THE recent cold snap brought droves of redwings and fieldfares into the gardens of Clackmannanshire to feed on the last of the holly and haw berries.

With the ground frosted hard, berries were the only option open for these handsome winter thrushes, given the impossibility of foraging on the ground for worms and invertebrates.

Windfall apples are another major attraction and I always leave some on the ground to provide sustenance for these birds during the dark, cold days of winter.

Redwings and fieldfares are gregarious birds that enjoy the company of their own kind. Whilst redwings tend to go about their business in a relatively benign manner, fieldfares like nothing better than to cackle and bicker with each other. Their excitement is always infectious to watch.

In the Shepherd’s Calendar, the 19th century poet John Clare encapsulated the fieldfare beautifully when he wrote: Flocking fieldfares, speckled like the thrush, Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush, That come and go on winters chilling wing.

Whilst our winter climate is mild in comparison to their northern breeding grounds, redwings and fieldfares don’t like prolonged periods of bitter frost or snow and if an unusually cold spell takes grip in Scotland, many will move to the south-west of England or Ireland to seek respite.

On one such occasion a few years ago, a lone fieldfare decided instead to take up residence in our garden and managed to scratch living by scavenging windfall apples.

The bird often allowed me to approach close, sometimes eyeing me with a cocked head; its wild nature temporarily tamed as it focused all its efforts on surviving the elements.

It seems entirely appropriate that redwings and fieldfares seek out holly berries at this time of year, for the association between Christmas and the holly tree is so closely entwined that it almost seems impossible to imagine one without the other.

How it became an emblem of Yuletide is very much guesswork, but it would seem that even in pre-Christian times the holly was much revered.

During the short dark days of winter, the sharp spines and red berries of the holly were seen as powerful fertility symbol and a charm against witchcraft.

According to the naturalist Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica these qualities were “…easily accommodated by Christianity, holly standing for the crown of thorns and the berries for Christ’s blood”.