Woodland Diary: Bramble, love or hate?

Bramble (Rubus frusticosus) is a point of contention. This is a common plant in gardens, alongside railway lines, in woodland and parks. Through the summer and into autumn ripe blackberries are a delicious and easy feed for humans and animals alike, the only price you pay is the odd nip from a thorn or a scratch to the tummy reaching for the highest bunch of all. The gobbling of blackberries by animals and their ultimate evacuation is one of the main ways the plant colonises new ground. In my family we have a dense lot of bramble at the back of the garden which, traditionally, my mother picks for fruit and freezes through the winter. Blackberries work wonderfully in pies, their bloody juices swamping the mixture of apples and sugar, colouring the innards a fantastic pink.

In the open and wild landscape of woodland bramble can be invasive, encroaching on grassland, rides and glades until wildflowers are shaded-out. A happy medium can be drawn by the technique of โ€˜scallopingโ€™ along pathways and rides or in glades. This can be achieved with a grass hook or slasher, or else with the petrol power of a brushcutter. By cutting messy semi-circles into the shrub layer the bramble is pushed back, but not completely, and hopefully wild flowers will thrive with the new light which reaches the soil. The biodiversity is improved all round. In the autumn we brushcut the woodland ride of Coxโ€™s Walk in Sydenham Hill Wood and the next day I accidentally flushed a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) which was feeding on insects in the newly cut scallop.

In the summer months bramble is a good place to spot butterflies. Comma (Polygonia c-album) and red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) can lay their eggs on bramble, and speckled wood (Parage aegaria) is commonly seen sunning its brown wings on a bramble leaf. Last year on Coxโ€™s Walk we found a dying purple hairstreak (Quercusia quercus) amongst bramble, a butterfly which is tied to oaks (hence its Latin name) and should really have been ferrying between the canopy above. Bramble is not a good sign for wildflowers in woodland because it points to nitrogen-rich soil which promotes common nettle (Urtica dioica) more than anything.

However, the problem with labelling plants as wholly good or bad was emphasised to me recently when a group of teenage volunteers were working in One Tree Hill to push back the bramble from the acid grassland patch. They did an excellent job and opened up a patch which will hopefully be reclaimed by a diverse array of acid grassland flora in the growing season. But as we enjoyed a break, we glimpsed a small mammal, possibly a wood mouse, but small enough to be a harvest mouse, climbing through the last line of bramble. The red bramble leaves were frost-covered. This beautiful mixture of ice and vibrant colouring, and the tiny creature escaping to safety made me wince at the thought: bramble, good or bad?

2 thoughts on “Woodland Diary: Bramble, love or hate?”

  1. Hi Daniel,
    No sycamore this time but bramble. This 0.8 acre bluebell wood I am working in is covered in bramble. I am aiming to uproot about a half of it this year before the bluebells start moving, which some are doing already. I think some should be left for bird nesting and protection from predators and larval food for certain moths. Have you had any experience of clearing bramble from woods? And what is your advice on this? I am hoping my work will benefit the bluebells, which must have been suppressed by the bramble over 25 years or so, when there was a dense carpet of the flowers. Hoping to get some historical info on wood from Tithe Award map.

    Best wishes


  2. Hi David,

    Sorry for slow reply. I think bramble is a tricky one. In urban areas it provides superb habitat for breeding birds (protects from intrusion by dogs and people) as well as foxes and hedgehogs. It’s also very good for invertebrates. But if there are bluebells or greater range of wildflowers that won’t fall prey to trampling from visitors (if there are many in this wood) then of course they are definitely worth reawakening and the bramble cutting back.

    Have you seen this Forestry Commission guidance on scalloping? It’s good for woodland rides. Bramble can be cut back on rotation of three years and then left to allow diversity of wild plants to prosper underneath.

    Click to access ewgs-on011-ride-mangt.pdf

    I think bramble should be seen as a friend, but it will need regular management to keep it back. Digging it out is probably the best option, but not easy!

    Best wishes,

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