The grass in the fields is deep and plentiful after a mild autumn and the farmer who owns the sheep that graze our land looks on it with a little gleam in his eye. The grass only stops growing for a short window in the winter, but as soon as the weather cools we see the sheep making their impact. Eating faster than the grass can grow, the lap of lushness slowly diminishes, and the winter green of dormancy is with us.
The berries that have hung on to now bare branches are also subject to the falling temperatures. A frosty morning brings flurries of birds that strip a species successionally; dunnock, blackbird, goldfinch, song thrush, mistle thrush and fieldfare. The bead-like berries of Malus transitoria last just a fortnight before they are suddenly gone. One day a tree that has been shining with fruit will be stripped back in a frenzy and for no apparent reason one hawthorn will be targeted, but not another. Perhaps it is a ripening that needs to hit an optimum moment of nutrition or depth of colour or sweet perfume. We shadow the progress, noting a tree that is suddenly bare and that there is a rhythm and a staggering in the ripening to make sure the plenty is drawn out a while yet.
We leave cutting the hedges until the last scarlet rosehips are gone. This year they have hung on with just one cold snap and presumably the pressures of hunger being lighter. The last hips will make their way into the wreath for the front gate with orange Rosa soulieana, jet-black wild privet and berried ivy. The ivy berries are some of the last to ripen in the winter, holding on until the last few weeks of February, when you suddenly become aware of the chatter of feasting blackbirds.
This year the Malus hupehensis have hung on to their fruits for longer than usual and we have been grateful for their flare on the banks on bright sunny days. We have two forms. The small-fruited one from Great Dixter ripens early and is eminently digestible, so it was stripped of fruit back in October. Though I prefer it for its wilder feel, it is certainly better for the birds for being bite-sized. The fruits on the larger form are too big for the birds to pluck from the tree and only become palatable when they are bletted by frost and lose their shine and plumpness. When this finally happens after a freeze, the trees drop a dark skirt of fruits neatly under the orbit of their limbs. The fallen fruits last for no time at all, with a mostly invisible raid of birds and other furry critters rapidly leaving the grass green again and our winter one step closer to monochrome.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 16 December 2023