Saturday, 14 October 2017

a hard winter?

Most people will be familiar with the adage that a profusion of holly berries in autumn portends a hard winter. It’s nonsense, of course, but given that not only holly trees but also hawthorns are carrying massive quantities of bright red berries this year, it will be possible to evaluate the validity of this claim during the coming winter.

Clearly, there must be a reason for this phenomenon, but providing a food supply for the local bird population in advance implies some kind of conscious agency and can therefore be dismissed as a plausible cause for the greater than usual yield of berries. The real reasons for the bumper yield this year are the warmest spring in more than 300 years and a wetter than usual summer. Severe frosts in March and April kill off many of a tree’s flowers, and more flowers drop off in summer if it is too dry. However, in the last few days, hawthorn berries have begun to shrivel and are thus unlikely to be available as food when winter arrives. Although the profusion of berries, whatever the species, will have been the result of the same unusual weather conditions, only holly berries will be available as food in the depths of winter, which may be one reason for the erroneous belief that such profusion is the harbinger of a colder than usual winter.

Holly is the only common broadleaf tree in England that is not deciduous. In fact, holly has probably been associated with winter since pagan times because of this feature, and its red berries and unusually spiky leaves make it possible that it was believed to possess magical properties. The association of holly with winter was reinforced in more modern times with the introduction of Christmas cards in the mid-nineteenth century, and the sentimental juxtaposition of holly, snow and robin is still a popular motif for such cards. This association may even be the origin of the belief that the berries have been put there solely for the benefit of birds.

Here are two photos of hollies taken in the last few days. The first is of a holly in Castle Park; I took the second photo on Beacon Edge:

As I mentioned above, the local hawthorns, which are much more common than hollies, are also plastered with berries this year. Here are four recent photos; they could have been taken almost anywhere around Penrith:

Finally, here are two pictures of unidentified ornamental species. The first is of a tree next to the main railway line at the top of Brunswick Road; the second is of a bush at the entrance to a private house on Carleton Road:

Whatever the explanation for this year’s bumper crop of berries, and whether or not the coming winter is unusually severe, the local avian population will be well supplied with food.


  1. Hope that this will attract more birds hanging around longer in UK...

    1. I don’t think we want to attract more birds. Just make sure there’s enough for the existing populations.


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