Charlie our learning officer shares with us his experience of brambles, explaining how these prickly shrubs benefit wildlife great and small and why you might want to think twice about being too enthusiastic with your shears!
One hot summer a few years ago, I was helping with a bumblebee survey, using sweep nets to catch and identify bumblebees, and check for the presence of mites. Surveying and recording is a fantastic way to learn about nature and hone identification skills, and it’s also a lot of fun!
Our survey took us into different habitats that are perfect for pollinators. From meadows to roadside verges, from arable fields to wilder scrub sites. In some of these scrub areas, cow parsley and ivy bordered the edges, buddleia had taken hold inside... but brambles dominated the site. They grew over other plants, using their arching tendrils to take root and spread out.
It was on one particularly hot day that we ventured into a very bramble-filled area. The flowers were buzzing with pollinators enjoying the sunshine and nectar. I had made the poorly planned decision to wear shorts that day and got quite a few scratches from the thorns as I swept for bees. But worse than that, I was using the wrong kind of net: a fine mesh net rather than a more robust fabric sweep net. In theory, I was aiming for bees flying in the air above the bush, which shouldn’t have posed a problem, but as I let the end of the net fold over to trap the insects inside, the mesh kept getting caught on the thorns! Trying my best to retrieve the net without causing any rips, I inevitably accidentally opened the net - allowing the bees to escape and meaning I had to stay out longer in the heat to get a good sample from the area.
I should stress that I don’t hate brambles. Just this one bramble bush. Or perhaps I was just fed up in the heat, with my scratches and lack of identified bees. I was so fed up that I wrote a haiku… (that is a normal response, right?)
But, brambles ARE brilliant. They are successful in a variety of habitats and are important for invertebrates and other wildlife throughout the year. Their white or pink open flowers are nectar-rich and abundant in Summer, attracting a host of pollinators such as bumblebees, hoverflies, and butterflies. Going into Autumn, it’s a great time to appreciate brambles; with its sweet deep purple berries in abundance. Mammals such as foxes and dormice, and birds including robins and starlings, love to eat the fruits and help to disperse the seeds as a result. The blackberries are also food for moths and flies such as (one of my favourites) the noon fly (Mesembrina meridiana) who sup on overripe and fallen fruits. Leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) and the buff arches (Habrosyne pyritoides) moths. You may also notice the wriggly snake-like trails of Stigmella aurella, the leaf miner moth caterpillar that feeds on the inner mesophyll section of bramble leaves.
Brambles aren’t just good for food. Small mammals hibernate in the bushes during Winter. Birds such as wrens, robins, and thrushes nest amongst the thorns for protection in Spring. Spiders build webs to intercept invertebrates and long tailed tits use these spider webs, along with lichen and moss, to create comfy nests between the brambles. Even dead hollow stems provide tunnels for some species of solitary bee who lay their eggs in individual cells, where the larvae grow up before emerging and chewing their way out of the stem.
Even though brambles support so much life, they may be disregarded as a weed, appearing in gardens, growing aggressively and taking over paths and other plants. Their tangle of thick thorny stems sometimes snag clothes and can be painful to touch. As a result, brambles are occasionally zealously cut back when it’s not needed, cutting into food sources and removing habitats. Instead, in parts of The Royal Parks we are using brambles to the park’s advantage. Leaving them to grow around trees and standing dead wood prevents compaction of the ground allowing the trees to get plenty of water through the soil.
The next time you are on a walk, look out for trails in the leaves, insects feeding on overripe berries, or dead stems that might make good solitary bee egg laying sites. Take time to appreciate the brambles and the invertebrates that call it home. Maybe leave the blackberries for wildlife. And maybe have a go at writing your own nature-inspired haiku or poem too?
Charlie Linton, Mission: Invertebrate Learning Assistant
Photography: Charlie Linton, Alice Laughton & Chris O'Donovan