The Vikings have invaded again. They have come from Scandinavia, crossing 1200 miles in a potentially deadly journey, alighting at our shores ready to plunder once more. But these aren’t the fearsome warriors who have come looking to lay claim to land or steal Christian gold, they are in fact fieldfares and the treasure they seek are sweet, rich berries.
The large thrushes overwinter here in the UK, arriving from October. They could be mistaken for mistle thrushes but are slightly smaller and are identifiable due to their pale blue-grey heads, white bellies and yellow rings around their dark glass eyes.
Around 700,000 fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) come across the North Sea to winter in Britain from Norway and Sweden, however only two pairs are thought to breed here. The winters in Scandinavian countries are too harsh for the birds to cope with, so they choose the milder weather here in the British Isles, where they know they will still be able to find food.
In Sweden, the birds are known as ‘björktrast’, but the British common name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘feldware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. Handy advice really, because to find them, looking in fields is a good place to start. They enjoy open spaces, where they can spy insects or hedgerows around pastures where they pick off berries. Hawthorn is a particular favourite, the berries an important food source during the scarce winter.
Hawthorn has a long history as a plant which can help to protect your heart. Rich in antioxidants and minerals, it was thought to have been a staple in the diet of those in the Neolithic times. It has been recorded as the herb to strengthen your heart, as well as gastrointestinal issues, eating them raw or brewing them into a tea.* In fact hawthorn is one of the oldest known medicinal plants and was prescribed by the Ancient Greeks and Native Americans for those with heart problems. Here in the UK, the Celts also held the tree in high regard, linking the plant to luck and romance, believing that couples would fall in love beneath the trees’ canopy. Some people would place sprigs on their doors to bring love and luck into their households. At the festival of Beltane during the spring, hawthorn flowers would be used in decoration, to thank the gods for the offerings provided by the earth.
But spring and the delicate pink-white blossoms are far away and as the temperature drops in the UK, the berries of the hawthorn are already starting to dwindle. Thankfully, the ground is still soft enough to pluck fat, juicy earthworms from. When the weather does plummet and the ground becomes hard, fieldfares will flock into gardens, competing with the local sparrows, blackbirds and blue tits for the scraps laid out by human hands.
I have been taken to making own fat balls for my own garden visitors; seeds mixed with left over oils or fats and dried mealworms into reusable pots. I place them out on the table and leave the garden. When I return, the small pots are empty, only beak-shaped scrapings made at the bottom hint that there was once anything inside. And whilst many of the birds are not visible, the tell-tale shaking of the trees and bushes around me let me know that the residents are here and waiting for their next feed.
I wonder if I will be lucky enough to have a fieldfare grace my garden this winter. For now, the resident robin’s presence is enough.
*If you eat hawthorn berries, please be aware that the seeds are full of cyanide, like apple seeds, so spit them out and don’t swallow them!