Country diary: My paean to the hawthorn, feeder of many

Allendale, Northumberland: In my garden, this small but generous tree is a vital winter food source to redwings, goldcrests, squirrels and mice

The garden looks monochrome in a pale grey mist, the hawthorn outside my kitchen window two-dimensional. A lone blackbird is up early to feed on the berries strung like beads along spiny branches. I hold my breath as a shadowy hare lopes along, and I can just make out the bouncing white rumps of two roe deer. Otherwise, everything is still.

As the day warms, the berries colour to a dull red and more birds arrive. At one time I count a fluster of seven blackbirds, wings flapping, tails dipping as they teeter on twig ends to snatch with pincering beaks. On other days there have been winter visitors from Europe, redwings and fieldfares, or our native plump wood pigeons flashing white neck patches, drawn by the haws that are rich in antioxidants.

This little tree is barely twice my height yet it feeds so many. A grey squirrel pauses to snack on its daily run along the dry stone wall. Heaps of chewed berries on the ground show where mice have fed. In spring, hawthorn leaves are the first to emerge in the valley, followed by blossoms, plentiful in nectar and pollen for bees and hoverflies.

Ice balls clinging to the hawthorn branches
Ice balls clinging to the hawthorn branches. Photograph: Susie White

Parties of long-tailed tits move restlessly between the garden trees, gathering other species of tits into their circus act. My little hawthorn is a favourite place to feed as they swing through it, picking off aphids, spiders, tiny insects and moth caterpillars. Today among the blackbirds there’s a goldcrest, and on the mossy stones below, a wren, as fast and slight as a blown leaf.

I’ve photographed the angular branches backlit by the west, when ice balls knock together against a pink sky, or lurid sunsets flame in late summer. In the flower borders, I find spiky seedlings, progeny to make a note of and transplant somewhere new in winter.

This then is my paean to the hawthorn. January is a good month to plant a bare-rooted tree, costing little, quick to establish while dormant. The blackbirds are joined by a song thrush, brown spots on its creamy white breast, and I’m struck by what a difference one small tree can make.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Susie White

The GuardianTramp

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