My garden isn’t big, but I love it. It’s a bit overgrown, and the right flowers don’t always grow in the right places, or at all. The grass is too long, and slugs have munched my strawberry plants. But to me, especially in summer – when the evening light colours the lawn golden-green and swifts soar and circle high overhead – it’s my own miniature Eden.
Thing is, for half the time, it isn’t really mine at all.
Come nightfall, once we’ve turned out the lights and climbed the stairs to bed, our gardens become the stages of a hundred hidden stories as the night-time tenants move in. Hedgehogs creep in search of slugs, tawny owls awaken and hunt in the trees while the afternoon’s soaring swifts turn into silent, flitting bats against an indigo sky. The night shift begins.
Every year, the RSPB encourages people all over the country to experience this hidden side to nature as part of Big Wild Sleepout. I decided to camp out to get the full experience, but you could just do a bug hunt at dusk or go on a torchlit safari before going to sleep in your own beds. Find more Sleepout ideas here - and don't forget to sign up and download your Sleepout Passport!
Camping in the garden felt like quite the adventure. Despite threatening to rain, the sky was clear for a time, so I was able to spot some of the wildlife in the sky – Ursa Major, the great bear, always the brightest and easiest to find – before cosying up in my outdoor den. Lying in the dark, it was noticeable how much the other senses come into play. My eyes adjusted and my ears sharpened. As well as the odd solitary car, I heard a stand-off between two cats and, pleasantly, the gentle rustling of wind through the trees.
Then, at about 11pm, I had my first true wildlife encounter. Have a watch of my short video, then why not take part this weekend yourself? As with all adventures, you never know what you might discover...
Big Wild Sleepout runs this weekend, until 31 July.
Probably because of English school terms I still think of August as 'proper summer'. Between the stage of 'lots of fresh growth' in spring and 'lots of fruit around' in autumn is a bit of a lull, even the birds seem quieter, it's almost like nature takes a break from the usual grind.
But that's not really the case. All the plants are frantically storing up energy to bestow on their offspring in the form of fruit and seeds.
There are a few species that start to fruit at this time of year, so if you're out on a country walk keep an eye out for them; it's one of the best ways to keep kids interested in my experience:
The thorns and pioneering nature of the bramble (growing in scrubland, car parks etc) can make it easy to overlook for most of the year, but as fruits ripen on the bushes, the old ice-cream tubs come out. Then it's a race as hedges are scoured by intrepid forages of all ages. If you find an untouched bramble patch consider yourself lucky and reap the benefits for yourself; leaving a few for the birds and mice of course.
My favorite way to use these berries is in a crumble, but in summer time, having them with some Cornish ice cream is always a winner.
Blaeberry if you're in Scotland, this is more one for the Northerners where uplands are often covered in in bilberry bushes. It's a smaller, more subtle tasting relative of the blueberry that's hardy to the cold. If you find a good patch, and have a plastic bag to hand, picking them is an idyllic way to spend a hot afternoon as a family. Delicious when warmed in a pan with a spoon of sugar and poured over pancakes.
Finding wild stawberries is rare in part because they are so easy to overlook. They grow low to the ground, so get your little-uns (at a natural height advantage) to keep an eye out next time you're on a walk. They grow well on the edge of habitats like verges, meadows and woodlands. Because of their low lying position, wash thoroughly before eating. The fruits are tiny and tangy (like a concentrated normal strawberry), and are only worth making into something if you find lots of them, but the simple pleasure of eating them raw shouldn't be underestimated.
Very much the runt of the summer fruit bunch, elder berries have only a trace of sweetness and can't be consumed in large quantities raw, but they can be made into some tasty concoctions and puddings. Try adding a handful to a summer pudding fruit mix, or straining the juice into a pan with water and sugar and reducing to make a syrup.
Without vicious thorns to defend it and with less of a tendency to sprawl than it's rough cousin the bramble, the raspberry is delicious treat if you can find it. They grow in woodland often under the shade of leaves, look especially where trees have recently been cleared as it might be easier to see the berries.
Remember that it's best to wash all berries before eating. If you find sufficient quantity of fruit of any kind, you can preserve it into a tasty, tangy snack as fruit leather.
With all berry bearing plants, leave a few behind as the reason the plants make them is to have their seeds distributed by hungry animals. That way, there will be more plants in the future.
Join us to discover the brilliant bugs, trees, birds and bees in Bristol’s parks this summer where our team of nature enthusiasts will be popping up to offer free activities. There will be minibeast hunting, bioblitzing, scavenger hunts and more! Please check the location of each event as some will be in the same park weekly and others will move around the city to reach as many families as possible. The activities are suitable for children aged 2 to 12 years old who need to be accompanied by an adult. All events are drop-in so can be attended at any time during the time advertised and all are completely free!
Here are the details:
Dates: 26th July; 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, 30th August
Location: St Andrew’s Park
Time: 9:30-12 (drop-in)
Dates: 27th July; 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th, 31st August
Location: To change weekly as follows: Saint George’s Park; Dame Emily Park; Horfield Common; Victoria Park; Netham Park; Eastville Park
Time: 10:00-12:30 (drop-in)
Dates: Same as Wild Wednesdays
Location: Brandon Hill Nature Reserve
Time: 14:00-16:30 (drop-in)
Dates: 30th July; 14th August; 4th September
Location: Blaise Castle
Time 13:00-17:00 (drop-in)
Ashton Court Adventures
Dates: 6th August; 3rd September
Location: Ashton Court Estate
Time: 11:00-15:00 (drop-in)
Callington Road Bioblitz
Date: 20th August
Location: Callington Road Nature Reserve
Time: 10:00-16:00 (drop-in)
To find out more about the overall project we're running with Aldi in 15 cities across Britain please visit rspb.org.uk/wildparks
Or see our full list of events to date.
Check back for more updates soon.