Hedgerow larders full for winter feast

A cold winter a-comin’, after a pathetic summer?

If you believe the wild berries, that will be the case.

This autumn, they weigh down the branches. In the brief intervals of yellow September sunlight, hawthorn and rowan bushes stand bright and eye-catching in the hedges like clusters of exotic jewellery. Crab apple trees are festooned with yellow fruit. Blackthorns are black with sloes as big as dessert grapes and wild damsons, the size of garden plums.

They say the Great Creator provides for the creatures and this berry bonanza augurs a hard winter to come. My readers will have heard this adage many times before and I’ve written about it over the years without having ever reached a conclusion as to its currency.

Regarding the Creator’s munificence I have no doubt, but as to whether it is manifest in the prescient provision of hedgerow larders I am sceptical. Let us see what the winter brings; we will reserve our verdict until spring. But certainly, in this September the hedges are so laden with fruits, nuts and berries that, were we to avail of the bounty, we humans, too, could provide against the exigency of hard times in the months to come.

Presently, I can hardly walk a hundred yards of country road without the distraction of another feast beckoning me. The blackberries are so fat and luscious that it’s nigh impossible to make any headway. Having long since picked enough to provide vitamin-rich jam all winter, now we’re free to simply pick-and-eat before the crop is gone. Ripe berries don’t last long on the bushes and, with rain, they can quickly spoil. The fattest are deep in the briars, sheltered from the downpours, “big and dark . . . darkening the daytime” like DH Lawrence’s Bavarian Gentians.

This September, amidst the fecundity, I have been hearing of strange phenomenon in west Cork. A reader phoned me to say an albino swallow had been seen hawking with others over his land when silage grass was being cut. Albinism is a phenomenon encountered occasionally in warm-blooded creatures, as is melanism, where the skin, fur or feathers are dark. In the 1990s, I spotted a pure white curlew in a marsh near Kilbrittain in west Cork. I wrote about it in this column and, a week later, it ended up, stuffed and mounted, shot by a member of a local gun club. I was incensed about it at the time. Unfortunately, in the case of the swallow’s unusual plumage, which we humans may see as pretty will be life-threatening for the bird.

While swallows skimming the fields or rivers normally have the advantage of coloration to protect them from hawks, a white bird will be easily spotted. Soon, our swallows, migrating to Africa, will pass over the Mediterranean and the Straits of Gibraltar where Eleonora falcons will be waiting to snatch them out of the sky. These breed much later than other birds so as to synchronise with the migration which supplies an abundance of food for chicks.

Meantime, last week, a mystery was solved about the foundling heron we have been feeding. Our son, Fintan, spotted a magnificent adult heron atop the naked crown of a tree below the garden, while on a lower limb, the foundling, Ron, stood on one leg, neck hunched into his shoulders. As we watched through binoculars, a third heron alighted on a tree further down the hill. It was easy to see that it was a juvenile, about Ron’s age, although not quite as sleek as our well-fed adoptee.

Seeing the three together, we suddenly understood where Ron went during his absences, and what company he kept. The juvenile was, almost certainly, the bird which had twice followed him home, hoping to be adopted too, but had been promptly seen off the premises by Ron. The adult on the treetop was its parent — and, very likely, Ron’s parent too. All were, in fact, part of the family from the enormous pine tree under which we had found Ron on the first day. It was to join his real family that he regularly left us.

The three stayed on the high trees in the bright, September sunlight for most of that morning, sometimes preening, sometimes standing statuesquely still. Then, one after another they left — first the parent, then the juvenile, then Ron —all flying in the same direction, toward the sea.

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