The DECEMBER Hedge
Mi na Nollaig
Our summer visitors such as warblers, the swallows and the cuckoo have migrated from the hedges, going to Africa, using the stars and earths magnetic field to guide them at night when they usually travel. Before leaving they feed a lot to build up reserves of up to twice their body weight to carry them through. Birds who stay must use the reduced daylight hours searching for food, blue tits feed for 85% of the daylight hours. Coal tits have stored away aphids, beechmast and slugs, rooks bury acorns. Great tits and blue tits rob the stores of other birds. If it snows they fluff up their feathers for extra insulation and dont waste energy seeking food. Flocks of sparrows and of wrens get together for warmth but also the young ones can learn where the best food sources are and many eyes are better than one pair for spying predators.
Rose hips, sloes and haws can be seen on the hedges. The mild winter means that the hips are too hard to eat, as there was no heavy frost to soften them, this effects birds dependent on them. Flocks of curlews land on the fields, I have seen two flocks of 30 already and heard often their cry. Look out for abandoned birds' nests which are now easy to see. Pigeon tracks he walks with his toes turned in. Small birds hop along, leaving parallel footprints.
BUSHES / TREES
Many roadside hedges here in Fingal were cut in early September so the supply of elderberries, sloes (from the blackthorn) and haws (from the hawthorn) is reduced. Holly berries, which the Mistle thrush loves, are plentiful. This bird gets its name from Mistletoe (Viscum album) which does not grow here, it is a parasite found in England in Apple trees and the mistle thrush propagates it.
Pruning December is a good month for pruning trees and shrubs. One way of maintaining lots of the leaves of native scrubs and trees in a small garden is to grow several of them as coppiced shrubs, if you do not have enough room for full grown specimens of large trees. This way you will get lots of caterpillars, leaf eaters and other resident creatures who need a supply of tender leaves later on. Cut them down to the ground in December, then they shoot up again the next spring.
It is good to plant new hedges now while the topsoil still retains some heat. Its good to put in some bonemeal with the bare-rooted bushes.
All hedge mammals get sleepy and spend much time in their nests and burrows but the hedgehog, bat and dormouse get torpid so that heart and pulse are so low that they need minimal energy to stay alive. Their temperature matches that outside, their fur and nest is insulation. Only the dormouse truly hibernates from October to April, bats and hedgehogs wake up occasionally to seek food. Bats are fragile, if they do not find enough insects during the search to replace the energy they have wasted, they may die. Look out for mammal paths along hedges, for badgers earthworks and slides, for pellets disgorged (spat out) by a roosting owl.
Frogs bury themselves away from the frost but do not freeze as some sugar in their blood is converted to glycerol, which works like antifreeze. Invertebrates such as butterflies (peacock and brimstone), some moths, bees, wasps and ladybirds that live more than a few months as adults also make antifreeze. Most invertebrate adults however have short life spans and have probably spent winter earlier on as eggs or chrysalisii.
On a grass verge beside a bottoms (meadow along a river) recently drained I found lots of button mushrooms, unfortunately too old to eat. The meadow has survived on the road verge! Fungus mycelium is in the soil all year but waits for the right temperature and moisture content to appear. In the leaf litter beside the hedge you may still find the shaggy inkcap, it feeds on decaying plant matter