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 ‘scalloping’ 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 Cox’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 Cox’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?
By the Wisła the sun shone into my eyes, the great white bulb had me remove my winter coat. Wawel castle rested on the hill, overlooking the swoop of the river. I had been here in the thirty-degree heat of a Polish summer, Krakówians hiding in the shade of a tree on the riverbank. Now no one sat on the bank and my companion grimaced at the suggestion. The sound of footfall ricocheted from the medieval wall surrounding the castle as people walked briskly in the chill afternoon. The river gleamed beyond the slope of grass and winding paths filed by intermittent cyclists, their chains clicking.
From over the bank the silhouette of a large butterfly appeared in the ball of the sun, beating its wings against the cold. The insect flew over my head, its red and white bars flashing translucent from the glare. A red admiral. Mired in a deep, uncomfortable silence, the butterfly brought me back to life. Vanessa atalanta is common, and I’m glad to experience its dynamic coverage, to meet it there and then, when the thought of wildlife was far from my mind. This is a butterfly that tends to cross the channel to reach Britain from the Mediterranean and over vast tracts of land to appear in Poland. It hibernates in the south of England sometimes, with surviving individuals reappearing in March or April. Some red admirals linger until as late as December in milder winters.
A few hours later I stood on Karmelicka waiting for a taxi, the sun already set behind the buildings crouching around Kraków’s market square, the largest in the world. The red brakelight of a tram blurred in the new darkness. Krakówians were moving across the roads and broadly paved streets. The loop of ash, oak and lime which buffers the city’s heart had grown deeper and dark. Above the movement of electric lights the gloaming was purplish, accentuated by a channel of calling corvids. The jak-jaking of jackdaws cracked the noise of engines and voices. The birds were flocking in vast numbers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, en route to their nightly roost in a nearby park. A few pairs splintered from the gushing movement and disappeared onto the rooftops. The number of birds was so large and so constant, it was as if they were being drawn into a vortex from which they would not be returning from tomorrow.
Earlier I had watched with surprise at how these birds pulled worms from the sloping banks near the busy underpass leading to the train station, Kraków Główny. A pair had remained perfectly content with the humans but five-feet from them without a hint of anxiety. I thought back to the same birds I had lived alongside in Dorset. They would drag themselves to the wing with little encouragement, a glance from a watery blue eye. In Kraków, as we prepared to leave the grand old city, I felt the heavy blow of the flocking birds.