Bramble, briar, thorn-bush, blackberry, Rubus fruticosus; all names for a widespread and vigorous plant with arching stems coated in needle-sharp thorns whose success as a species has brought it into regular conflict with gardeners and conservationists alike. This is a very familiar plant that grows in almost every habitat from coastal cliffs to city centers, its ability to grow incredibly fast in shade or sun and in all directions via underground suckers and by rooting its many bowing stems can make it the dominant plant in an area if left unchecked. It may be spiky and very difficult to remove from where it is not wanted, yet the humble bramble more than makes up for the trouble it causes by supporting a vast range of other wildlife in its tangled thickets.
As a volunteer ranger at a local country park, I am very familiar with the painful thorns of the bramble and also how invasive it can be – particularly in early successional habitats like heathlands where it will swamp the heather if left to itself. It can be a (literal) pain to keep at bay and there are undoubtedly some habitats where it needs to be controlled; meadows, heaths and dunes for example. But most of the time bramble is very welcome as it offers shelter and sustenance to many insects, birds and mammals throughout the year, it is well worth keeping a patch of it in your garden.
From a structural perspective, the thick, intertwined and often impenetrable bushes of bramble are perfect as shelter or a nesting site for many animals. Birds such as thrushes, robins, long-tailed tits, finches, warblers and nightingales will regularly nest either on the ground within a thicket or amongst the dense stems – the thorns and thick foliage protect the nests from predators quite effectively. Birds will also use brambles outside of the breeding season as roost sites during the winter, woodcock especially are known to spend the day hunched up in the leaf litter within a thorn-bush.
Brambles can even protect other plants, although they can shade out ground flora when they cover large areas they do also act as nurseries for tree saplings which can safely spend their delicate first years of growth safe from browsers amongst the brambles. Brambles aren’t immune to browsing themselves though, their tender young shoots are often gobbled up by deer before the thorns harden, and if the deer are at a high density they can severely effect a bramble population.
It is at this time of year, in midsummer, when one of the more obvious benefits of bramble becomes very apparent. Being a member of the rose family, brambles produce large numbers of pretty 5-petaled open flowers, usually white or pink in colour, all at the same time. This glut of easily accessible pollen and nectar is a great boon to insects of all kinds, I recently came across a flowering thicket literally swarming, nay, thronging with honey bees, bumblebees, hoverflies, wasps and small beetles and even the Meadow Brown butterflies that like to stick close to the ground ventured upwards to taste the feast of flowers.
The result of all these flowers is, of course, a crop of succulent blackberries in early autumn – eagerly awaited by human and wild creature alike. Foxes, badgers, mice, shrews, birds and insects all feast on the berries with aplomb and this abundance of food is once again of great importance to wild creatures who are beginning to prepare for the winter ahead. Obviously, we humans love them too and if you don’t care about the wildlife benefits of keeping bramble about then I am sure the prospect of blackberry jam or apple and blackberry pie will do the trick – after all we humans have been eating blackberries since the Neolithic period at least.
Apart from the obvious food sources of flowers and berries that bramble provides, the leaves of the bramble are also quite important as the larval foodplant of a large number of Lepidoptera species. Buff Arches, Peach Blossom and Fox moths (among many others) all rely heavily on bramble leaves to raise their larval stages on and the Grizzled Skipper butterfly has been recorded feeding on bramble too. That’s just a small proportion of the insects that feed on the leaves and stems, there are fly and beetle larvae too, not to mention that many spiders make their webs on brambles to try to catch the many insects that visit the plant.
If you are a naturalist then you should pay close attention to any bramble thicket you pass, especially if it is in flower or fruiting, personally I have enjoyed watching the territorial battles of various hoverflies over big sunny patches of the stuff and when the flowers are out there is no better way to get unparalleled close views of bumblebees than at a briar thicket. So why not do nature a favour and leave a patch of bramble in the corner of your garden or even write a letter to your council asking if they would not strim every hedge full of brambles in the county into flayed stumps.