One of the most enjoyable end of summer/autumn activities is to forage for fruits along the hedgerows; swollen blue sloe berries, glittering, bead-like elderberries, vermilion rosehips and ripe blackberries. For me, blackberry picking is the highlight of the season – making crumbles and jam from something delicious and free is extremely satisfying!
It’s important to find the right spot for blackberry picking: countryside TV shows and magazines rave about foraging at this time of year, giving the impression that all of our hedgerows are bursting with fruits. This is not always the case; living in the midst of an agricultural matrix, many of the hedgerows I pass every day (including the ones on my lane) have been cut at the end of summer, yielding very few or no fruits. The hedgerow plants aren’t given the chance to flower next spring due to the harsh cutting of the flail trimmer: mature stems and developed buds have mostly been removed, meaning no flowers or fruits.
Closely cut hedgerows at the end of summer
The annual cutting of the entire hedge to exactly the same height is commonplace nowadays. Before the advent of mechanised cutting, hedgerow management was done by hand, with trimming and laying carried out annually, but not on every hedge every year: work was hard, took time and hedgerow resources were valued and used by the people of the countryside. Natural England recommends that hedges should be cut every 2-3 years to benefit wildlife. Alternate sides of the hedge could be cut each year, or hedges on a parcel of land could be cut on a rotation, ensuring there are always resources available for wildlife.
Two sides of elder in my hedge: one uncut, the other cut
Luckily, I managed to have one side of our hedge left uncut this year, so I can observe the differences between the two sides, and hopefully encourage more flowers and fruits. Some of the benefits are already visible: ripening elderberries and rosehips, as well as more branches suitable for perching and hiding in to benefit birds and overwintering insects.
Anyway, back to the blackberries:
Bramble or Rubus fruticosus is not classed as one single species, but around 320 microspecies with broadly similar characteristics. Different microspecies and individuals have different qualities: some have candy pink flowers, some bright white, some produce loads of big, juicy fruits, others smaller, less sweet ones.
It is thanks to the multitude of pollinating insects that the berries (or collection of drupelets) have developed from the sweet vanilla-smelling flowers that appeared earlier in the summer.
Male white tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) on bramble flowers
The patch that I have picked my blackberries on is the same patch I have been observing for my dissertation study about bees and areas of scrub. On warm days this summer, I have watched many types of bumblebee, as well as honeybees, hoverflies and butterflies feeding on the abundant flowers. The results of these symbioses are well fed insects, pollinated flowers and profusions of fruit.
The location is Charnwood Lodge, a National Nature Reserve managed by The Wildlife Trust in Leicestershire. Here, the bramble and gorse scrub encroaches onto the acid grassland habitats, so is controlled, but provides a multitude of opportunities for wildlife: warm, sheltered basking spots for lizards, nesting areas for chaffinches and other birds, territorial perches for green hairstreak butterflies and of course, nectar resources followed by fruit later in the season.
Before and after: Bramble flowers and fruits on the same patch
I wish the season for blackberry picking was longer, but more importantly, I wish there were more places to pick blackberries in my locality. If hedgerow management techniques were more considerate, this could be the case.
From the Second World War to the 1990’s, 121,000 km of hedgerows were destroyed as farming intensified and land use changed. 130 UK BAP species and many other species rely on hedgerows as an important habitat. Hedgerows of different shapes and sizes benefit different species, so a mixture of tightly structured and tall, overgrown hedges provides a diverse range of habitats.
In order for much of our wildlife to recover and thrive, hedgerows need to be correctly managed, treated as living things that grow and support a host of other species and not just static boundaries used to separate fields.
A mature, overgrown hedgerow, with hawthorn, blackthorn, ash, elder, goat willow, dog rose, bramble and elm