How to… Make the Most of Autumn’s Bounty

Leaves rustling beneath my feet, golden, russet, auburn. Crisp, dewy mornings, adorned with misty tendrils and spider’s webs. Hedgerows hung with bright berries, and woodlands dotted with fantastical fungi. Cosy nights in, whilst the night comes alive with Tawnys and foraging mammals. Lazily buzzing insects, murmurations, Red Kites soaring, waders and wildfowl, and endless wonder.

Autumn means different things to different people, but it is deep rooted in the natural world around us. A season of reflection and change, it is the favourite season of many. Some people celebrate turning a new leaf, some the drop in temperature and cosiness that comes with it, some the festivities, and others celebrate the little things, from migrating birds to reconnecting with nature. To all though, it is a bountiful season, marked with plentiful food and the first whispers of winter.

Historically, autumn is associated with harvest time and bringing in the food of the land before winter. From corn dolls to harvest festivals, autumn is symbolic in British tradition and culture. It has been inspiration for poets and writers alike including Keats (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’) and Jane Austen (‘the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn’). It is an important time of year to check in with the status of wildlife, whilst also being a time of spiritual significance for many.

As temperatures begin to drop and the leaves begin to change, it is time for us all to get out there, watch amazing sunrises and sunsets, forage for food, and stay connected with mother nature. With autumn being deep rooted in what lays outside our doors, here’s a guide to just some of the important species flourishing in autumn.

Autumn Species

Unless you are 100% sure of what something is and if it is edible, then do not eat it! Also, harvest only what you need and leave the rest for wildlife!

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

  • Fruit: The popular hazelnut, an edible nut that begins with a thick-green husk, before ripening to a brown in autumn
  • For Wildlife: A favourite food of Grey Squirrels, Dormice and Wood Mice, amongst other species, often being cached for winter
  • How to Identify: Circular-shaped leaves with toothed edges and tapering to a point; coppery brown smooth to peeling bark; lemon-yellow catkins and tiny red bud-like flowers in spring
  • Autumn Facts: Until the First World War, Holy Cross Day on the 14th September was traditionally a school holiday, where children would go nut gathering

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

  • Fruit: The familiar edible blackberry that begins green, then turns red, before ripening to purple-black in autumn. Blackberry picking is a favourite part of autumn for many!
  • For Wildlife: The berries are a valuable food source for mammals, such as badgers, and small birds, such as Blackcaps
  • How to Identify: Oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges and tapering to a point; prickly and half-evergreen stems; white or pink flowers from spring onwards
  • Autumn Facts: Folklore in Britain dictates that blackberries should not be picked after Old Michaelmas Day (11th October), as the Devil has by then made them unfit to eat


Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

  • Fruit: Hawthorn berries, sometimes known as haws, are edible but their single seed is toxic to humans. They ripen to a bright red, is likened to over-ripe apples in taste, and are used to make jams, jellies and wines
  • For Wildlife: Important source of food during autumn and winter for small mammals and birds, including Blackbirds and Redwings
  • How to Identify: Shiny leaves that are oval-shaped with deeply cut lobes; thorny stems and twigs; white fragant flowers with 5 petals fading to pink
  • Autumn Facts: One of the main uses of Hawthorn is to treat high blood pressure, widening blood vessels and increasing blood flow 

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

  • Fruit: Produces edible, but tongue-numbing, sloes which are small blackish plums with a bluish powdery surface. Popular to flavour gin!
  • For Wildlife: A feast for birds in autumn and winter that help to disperse the plant’s seeds
  • How to identify: Oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges and tapering to a point; blackish, thorny stems and twigs; snow-white and 5-petalled flowers with red-tipped anthers in the centre
  • Autumn Facts: Sloes are rich in vitamin C and have been used to treat stomach disorders, blood purification, teeth whitening, and even gum problems


Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur)

  • Fruit: Produces the familiar acorn, with scaly cups and clusters carried on long stalks. Contain tannins that are toxic and bitter to humans, but can be leached out to make edible
  • For Wildlife: An important rich source of food for species such as Jays, Mice, Squirrels and Badgers, often being cached for winter
  • How to Identify: Large, oblong leaves, broader at the base and lobed, turning brown in autumn; massive rugged grey-brown trunk and broad crown; yellow-green catkins in spring
  • Autumn Facts: The most important texts in British history, such as the Magna Carta, were written in Oak gall ink

Apple (Malus domestica)

  • Fruit: Though not native to the UK, domestic Apple trees produce the popular apple which is now cultivated across the globe
  • For Wildlife: Apples are not just for humans, being a popular food source for wildlife too. Birds, such as Thrushes, and mammals, such as Badgers, feast on the fallen and ripening fruit
  • How to Identify: Dark green and typically oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges, and hair underneath; flowers are five-petalled and pink to white in colour
  • Autumn Facts: Most apples are still picked by hand and the world’s top apple producers are China, United States, Turkey, Poland and Italy


Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

  • Fruit: Berries known as hips, that are edible, egg-shaped and bright red. Popularly used for a wide range of food and drink
  • For Wildlife: The hips are eaten by fruit-eating birds, such as Fieldfare and Waxwings, and small mammals, such as Bank Voles
  • How to identify: Dark green and oval-shaped with toothed edges and tapering to a point; arching stems with broad-based strongly hooked prickles; flat and fragrant white or pale pink flowers with large petals and hairless stalks
  • Autumn Facts: It is a valuable medicinal plant, with the hips being made into a vitamin C rich syrup for children (20 times the amount that is in orange juice)

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

  • Fruit: Juicy edible purplish-black berries, known as elderberries, that are used to make a variety of wines, juices, jams and jellies
  • For Wildlife: The berries are eaten by both birds and small mammals, from Whitethroats to Dormice
  • How to identify: Long, dark green oval-shaped leaves with finely toothed edges and tapering to a point; strong smelling bark that is corky and fissured; white, small and fragrant flowers in flat-topped clusters
  • Autumn Facts: One of the most commonly used medicinal plants across the world, from Native Americans using it to treat infections to the Egyptians using it to improve their complexions and heal burns


Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

  • Fruit: Spindle berries are toxic to humans, with a laxative effect. They are highly distinctive, with 4-lobes and being bright coral-pink
  • For Wildlife: Provide food for a variety of species including mice, birds and even Foxes
  • How to Identify: Shiny oval-shaped leaves with finely toothed edges and tapering to a point that turn distinctively pinkish-red in autumn; deep green 4-sided twigs darkening with age; greenish-white 4-petalled flowers in clusters
  • Autumn Facts: Spindle is at its best and most colourful during autumn with warm leaves and berries

Breeding Barn Owls 2020

Feathers fluffy, downy, soft to the touch. A heart of feathers outlining inquisitive eyes. A new beginning, hints of the precious adult to come. A hope, a prayer, a future. An endearing beginning for the reticent guardian of twilight – Original Piece

As a very unusual summer comes to an end, with it also comes the end of another breeding season for the Barn Owls that call my family’s farm home. For many years now, Barn Owls have increasingly become an important species on the farm, giving an indication of habitat quality and changes in the environment.

Last year the Owls had their best year yet, with two separate pairs on the farm, one nesting in a tree and one in a nest box, fledging two chicks each. It was also the start of Barn Owl chicks being ringed on the farm, which was very exciting for us all. If you want to read more about these Barn Owls, take a look at my previous posts, including Barn Owls in the Depths of Dorset, and Barmy about Barn Owls.

This Year

This year has been another year filled with the joys of this species. From sightings around the farm throughout the seasons, to fledged chicks during the summer, it has been really special. This year we were not lucky enough to have 2 known pairs breed again on the farm, but we were lucky enough to have 1 pair breed in our Barn Owl nest box. In the end the pair hatched 4 chicks, with 2 surviving to successfully fledge in August, which was exciting nonetheless. Though no Barn Owls have bred in the old oak tree this year, it has also been actively used, becoming a popular roosting site for one or more individuals.

Conservation Action and the Barn Owl chicks

Following our Barn Owl chicks being ringed last year, I have now joined the North Dorset-based Conservation Action group, becoming a trainee bird ringer. Conservation Action is a group of experienced ornithologists and BTO trained ringers, dedicated to conserving and preserving the natural environment, ringing bird species to increase knowledge, and raising awareness of conservation efforts in younger generations. Focuses range from migrating species in Autumn to Owls and my favourites, the birds of prey.

Last year Conservation Action monitored a total of 47 Barn Owl nest boxes across Dorset, leading to 66 Barns Owls being successfully ringed (63 owlets and 3 adults). It was a great year for Barn Owls and Conservation Action alike!

Now a member of Conservation Action and a trainee bird ringer, this year I was very excited at the prospect of Barn Owls breeding once again on our land. For this breeding season I got the opportunity to become an accredited agent under a Schedule 1 Permit, meaning that I was fully licensed to assist with Barn Owl nest box checks and monitoring, including our very own box. So it was an absolute privilege to be able to ring, under supervision, my very own 2 Barn Owl chicks this year. Such incredible birds and such a special experience, which was made all the better by getting to experience it alongside my parents and 2 year old niece!

Their Importance

Barn Owls are one important indicator species for farmland and grassland in Britain, meaning that they can tell us a lot about the condition of these habitats. With Barn Owls having made a comeback to my family’s farmland, it has also shown how changes to land management can restore and create habitat for wildlife, including for other species with related habitat needs (for more information see my post Giving Nature a Home on the Farm).

Barn Owls have also helped me to find out more about the small mammal species living on our land. This has been through dissecting pellets left by the owls, that I have previously written about in my post: How to… Be a Barn Owl Pellet Detective. For example, pellets from the roost tree have shown remains belonging to Bank Voles, Field Voles, Common Shrews, and Brown Rats, whereas pellets from the nest box barn have shown remains belonging to Field Voles, Bank Voles, Common Shrews, Pygmy Shrews, and Mice.

Moving Forward

After this year’s Barn Owl breeding season, and the excitement of Barn Owls continuing to breed on the farm, things are looking exciting for the future! It will be interesting though, to see how Barn Owls fared across Dorset and the UK this year as a whole, and to see if the farm’s 1 breeding pair followed the general trend. I also look forward to now getting more involved in monitoring Barn Owls in Dorset, spreading word of the work Conservation Action are doing, and the potential of ringing more of my own Barn Owls next year!

On the farm we now aim to continue working with Barn Owls and other wildlife in mind, and to monitor the success of new projects, including putting up nest boxes for Kestrels, Tawny Owls and Little Owls. In many ways the future looks bright to me!