The Hedgerow at Harvest Time

As the summer begins to turn to autumn, the plants in our hedgerows change in colour and a plentiful store of fruits ripens for both the residents and the visitors. The plants will soon die back, so the animals must prepare for the bleak months ahead.

An early hint of the change of season is given when the first autumn tints appear. The food-making work of the leaves is now nearly done, and the green chlorophyll is beginning to break down, revealing other pigments which have, until now. been masked. In some trees the green colour begins to fade from the edges of the leaves; in others the change begins in the leaf veins. In oak the pattern is less predictable, brown patches appearing at random over the leaf surface. Inside the joint where each leaf is connected to the stem, a thin layer of cork forms: this seals the veins, and sooner or later the leaf falls.

Autumn decay

In the Autumn hedgerow, the process does not stop there. The nutrients that the hedgerow plants have taken from the soil to build up complex substances will now be broken down and returned to the soil. This ensures that they will once again be available for the plants to utilise next spring.

Decomposition takes place in a variety of ways. Some plants and many fungi actually live on dead and decaying matter (including other plants): these are called saprophytes and play an important part in the breakdown of plant material. Many of the decomposing agents are invisible to the naked eye-the teeming millions of bacteria, for example. Others, such as some of the fungi including moulds, are more readily seen. White threads abound in the leaf litter: these are the spreading branches (hyphae) of fungi. Many species of fungi never appear above ground level, but remain in this thread-like form. Only some are able to put up the fruiting bodies that we know as mushrooms and toadstools.

Gathering the harvest

Although growth in the hedgerow is slowly coming to a halt, it is by no means a deserted place. Man and beast come for their spoils, searching out the fruits and berries which are the end product of the plant growth of previous months. For country folk the hedgerow was important in the past. It was a veritable treasure house: a source of food, drink, medicine, shelter, fuel and dyes.

So many hedgerow plants satisfied man’s needs that numerous superstitions have arisen. Of the hedgerow fruits, blackberries are particularly sought after by people and animals alike. According to tradition, however, it is unsafe to gather them after Michaelmas for that is the time the devil, as he was being kicked out of heaven, spat on the blackberry bush in his rage!

Today we collect blackberries by the basketful for pies, jams, jellies and wine: animals take them too, attracted by their sweetness. Wasps will be out on their final desperate hunt for food before the cold and damp kills them. Strong mandibles tear away the tough outer skin, exposing the juicy flesh underneath. This is an open invitation to many other invertebrates to take their fill. Various species of vinegar fly will eat from the damaged fruit; they share their harvest with bluebottles, greenbottles and drone flies. Red admiral and speckled wood butterflies can sometimes be seen taking the blackberry juice.

Other insects come for different reasons. The eggs laid by various insects in the bramble flower heads will now have hatched, providing hosts for the parasitic ichneumon wasps. The female ichneumon lays her eggs inside the bodies of the larvae. These eventually hatch, and the unfortunate hosts are literally eaten alive.

Fallen blackberries provide rich pickings for many mammal species. The bank vole and wood mouse take their share, and the badger also finds time on his nightly patrols to savour them. Dispersal of the seeds by these mammals and by birds is a way of ensuring that new plants will grow in other areas.

By mid-autumn the blackberries have lost their appeal, but are still attacked by moulds, which further assist in the decay process.

The white may blossoms-of the hawthorn have given way to red berries (haws) which are succulent and nutritious to birds, including those winter visiting members of the thrush family, the redwings and field fares.

Insects visiting the hedge for autumn fruits provide a meal for the opportunist spiders. Webs may look empty, but somewhere a spider waits for its prey. Those created by the orb web or garden spider are numerous and especially attractive. Other spiders produce hammock-like constructions beneath them for their prey. As an insect lands, the spider bursts into action, pouncing on its prey. All species use the same tactics for dealing with the prisoner. The fangs inject deadly poison into its body. Sometimes the prey may be eaten immediately; sometimes it may be wrapped in silken threads and stored away, to be devoured later.

Mammal beneficiaries

The autumn hedgerow harvest attracts small mammals: they collect more than they need, storing the excess for less prosperous times. The long-tailed field mouse, an inhabitant of the hedgerow normally resident in secret homes in the dense hedge bottom, takes a variety of nuts and berries, including hawthorn, wild rose, rowan and hazel. There is usually a plentiful supply of these in the hedge bottom, having been accidentally dropped by other hedgerow foragers. Should the need arise, however, the mice will climb up into the hedge to bite through stems holding berries. They may stay there to eat, perhaps using a disused bird’s nest as a table, and many an unoccupied blackbird or thrush nest bears witness to their autumnal feasts. At the bottom of the nest lies a debris formed of the shells of hazel nuts, nibbled acorns, empty seed cases and the flesh of haws, often marked with stains from elderberries.

Quarrelsome and noisy shrews make regular patrols. Small and constantly active, they need a continuous supply of food if they are to survive. The shrews maintain their patrols even when conditions become less favourable, and many of them die in severe weather. Since they and other mammals are abroad, their predators-the stoats, weasels and owls-are on their rounds too.

Preparing for winter

Among the mammals of the hedgerow is the hedgehog, which will be making its own arrangements for the coming months. Having selected a suitable site for its winter home, the hedgehog prepares the spot before retiring. Its nightly excursions become shorter and less frequent until it finally succumbs to sleep.

The squirrel, although perhaps less active for short spells, will be out and about during the autumn, preparing the many secret food stores which, in the winter, it will search out for sustenance.

Snails, which during the other months of the year have periodically sheltered in the hedge, now turn to it for a more permanent protection, as winter for them is a long inactive period. Sealing the mouth of their shell with a chalky plate (epiphragm), the snails find a resting place in the hedge bottom. Innumerable pupae of invertebrates, for example butterflies and moths, are suspended from the seemingly lifeless twigs, or hidden among the leaf litter at the base of the hedge.

Plants in autumn

Between five and six hundred plant species have been recorded in hedgerows, but it is unlikely that more than half of these will be found regularly. If, by the end of autumn the small plants have almost all died back to the ground, this is only a resting period. Beneath the soil seeds lie dormant, ready to spring to life when conditions are more favourable. Climbers, including bittersweet (woody nightshade). honeysuckle and white and black bryony, become conspicuous at this time of the year. Earlier they formed part of the dense jungle. But now their coloured fruits, containing seeds from which next year’s plants will grow, advertise their presence by standing out against the withering vegitation.

09. July 2017 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Wildlife, Woodlands | Tags: , , | Comments Off on The Hedgerow at Harvest Time


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