If you’ve read my earlier posts, you'll know I tend to hibernate indoors during the colder months. I pack down the garden in October, and it remains largely untended until spring. All through winter, I venture about as far as the bird feeders and then retreat back to the warmth, to watch the resulting feeding frenzy through the window.
Luckily, there have been some sunny spells lately, and my thoughts have turned towards bringing the backyard back to life in a way that provides homes for nature wherever possible. So, last weekend, I dusted off my gardening gloves and ventured all the way across the patio, with my two children cantering around my legs like cows released into spring pasture.
It’s not a very smart garden, but we’re lucky because it’s pretty large for its type – about 120 feet long, ending in a stream which supports frogs and newts. Since moving in, we’ve replaced a large area of gravel with rough lawn, which we gradually dug up and wheeled up the garden from the area that then became our vegetable beds. We also created a Freecycled play area from a former bramble patch.
We've created a ‘yard’ behind the garage for the compost bins, lumber etc, erected a second-hand greenhouse (without instructions!), and even laid out a bonfire circle in one corner, with log seating supplied by my mother’s hated Leylandii.
So there’s plenty to do for humans - but we’re mindful of the wildlife, too. Noting all the frogs and newts hiding under rocks around the place, last year we dug a small, one-metre pond near the apple tree, and were delighted to see plenty of both species turn up to splash around and enjoy it.
Sowing the seeds of a wildlife paradise. Photo: David Tipling (rspb-images.com)
When a neighbour reported seeing a hedgehog wandering down our driveway, we built a large den of logs and leaves under a bush in a quiet corner in case they found it useful, and put some hedgehog food down. There are various (as yet unused) nestboxes in various locations, and I’ve left the roof tiles loose along the eaves for when our beloved swifts return.
We’re always looking to do more for wildlife so, with a whole Saturday of sunshine at our disposal, I got the kids involved.
My daughter wanted to plant seeds. My son wanted to dig out his own mini garden, so I allocated a small plot in one neglected corner, gave him a trowel and let him loose to make mud-pie mayhem. Here is the result of his afternoon’s work…
Child's play: Mud, weeds, rehomed grass, potted 'weedlings', bricks... and a frog hotel!
He’s turned a patch of weeds and mud into - well, a patch of weeds and mud with a 'mini-meadow' created from clumps of grass I removed from beds while weeding. Against the fence, he has scattered wildflower seeds designed to attract pollinators. And the two broken pots are, apparently, “homes for the frogs when they don’t want to be swimming.” I love the turf roof.
Meanwhile, my little girl and I headed into the greenhouse with a bag of compost to plant some wildlife-beneficial flowers. With their humbug-like seeds and sunny, unmistakable blooms, sunflowers are a great choice for children. Plus, they look fantastic up against a fence in full bloom, and are very popular with garden birds, which strip the heads of seeds come winter. We plant them in cardboard pots that will rot into the ground after they graduate the greenhouse.
The first few pots now sown in the greenhouse, to be planted outside when we're clear of frost risk.
Last spring we sowed some yarrow, which is coming up well and should finally flower this year. Yarrow has long been used as a medicinal herb, but its tight, white flower clusters are also beloved of bees, butterflies and other pollinators. We still have some seeds left, which may or may not yield life... so we sprinkle them across in our wildflower border just in case. They’ll probably follow their predecessors across the lawn, but we don’t mind.
Teasels also take two summers to yield, but have helped bring in clouds of goldfinches to our garden, providing them with seeds over the winter. We decide to sow some more of those, too.
We're growing teasels from seed – to benefit goldfinches in winter, and bees in summer. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
The early bees are already enjoying the lungwort and grape hyacinths that run riot through our borders...our equally rampant Aquilegias (columbines) are coming up, too.
As we’re wiping off our earthy fingers and putting away the seed packets, I spot our old teapot in the corner of the greenhouse among the flower-pots. I planted some mint in it last year, but I’ve just thought of a better use for it…
To let: Snug, one-bedroom dwelling of ceramic construction, situated among apple trees close to food outlets, and ideal for a young redbreast family…
It’s so uplifting to see the garden coming back to life, and we're having lots of fun thinking up new ways to welcome new wildlife. If we make a few interpretation signs, we've got our very own nature reserve. The kids can’t wait to see whether their efforts pay off… I shall report back later in the summer!
Have you done any recent work to encourage wildlife to your garden? Login to tell us about it in the comments below or email us at email@example.com
I’m not a great cook and so there is a certain irony in the fact that I’m presenting this blog about cooking eagle cookies that Jack, Anna and the rest of the team put together as an activity for our junior magazine Bird Life.
I regularly get magazine envy when I see all the fun the guys are having with the youth mags and all the terrific activities they come up with (and of course have to do themselves to make sure they work....). They don’t know about this deep seated jealousy, so my confession is now here for all to see and I feel a weight is off my mind.
I’m pretty confident Nature’s Home readers would love to be getting involved in some of the make and do fun, so we're going to start sharing some of the nature-based fun from the youth mags on the blog, starting, this week, with showing you how to make half a dozen of these hilarious, and tasty, treats.
What do you need?You need this little lot to make 12-15 mini cookies:
Cooking1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/Gas Mark 6. Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.2. Cream together the softened butter and caster sugar in a bowl. Add 75g of the self-raising flour and the golden syrup, then mix to combine. Add the remaining self-raising flour and finally the milk chocolate chips.3. Roll small balls of the cookie dough between your hands, then place them with plenty of space between them on the baking trays.4. Bake in the oven for 7-8 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove and allow to cool slightly, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Making your eagles
1. Place each marshmallow onto the end of a wooden skewer. Dip each one into the melted chocolate, then roll in the chocolate strands. Allow the chocolate to cool and set.
2. Spoon a small amount of chocolate spread on the top of a cookie, then place almonds around the edge of the cookie for the collar. Place a chocolate covered marshmallow on top.
3. Make a small slit in the marshmallow and push in a cashew for the beak. Add two small almond flakes for the eyes, attached with a dab of chocolate spread. If you like, add some small dots at the centre of the eyes.
So, there you have it. It sounds pretty straightforward even to me and just look again at the end result. These splendid images are by Secret Studios. Perfect for that April garden party to impress all your friends, or even the RSPB's exciting new Bake for Nature
These splendid eagle cookie images are all by Secret Studios.
Now's the perfect time to draw up your hit list for the weeks of wonderful wildlife watching ahead. It’s all go from April Fool's Day with an extra hour of daylight to spend outside now the clocks have gone forward, temperatures on the rise and migration season kicking off. Fabulous sights, sounds and smells are everywhere and it can be hard to know where to look next with a riot of colour and species on show.
With so much to look for and only so much time to do it in, I thought I’d share my top 10 targets for the month to give you some inspiration, and share some tips on how to see them, but I’d love to know what your springtime targets are this year.
1. Sunbathing serpentsI’m a little obsessed with adders. They have the "x-factor" of being our only venomous snake, being really hard to see for most of the year and you have to use a lot of fieldcraft, and skill, to find them. April is a terrific time to seek them out because they are still spending long periods basking in the sun to warm up after hibernation. They will also slough their old skin in April, so they look super smart and bright. My top three tips for finding them are: search in the morning before it gets too hot, concentrate on south facing banks and slopes and move really slowly and tread lightly, ensuring your shadow does not pass over basking spots. Use our top tips, and you could be enjoying a close encounter with an adder this April (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)2. Herald of springThe sound of a singing cuckoo singing never fails to bring a smile to my face. You know that spring is really here when you hear your first cuckoo of spring. It is sadly so much rarer now, making that first April cuckoo encounter even more precious. Look out for the males perched on a dead limb, or a post, and approach the singing bird carefully and slowly so you can get a view of that lovely barred plumage. I usually hear my first in Cambridgeshire around 25 April. How about you?3.Snuffling badgersIt’s a common enough mammal, but how often do you get to see a badger? April is a good month to spend some time watching for them with the adults spending plenty of time above ground and the cubs making their first appearance, perhaps, at the end of the month. Find a sett, then put in some evening vigils to see when the badgers emerge. Don’t sit any closer than 10 metres and stay out of sight, sit in silence, make sure you are downwind of the sett and be in place one hour before dark and you could be enjoying snuffling badgers this month.
A close encounter with a badger could be one of your April highlights (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)4. Dancing newtsThe perfect excuse to take some time out and peer into a pond. Male smooth newts look superb in April with big black spots and a wavy crest. They indulge in little underwater courtship dances with the females and regularly come to the surface too. Where there is one, there are often more, so keep looking. Choose a sunny day and watch for bubbles!5.Song thrush serenadeThe nightingale is my top songster target for May, but before they arrive, I make sure I spend some quality time with my local song thrushes. The longer evenings now are a great time to listen because they are often the last bird to stop singing. There’s less competition early in the month, so the varied phrases carry far and wide. It's up there with the nightingale and woodlark for sure.
6. Nodding snake’s headsKeeping the serpent theme going, this gorgeous wildflower grows in ancient flood meadows in south and east England, but the snake's head fritillary is widely planted and available as a garden plant, so enjoy it where you can. It’s worth the effort to visit a traditional meadow though as tens of thousands of purple heads stretching as far as the eye can see and nodding in the breeze is a sight you’ll never forget.
Visit a fritillary meadow this April when these serpentine flowers will be in full bloom (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)7. Dainty dip feedersNot all gulls are big, noisy and fill their bellies with unmentionables from the local rubbish dump. The little gull is just that – the world’s smallest in fact – but it is a delightful little bird, flying low over the water on paddle-shaped wings flashing jet black below and pale grey above, picking emerging insects form the water’s surface. The adults have a tiny spiky bill and jet black hood (not brown like the black-headed gull – don’t get me started...) and the young birds in their second year have a black “w” written across their upperwings and a no hood. Watch for them feeding over freshwater, often in flocks, after east and south-east winds.8. Orange-tip butterfliesThe beautiful orange-tip butterfly is an insect that just keeps on giving. The super bright orange tips to the wings of the males alone make this a headturner, but both they and the females have an attractive mossy-green pattern on the underside of their hindwings. They also have a beautiful display flight. Look for them along country lanes, damp meadows and lightly wooded areas, especially where garlic mustard and cuckooflower grow.9. Lekking black grouse Sadly, the black grouse is a bird I have to travel quite some way to see, but if any bird was worth the effort of a trip to Scotland, Wales or northern England, this is it. The birds will still be “lekking” in fields and moors in April with the males strutting around and making their amazingly far carrying "bubbly" courtship notes as the brown females watch from the perimeter in search of their perfect mate.
Karate kicking blackcocks are stull fuelled up on testosterone in April (Mike Lane rspb-images.com)10. Colourful damselsFor most of us, the large red damselfly is the first dragonfly or damselfly that we’ll see and April is the month to check ponds and wetland margins where there is standing water. The males are a tropical red colour and you’ll find several together once those double figure temperature days are here to stay.
So, what do you think? Would that little line up satisfy your thirst for wildlife this April, or are you thinking "How could he not include that?!". You can leave a comment below to let us know what's on your mind, and hit list, this month or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.