Historic hawthorn heralds summer

The Bristol Naturalists’ Society is a partner of Avon Wildlife Trust, with members monitoring and recording wildlife trends in Avon and helping our conservation work and campaigning.

Soon the hedgerows of Avon will be bursting into the brilliant white blossom of an important, overlooked native species making them look as though they have been dusted in snow. Supporting mammals, birds and over 300 different insects, the Common Hawthorn of our hedgerows has many English names, such as May, Whitethorn, Quickthorn and Hoppety-haws, indicating a long history in our culture. Morris dancers often wear a sprig of the bloom in their hats to indicate the coming of summer.

Hawthorn is the food plant of many caterpillars such as the dark spotted, silvery Orchard Ermine, Common Emerald, Brimstone and the pretty brown and white Hawthorn moth, whose caterpillars feed communally in a silken web after initially mining the leaves. Meanwhile the rather majestic, red-brown and green Hawthorn Shield Bug’s main interest is the berries or ‘haws’ also much loved by birds in autumn. It is said that the flesh is like over-ripe avocado or whey cheese.

Whilst Blackbirds, Thrushes and winter visiting Fieldfares, for example, swallow the berry whole to digest the fleshly outer part and disperse the inner single seed which readily propagates, the Hawfinch has a massive, conical looking beak and powerful jaws to break open any such seeds including cherry stones to get to the nutritional kernel within. This bird’s jaw muscles can exert a force equivalent to around 48 kilograms or 105lbs - extraordinary for a seven-inch bird!

Hawthorn flowers in May with a heady fragrance, the blooms providing food for Dormice and important nectar and pollen for bumblebees, which need a reliable succession of plants in flower to sustain them. Bumblebees will often nest in the shade at the base of the hedge (full sun makes the nest too hot) often in tussocky grass finding the old holes of various rodents, such as the Woodmouse and Bank Vole (which also feed on Hawthorn) very much to their liking.

The strong, dense, hedgerow itself provides perfect nesting sites for many birds with the sharp spines and fresh green, deeply lobed leaves offering protection from predators. The rich brown plumage of the tiny Wren might be obscured, but its contrastingly huge voice and beautiful trilling song can regularly be heard emanating from there along with the much quieter, sweet song of the softly plumaged grey and brown Dunnock. The Dunnock may at first glance look like a boring little brown bird but look closer; its plumage is exquisite. You may even be lucky enough to see a male Whitethroat in his short dancing song-flight above the hawthorn before the he drops back into the deep cover it provides.

Left to its own devices Hawthorn can become a small tree, typically around 30 feet tall (45 feet maximum) with knobbly brown-grey, fissured bark but the sharp thorns make it a perfect species for stockades and thus, the plant of choice for hedges of all kinds. It becomes an impenetrable barrier, especially when ‘laid’ by utilising old country skills so Hawthorn was much used after the Enclosure Acts, mainly passed between 1750 and 1860, when commons and open countryside were appropriated by the wealthy and parcelled into rectangular fields.

The English Folk Lyric reflects the theme,

They hang the man and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

The Bristol Downs, once rough pasture used for grazing sheep, escaped this fate yet James Walter White wrote in his Bristol Flora, ‘In a favourable season, such as 1909’ ‘the view to be had from Observatory Hill, looking northwards over the Downs, dotted with masses of pearl and silver, will yield to few in beauty’. Postcards of the period record the sight. 

If you would like to learn more about identifying and monitoring our flora and fauna please contact secretary@bristolnats.org.uk

Photos:

Hawthorn Blossom and Berries © Lesley Cox
May Blossom on Clifton Downs (Postcard): Provided by Clive Lovatt