Home » The Hungry Gap: Food for temperate February and March

The Hungry Gap: Food for temperate February and March

Have we banished the hungry gap? Pat Heslop-Harrison has been talking to BBC Radio Leicester.

For those of us in Northern temperate latitudes, what is growing in February and March that our wild and garden birds and other animals can eat? What might they have stored from the autumn harvest? Actually, how has our civilization overcome the same problem? There is not much growing at this time of year leading to the ‘Hungry gap’, when food from the last harvest or stored is running out, before the new sprouts come. Surviving this period is important for birds and other animals, and even if we don’t think about it, has needed a lot of work to bridge for people. The pictures show the last of my apples in the garage (shrivelled and some rotting) and last couple of leeks (covered in frost) from my garden (Christmas dinner included my last slug-eaten and scabby potatoes).

I’m discussing this ‘Hungry Gap’ with @Ady_Dayman, produced by @HaydenPott, on BBC Leicester this afternoon. Some birds overcome the challenge of this season (apart from those not making it through to the following spring) by migrating – setting off for Southern Europe or North Africa, and since pre-historic times, nomadic groups of people have followed food around continents. Another option not open to people in Britain is to sleep through the winter, practiced by many insects, snakes, amphibians, and in England, hedgehogs, bats and dormice. Then there is one solution we use, shared with squirrels and woodmice, to store dried food, and particularly seed and nuts. Foxes and dogs may store bones, although usually for short periods. Moles and shrews – both carnivorous – will collect and store worms to eat in the hungry gap.

What are we doing about it? So how does this affect people? In western Kenya, there is the name “Wanjala”, meaning hungry. Children born in the gap are often given that name, written about by Roger Thurow in his book “The last Hunger Season”. Farming by people – 10,000 years ago, which in terms of evolution is very short – started for many reasons, but one was to make food available for storage, and to extend the season of growth and harvest of food from fields. Seeds (grains, nuts, beans or peas) were a key part of early agriculture, and allowed storage of these nutritious plant parts, although the lack of micronutrients and vitamins is not desirable.

Over the last years, three changes have happened to our food supplies. Firstly, storage technology has improved, along with genetics and agronomy. Now, there is little problem in storing potatoes through to the start of the next early harvest, with no damage in harvest, better sorting, accurate temperature control, and knowledge of the genetics of both skin (suberization) and reducing sugar production in newly harvested and stored tubers. Secondly, importing of food has made it easy to bring in fruits and vegetable, from around the world, and we can benefit from this – as do the people who grow the food, often in less developed countries. Finally, buildings have helped secure our food supply year round: greenhouses can grow salads, cloches produce strawberries or potatoes months earlier than in a field, and animals can be housed over the winter, still producing eggs and milk.

Birds and other animals don’t have these options so easily. By now, they have eaten most of the berries, and may have difficulty finding worms deep down or in frozen soil. In the autumn, I make sure my garden has piles of undisturbed wood and uncut plants such as teasle, brambles and dock, where insects and other animals can hide in the winter and won’t freeze. But right in the hungry gap for birds, putting out food is really valuable for them: although feeding garden birds year-round is recommended, special attention is needed in the hungry gap, and the BBC has a useful guide to the sorts of food needed.

Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.

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