Elder berries – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

elderberiesAlthough there was some doubt about how good  the crop of rowan berries would be this year now they have ripened it looks as though  it will be a bumper one.   So it looks as though there will be plenty for the resident mistle  thrushes, blackbirds and song  thrushes to gorge themselves. That is before the large numbest of migrants from Scandinavia, the fieldfares and redwings, descend on them and finish the bulk of them.   Once the rowan  have gone these immigrant birds will move south to England or west to Ireland.    What we tend to forget is that whilst relatively large birds are taking  their fill other, smaller birds, will also take them, such as robins, blackcaps, bullfinches, blue tits and starlings.   Then there are the mammals from pine marten to mice that will take them so if you want any for yourself to make rowan jelly or rowan berry wine  then make sure you get there before the birds or mammals descend on them.

Rowan berries with their rich reddish/orange  colour are very conspicuous especially with such a rich crop as this year with the cascades of berries dropping from the trees.    They tend to make us forget that there are other berries around such as blackberries, many people in  the Highlands  call them brambles, as well as wild raspberries and sloes.   All these have their own roles to play in th general countryside as food for wildlife.   They have, for centuries, also played a role for ourselves for medicinal  purposes and for food let alone symbols for Clan Badge and Crests and County Flowers.  In contrast, one tree, perhaps a shrub would be a better word, is often overlooked because of its size and dark berries it is the elder and its elderberries.

Elder is one of the trees, another is the aspen, that is reputed to have been the wood used for the cross of Calvary.  Elder also has the reputation of being the tree used by Judas to hang himself.  The medicinal properties of all parts of the tree  are varied and bark, leaves and berries  are made into drinks, ointments, eye lotions and poultices.  Elderberry wine and elderberry tea area well known remedies for colds and flu.  The wine resembles port, and indeed it was found that the medicinal virtues of old red port in the late nineteenth century could be traced to the elderberry wine with which it was adulterated.     You can make  elderflower tea, elder syrup, elderflower champagne ( either alcoholic or non alcoholic!)  Elderflower wine is a common drink and  then, later in the year  is elderberry wine.   An excellent book for these recipes and some background information is “A Country Cup” by Wilma Paterson published in 1980 but available in  second hand book shops.

As for wildlife and the elder tree there are more birds at them than those at the rowan tree berries with 23 after the  elder berries and only 12 at the rowan berries.  Perhaps the smaller size of the elder berries make them easier  to manage for the smaller birds.   However, woodpigeon and collared  dove are on the elder list and not on the rowan list.   In contrast badger are reputed to prefer the trunks of elder to sharpen their claws and many badger setts have elder growing close by and you can readily see the scratch marks. This is nothing to do with the badgers liking the trees but  simply that it is likely to be the nearest tree because of the high nitrogen content.  This is why elder  also grow around old rabbit warrens because the rabbits’ droppings  enrich the nitrogen content of the soil.