SOME people find autumn a bit depressing because it signals that summer is over and winter isn’t too far away, writes Dick Warner.
But it’s always been my favourite season. It often produces the most pleasant weather of the year and in the countryside there’s a sense of relaxed abundance. John Keats understood this when he wrote of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ in his ‘Ode to Autumn’.
The birds have mostly finished with the gruelling labour of the breeding season and have the time to exploit the fruitfulness to put on a bit of weight. The one exception is a pair of wood pigeons in my hedge which are trying to rear one last pair of chicks before the short days and the cold weather arrive.
I had to trim back some hawthorn in the same hedge the other day and when I went to dispose of the trimmings I discovered they were covered in newly ripened haws which were so intensely red that they looked artificial. It seemed a pity to waste them so I pulled off several clumps and dropped them into my hen run, where they were warmly received by the ladies in residence.
Haws are important to wildlife because they’re abundant, reasonably nutritious and, if they’re not eaten, they stay on the tree without rotting or dropping off right through until the New Year. I have watched a hen pheasant clambering around like a parrot in a snow covered hawthorn picking the berries and they’re a magnet for birds of the thrush family, both residents like song thrushes, mistle thrushes and blackbirds and winter visitors like fieldfares and redwings. They also feed quite a number of small mammals including squirrels and wood mice.
To the human palate they are a rather boring fruit — insipid and dry with very little flesh between the skin and the stone. There’s an old saying ‘When all fruit fails, welcome haws’, indicating they’re something of a last resort for foragers. However, you can make wine and jelly from them and Dr John Rutty recorded that they were sold in Dublin in the mid eighteenth century and eaten by the poor. Apparently they were once dried, ground into flour and baked to produce a substitute bread.
All this reminded me to go into the wood and check for hazelnuts. I have two kinds of hazel — a couple of cultivated fruiting cob nut trees and some ordinary wild hazels. Both had nuts on them, though the cob nuts were two or three times as big as the wild nuts, but they need a few more weeks before they’re ready to be picked and brought indoors for ripening.
There were also several kinds of fungi growing on the ground and from rotting wood. Some I recognised, others would have to be checked in the field guide. Autumn is high season for the mushroom gatherer, particularly for woodland species, so I must get my basket out.
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