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Foraging for a natural harvest in Autumn

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 October 2014 | UPDATED: 22:35 23 October 2015

Harvest mouse Photo: Richard Bowler

Harvest mouse Photo: Richard Bowler

Richard Bowler

As the leaves begin to turn, our hedgerows and forest floors become a gastronomic bounty. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall takes a culinary tour and investigates who might be joining us

Elderberries are a popular choice for cordials and even champagne. Photo: Alan PriceElderberries are a popular choice for cordials and even champagne. Photo: Alan Price

For the last few weeks and during those to come, trees and shrubs across the Cheshire fields, roadsides and gardens will be putting all their efforts into producing an array of fruits, nuts and berries ahead of the impending colder months. A vital part of Mother Nature’s seasonal story, this profusion of (mostly) edible delights can not only bolster our own menus, but those of the local wildlife too.

Generally produced by plants to encourage animals to help in the distribution of the next generation, seeds or nuts are often packaged in nutritious fruit pulps which are valued by dozens of creatures large and small, both to feast on now and as a reserve against the lean months of the coming winter. In some cases, these fruit and berry pulps may offer the some calorific content as a Mars Bar! It may not be topped in crumble or custard, but we’re certainly not the only ones who enjoy a fruit feast in October.

On the menu

The stunning and exotic-looking waxwing can be an early winter treat, when harsh arctic weather hits. Photo: Jon HawkinsThe stunning and exotic-looking waxwing can be an early winter treat, when harsh arctic weather hits. Photo: Jon Hawkins

The blackberry, fruit of the bramble (Rubus fruticosus), is our commonest wild fruit and for many, collecting blackberries is part of the autumn ritual in the countryside. Yet we shouldn’t take them for granted; they are a vital food source for many birds including migrants like blackcaps and rare barred warblers, as well as a range of mammals including wood mice, dormice and even foxes will who will delicately pick off the ripe fruit.

Where brambles hang over rivers and stream sides, it’s not unknown to find water voles reaching up to pick off the fruit as treat among their usual diet of grasses and nettles. For ourselves, as well as eating the fruit straight from the bush they can of course be made into puddings, pies and jams.

The rowan (Sorbus acuparia), or mountain ash, is a woodland tree, but the tree and its cultivars are often planted ornamentally in towns. Their clusters of small red berries are irresistible to winter-visiting fieldfares and redwings, along with our resident thrushes and blackbirds. The real treat however, comes in the unmistakeable and exotic-looking shape of the waxwing – a starling-sized Scandinavian visitor which periodically arrives in the UK in large numbers, sometimes as early in the winter as November when arctic blasts prevail further north. The berries are also edible to humans though, and can be made into a sharp jelly to serve with roast meats.

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a vigorous shrub, growing in hedgerows and woodland edges. In late spring it produces large flat masses of creamy white flowers, which can be eaten or used to make the ever-popular elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne, or even cooked as elderflower fritters. In the autumn these are replaced by the tiny purple-black berries which can be collected and made into a rich, red wine.

Blackthorn not only creates a snow-like white coat of spring flowers, but also autumn sloes ideal for home-made gins. Photo: Amy LewisBlackthorn not only creates a snow-like white coat of spring flowers, but also autumn sloes ideal for home-made gins. Photo: Amy Lewis

Rose-hips or ‘itchy coos’ from wild dog rose (Rosa canina) have a very high vitamin C content, so in the Second World War were collected to make into rose-hip syrup, as a food supplement. As well as the syrup, rose-hips can be used as a puree, with the seeds removed, or as an ingredient in hedgerow wines.

Blackthorn is another common hedgerow shrub, which produces the earliest blossom in spring, before its leaves appear. The berries, known as 
sloes, are like tiny plums, with a bluish bloom to the skin. They are highly astringent and sour to the point of being inedible.

However, they can be gathered to make sloe gin; made by pricking the sloes, placing in a bottle and covering with gin and a little sugar and leaving to mature for several months. Take care when gathering sloes, blackthorn is armed with ferocious spines over an inch long and very sharp. One of our most striking and enigmatic finches, the hawfinch, has been known to feast on desiccated sloes, but is more famous for its improbably powerful beak used for cracking cherry stones, when it applies a force of up to 500kN – around the equivalent of a human exerting 60 tonnes of pressure.

Feed the birds

When out harvesting wild fruit or nuts don’t pick everything you find, always leave plenty for birds and animals. These foods are vital for their survival into the winter, so don’t deprive them of this vital resource. Luckily for us, most wild fruits are produced in abundance, so there is plenty for all – but always 
ensure you have the landowner’s permission.

Only ever eat plants, berries, fruits and especially fungi, if you are sure you have identified them correctly. Some berries and fungi look wonderfully appetising but if eaten can make you very ill. Don’t assume a fruit is safe because you see birds eating them: birds’ digestion is different to ours and they can cope with berries that are toxic to humans.

Go nuts

The wild hazel (Corylus avellana) has a much smaller nut than cultivated varieties, so you will need to collect plenty. Squirrels use their teeth to crack the nut in half, while mice and voles all gnaw through the outer nut shell to reach the nutritious kernel within. Hazel thrives as part of the traditional ‘coppiced’ woodland regime which produces distinctive, mutli-stemmed trees, however the decline in this technique has also seen healthy hazel woods disappear, along with many of the species that rely on them.

One of Cheshire’s rarest residents, the dormouse or aptly named ‘hazel dormouse’ is one such discernible diner, and fortunately for hard-pressed dormouse researchers leaves a distinctive calling card of nibble marks across hazel nuts, giving conservationists a clear indication when they’ve been passing through an area.

Along with chestnuts, perhaps the most classic autumn wildlife bounty is acorns (Quercus), which provide a chance to spot the usually rather more secretive jay, a beautifully-coloured member of the crow family with easily overlooked iridescent wing feathers. For the sharp-eyed, it’s sometimes possible to see the bulging throat patches or ‘crops’ of jays as they cram as many acorns as possible into their mouths after visiting the richest collecting grounds – which may find a single jay collecting up to 5,000 acorns in a single season. Like squirrels, these are then buried, with some of course going on to grow into magnificent oaks.

Spread the love

When out harvesting wild fruit or nuts don’t pick everything you find, always leave plenty for birds and animals. These foods are vital for their survival into the winter, so don’t deprive them of this vital resource. Luckily for us, most wild fruits are produced in abundance, so there is plenty for all – but always ensure you have the landowner’s permission.

Only ever eat plants, berries, fruits and especially fungi, if you are sure you have identified them correctly. Some berries and fungi look wonderfully appetising but if eaten can make you very ill. Don’t assume a fruit is safe because you see birds eating them: birds’ digestion is different to ours and they can cope with berries that are toxic to humans.

Events

There’s a celebration of another fruit favourite, the apple, this October on the Wirral, along with a chance to experience the traditional woodland craft of coppicing too at Thornton Woods. For these, and other Wildlife Trust events this autumn, visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk or call 01948 820728 for a guide.

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