A combination of one of the warmest springs in the last 100 years and a wet and mild June has provided the perfect growing conditions for plants and there is currently a wonderful display of colour at Attenborough Nature Reserve.
The most noticeable as you walk around the Reserve at the moment are the flowers and
blackberries on the bramble. This familiar thorny shrub grows almost anywhere on the Reserve and can commonly be found in woodland, grassland and within the hedgerows. The white and pinkish flowers are literally covering the bushes and on sunny days attract a huge number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects.
Bramble is incredibly valuable for the wildlife at Attenborough. Not only do the flowers provide opportunities for pollinating insects, but the fruit provides food for mammals and birds – particularly during the autumn migration. The dense spiky bushes give valuable protection for nesting birds and also provides a habitat for a range of other small animals.
Whilst the blackberries are the most obvious fruit, a vast array of edible delights can be found around the Reserve including dewberry, elder, cherry, blackthorn, hawthorn and rose to name but a few
Incredibly some 400 micro-species of wild blackberry grow in the UK!
Following an abundance of flowers on the bramble this year it seems that we are going to be in for a bumper crop of blackberries! The fruit ripened some weeks earlier than we
would typically expect.
I have fond memories of foraging with my parents as a child. My mum in particular was a keen jam-maker and would have a large jam pan on the stove from late spring to autumn as different fruits became available. Blackberry season was always one of my favourite times of the year, and I possibly ate as many berries as I put in my ice-cream tub for the jam.
There is some evidence to suggest that trees and shrubs are fruiting up to three weeks earlier than they were 50 years ago, the result of global climate change. Although it would take many more years of data to confirm this, as an indication of just how far the seasons have come forward in the last 30 years, it would have been in the week before I went back to school after the summer holiday that we would head out to pick blackberries. In the last few years, I have taken my son out picking in the first week of the school holiday.
Wild foraging is certainly a great way to engage children in the wonders of the natural world. Whilst the blackberries are the most obvious fruit, a vast array of edible delights can be found around the Reserve including dewberry, elder, cherry, blackthorn, hawthorn and rose to name but a few. Most are wild set, but others such as crab apple, pear and plum serve as a reminder of the Reserve’s history within an agricultural landscape.
Whilst we do not discourage visitors from picking blackberries, we kindly ask that if you are going to go foraging on Nature Reserves such as Attenborough that you stick to the footpaths and do not trample the vegetation in order to get to the juiciest fruit. In 2011 we had a similarly early crop ofblackberries and the actions of blackberry pickers, trampling down the vegetation, led to a bird’s nest being uncovered – the chicks, unprotected by the prickly vegetation, were subsequently predated and died.
Please enjoy the wild harvest, but only pick what you know you will use/eat, leave some for the birds and other wildlife and finally only pick what you are certain is edible and that you have identified correctly.
TIM SEXTON, ATTENBOROUGH NATURE CENTRE.