The Season: Autumn
Look up for
These pot-bellied birds like nothing more than a berry, so look to the bushes (in the countryside or otherwise) and identify them by their yellow-tipped tail. They visit from Scandinavia during autumn.
Flying in from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia, redwings love our British orchards and hedgerows. You might spy one in a garden or park.
The UK has lots of its own starlings that stay home all year round, but come winter they have to make space for their visiting cousins from chilly Eastern Europe. In fact, hundreds of thousands of starlings arrive and make camp, flocking in during October and November. They’re fond of the city so you will likely spot (or hear) some on your commute.
Migrating in flocks during September are all types of geese, as well as wader birds and swans. Wetlands, coastlines and estuaries are the places to hang out, but look up and you might see them flying over urban areas in that unmistakable and always impressive V-formation.
Look down for
It’s not all russet-coloured leaves and red berries – there’s a rainbow of autumn colour in hedgerows, woodland, grassland and even on the side of the road. If you’re hanging out in the latter, you might see red dead-nettle – it’s been around since March and could scoop the award for longest-flowering wildflower. And it’s hard to avoid the beautiful beast that is old man’s beard (a type of wild clematis). This vigorous climber makes itself known by its fluffy seed pods that explode forward and get tangled in other less lively plants, making it look as if they themselves have produced the burst of white bloom.
From the branches
Juniper Juniperus communis
Ancient, mystical and, these days, somewhat troubled, juniper is best known as the unmistakable backbone of gin. The female bushes sport the precious blue seed cones (we think of them as berries) that are fundamental to a decent gin, while the male bushes contribute the pollen essential for reproduction.
Sadly, British berries are almost universally bumped by gin distilleries for their Italian counterparts (quality and availability are to blame), but you can still pick them for the assertive punch they lend to sauces or even cakes. Alternatively, test out their magical reputation: juniper twigs have been considered to purify or protect a space, while in folk medicine the berries aid digestion, act as a diuretic and have even been used as a pick-me-up for horses.
Autumn and winter is best for berry harvesting. To find a bush head for the Scottish Highlands or England’s chalk downs in the south, or root around any native pine woodland, moor or heath in between, from Wiltshire to Cumbria. Just be aware that juniper is currently in decline, despite being one of Britain’s three native conifers (the yew and Scots pine make up the trio) and living here since the last Ice Age. To help its survival, plant your own baby bush in a bare, sunny spot with light or chalky soil – just be prepared to wait a few years for those blue gems.
Three more ripe for picking