Berry Tasty

A BIRD'S-EVE view of Ireland just now finds the island ribboned with crimson berries: field after field marked out with blurry…

A BIRD'S-EVE view of Ireland just now finds the island ribboned with crimson berries: field after field marked out with blurry, blood-red banks of hips and haws. The great mass of fruit makes it seem impossible that the birds will get around to eating it all: billions of berries, picked off one by one. But they will, they will.

On our own patch, the blackbirds are spoiled for choice. When the sun clears the ridge these mornings, its ferocious light catches them sprawled across the big elder bush, sucking its panicles of the last, wine-dark drops.

They have already cleared whole thickets of blackcurrants, signed over to them in the progressive wilding of the acre. By evening, when I go out to cut logs for the stove, they have gulped down so many blackberries and haws from the hedge that they can scarcely stir themselves to dive out of sight.

A century ago, the blackbird was a scarce enough sight along the west coast: it is very much a bird of cover. But thickening and sprawling hedges have been joined by more and more gardens, with shrubs and small trees to make up the "woodland edge" where the blackbird feels at home.


Wild berries have been augmented by exotic, garden-centre species. Even I have succumbed, with a stand of pheasant berry (Leycesteria) and a rather strange, weeping tree of cotoneaster. Its flowers are visited, I was intrigued to see last spring, exclusively by wasps in search of nectar.

In suburban gardens on the north and east coasts, a cotoneaser bush outside the window can sometimes bring ravishing, closeup views, in late winter, of a little flock of waxwings from Scandinavia.

These crested and colourful birds, with red wing-patches and a yellow tip to the tail, breed in the northern forests and rely for their winter food on the berries of the rowan tree. A good summer produces a lot of young waxwings and plenty of berries, and only a few of the birds wander far enough to reach Ireland.

In the following autumn, however, with the waxwing population at a peak, the rowans may well crop poorly, and the pressure on food supply produces a much larger movement west sometimes an "irruption", as a sudden invasion of birds is called.

When waxwings arrive in Ireland late in the winter, the hillside rowans and the hedgerows have already been stripped by earlier migrants from the east, notably redwings and fieldfares. The bright-red cotoneaster berries of city parks and suburbs are a favourite substitute.

In "irruption" years, however, when thousands of birds are on the move, waxwing flocks may turn up almost anywhere - once, even at Old Head wood, on the Atlantic coast just north of me. But my cotoneaster tree will never keep its fruit for long enough: at this moment, a cock blackbird is bouncing on a branch and rolling berries into his gullet like lottery balls.

In Ireland, the vermilion fruits of the rowan (or mountain ash) along with those of holly, are import ant to all the thrushes especially, perhaps, to the mistle thrush, joined in winter by hundreds of migrants from northern Britain. Our own birds seem to be fairly sedentary, so it is likely they follow the behaviour recorded among the similarly settled mistle thrushes of central and southern England.

There, the adult birds actively defend a local berry supply throughout the winter. A pair of mistle thrushes, or sometimes a single bird, will pick out a big holly, well-laden with fruit, and drive other birds away from it from November right through to February. It would seem odd if the Irish "stormcocks" are any less assertive.

The berry of the yew is often overlooked in the autumn diet of the thrushes - not a round berry so much as a scarlet, fleshy little bell with a single seed as its clapper. The "bell" (or aril) is juicy and harmless, but the seed or at least its coating is, like the foliage of yew, quite poisonous. Red squirrels suck off the pulp of the berry, crack open the seed to eat its kernel, but throw the harmful husk away.

In his book Trees of Ireland, Charles Nelson also tells of watching birds feasting on the berries of the great, dark yews at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin: "On warm autumn afternoons I have watched blackbirds and thrushes happily plucking yew berries and then flapping about merrily drunk because the juicy fruits were so ripe that they had begun to ferment on the trees."

Of all the wild autumn berries, my own favourite (just to look at, it is violently purgative to eat) is the fruit of the little spindle tree, Euonymus europaeus. This grows most characteristically in limestone country, such as the Burren, where it is tucked away casually in hedgerows and hazel woods.

BUT one spindle tree - just one - grows here at Thallabawn. I found it 20 years ago, on the landward cliff behind the far lake, wedged in a crevice above blackthorn, hazel, and dark garlands of ivy.

It is watered from a peaty, rocky plateau above the sea - the very antithesis of a limey habitat, or so one would think. But the cliff gets its share of wind-blown, calciferous shell-sand from the shore: enough, perhaps, to lodge at the spindle's root and neutralise the acid. Anyway, here it is, leaning out from the rock, its branches at a level with the clifftop.

The flowers of the spindle are small and green, tucked into the axils of the leaves and pollinated during May and June by insignificant insects. But by October, the ovary has swelled into an elaborate four-lobed capsule in a deep, coral pink: the clusters of fruit the other morning had the sort of colour dreamed up for a debutante's lipstick, sultry and innocent all at once.

And then, in a week or two, the Iobes will split at the seams, revealing seeds of a brilliant orange. By that time the spindle's narrow leaves, if they are spared, will be a deep, carmine red - such loveliness, all alone on a windy cliff. But from now until December the west smoulders with colour - the right time to see it, as I tell you every autumn.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author