinches have worked it out, carefully removing the seed coating before benefiting from the seeds within.

Hawthorn berries - Philip Precey

Hawthorn berries - Philip Precey

Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna often constitutes half of the tree plants in mixed planted hedge, its spiny thorns meshing together to form a stock-proof hedge. A study published by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology clearly demonstrated the additional wildlife value of reducing the frequency of cutting hedges to every 3 years, with hawthorn and blackthorn producing 2½ times more blossom. Cutting back just 10cm less than in the previous year doubled the berry production. It is difficult to let my front hedge sprawl but instead I have left a hawthorn tree as a standard within the hedge line in my back garden. An interesting association with hawthorn is the tree bumble bee, Bombus hypnorum. First recorded in England in 2001 it has shown a preference for foraging amongst the blossom of hawthorn and blackthorn, and shows a strong urban association. It is also the bumble bee you are most likely to unexpectedly find in bird boxes. Simply to hear your hawthorn hum with bees in the spring makes it worth letting your hawthorn go a little wild.  

Frosted crab apples - C.H.Smith

Frosted crab apples - C. H. Smith

Here in my garden, the crab apple, Malus sylvestris fruits are still hanging on resiliently. From past experience it isn’t until the frosts descend that the blackbirds and fieldfares move in and when they do, they do so in earnest, well worth the wait. Greenfinch, robins and starlings have all been reported making use of this food supply. Crab apples can stand aloft within a hedge line but there are many good garden varieties which can planted as focal points. Red sentinel is sometimes referred to as a living bird table due to its prolific fruiting. For smaller gardens seek out some of the more compact varieties such as aptly named Jelly King which we chose for the barn garden at Foxburrow Farm, with the added prospect of making crab apple jelly.

There are so many more candidates for the wildlife berry garden and so much more to learn by quietly watching to see which delectable delights bring wildlife visitors flocking to our gardens, time well spent.