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Nature's Calendar September (by Liz Sheppard)


Haw Berries

Haw Berries 


Hedgerow Highways and Byways

Donegal has some of the best mature hedgerows in the country. The network of tree-lined bushy hedges across many parts of the county are a vital nature reserve, providing homes for a huge variety of plant and animal life, and acting as highways for them to travel along. Where two habitats meet, you generally get the greatest variety of wildlife, and a good quality hedge is like a woodland border, where woodland species can mix with those that thrive in the surrounding grassland or arable fields.

Most of our hedges were planted between 1700 and 1850 when fields were being enclosed, but many “march ditches” and townland boundaries are much older, and some could be the remnants of the original wildwood. In general, the more tree and woody species that you can detect, the older the hedgerow.


The Berry Harvest

A good hedgerow is a well-organised food store for its wild customers. From early spring and on through the summer, the plants take it in turn to do their flowering, so that they can all share the services of the insect pollinators – an arrangement which also suits the insects very well. From the first flush of Blackthorn flowers in early April, the display unfolds through Hawthorn, Gorse, Cherry, Plum, Crabapple, Rowan, Elder, Guelder Rose, Honeysuckle, Wild Rose and Bramble. Then at this time of year most of these plants reach their fruiting period all together, just when bird populations are at their highest, and all need the fruit and berry feast to build them up for the winter. Human hedgerow harvesters will be thinking about Blackberry jam, Crabapple jelly, Elderberry wine – and maybe a bottle of Sloe gin to be nicely matured in time for Christmas.


Hedgerow Birdlife

Feeding, roosting and sheltering – a big majority of the songbird population spends much of its time in and around hedgerows, and one-third of all our breeding birds nest in them. Different types and heights of hedge suit different species. For example, Chaffinches and Greenfinches like to nest well above ground level, while Wrens, Robins and Dunnocks are happier lower down.

Two less common species which are found along tall tree-lined hedgerows are the Bullfinch and Long-tailed Tit. Bullfinches get their name from their thick bull-like neck. The male has a beautiful rose-pink breast while the female’s is pinkish-tan, and both have very striking black caps. They’re very fond of all types of fruit buds. Long-tailed Tits usually move around in flocks, often detected by their high-pitched twittering. They are remarkably tame and if you stand in close to the hedge, they can come down to within a few feet. Delightful little feathery balls in pink, black and white, with extremely long tails, they used to be known as “flying spoons”.


Ideal Hedgehog Habitat

Hedgehogs are well named, for the tangle of vegetation beneath an old hedge is their ideal habitat. During their solitary winter hibernation they curl up in a thick blanket of many layers of leaves, deep in the undergrowth, or maybe down a rabbit hole. Body temperature drops to 4 degrees, and they slowly use up their store of body-fat over as long as five months. On warmer days they can waken up and slip out for a quick bite, but in a very long hard winter, many of them don’t survive. Their solitary lifestyle continues during the summer, for once they’ve mated, the pair go their separate ways and the female raises the family single-handed.

Hedgehogs have primitive bodies and small brains, and have changed very little in 15 million years. They never developed complicated family groups or set up territories to defend, because they never needed to. The big secret of their success is their amazing coat of armour. When a Hedgehog rolls up into a defensive prickly ball, there’s not a chink to be seen. It can point the inch-long spines in different directions, over 5000 of them, to create something like a layer of barbed wire. Most would-be predators wisely leave them alone.

It’s well worth making your garden as hedgehog-friendly as possible, for you will certainly benefit from their slug-controlling services. As well as some long grass and undergrowth, a semi-permanent pile of logs and leaves and garden waste makes a good spot for hibernating. Avoid pesticides and slug pellets, for these can spread their poison on through the food chain. And if you have a deep-sided pond or cattle grid, make sure that you provide an emergency exit, for many Hedgehogs fall in and drown or starve to death. A sloping plank or wire mesh is all that’s needed to help them escape.


Four to Find this Month:

Honeysuckle: This has two main flowering periods, in June and September, so this month you can find big spreads of both flowers and berries. Also known as Woodbine, it climbs and twines around other plants for up to seven metres.

Harvestman: With eight wiry legs up to two inches long, a Harvestman is perfectly adapted for moving among long blades of grass and other vegetation. The second pair of legs act as feelers, and the tiny body can travel along at quite a speed, suspended and braced by several legs at a time.

Chestnut Tree with Conkers: Horse Chestnut trees are not terribly common, but are easily recognised by their distinctive fan-shaped leaves and showy “candles” of flowers in spring. At this time of year the beautiful shiny conkers are the big attraction.

Gannet: With six-foot wingdiv, jet black wing-tips and creamy yellow head, these spectacular seabirds are regularly flying past close to the shore on their long fishing trips. They are famous for their headlong dives when they come across a large shoal of fish.

An Action of the County Donegal Heritage Plan