December, 2009

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Don't leave it!

    I'm delighted to welcome a guest writer to the team, someone whose wise words you might read in the nature notes section of The Guardian - Derek Niemann. He and his wife Sarah have a tiny garden partially shaded by a Sycamore tree from next door. It's a mixed blessing in autumn, as Derek reports:

    The heaviest showers this autumn came, not from the skies, but from that blessed Sycamore tree, whose giant leaves rained down on our garden over a mercifully short two-week period. Once the wind had flicked the last one off, it was time to act.

    Frankly, those that fall into the flowerbeds can stay there. They'll provide a thin blanket for the soil and they'll break down harmlessly there, releasing nutrients back from whence they came. I'll gather most of those that fall on the grass. In a well-punctured bag, they'll rot down over the next eighteen months and make good compost. Those that are left are "the worm's share", to be tugged underground on mild nights. Sycamore leaves are tough, leathery old things, so the worm’s midnight feast is a chewy one.

    The pond is a different matter. It's a wind's breath away from the tree and it swallows a huge number of leaves. It's helpful to get most of them out because such a bulk of decomposing material next spring would deprive the pond of oxygen. Call me a masochist, but I prefer to dip down with bare arms to haul them out, rather than use a rake. It's largely because I shake off the wild passengers before the leaves end up in a compost pile. And what passengers! Virtually every leaf had a pond snail or three (right). Some had a water louse, and, remarkably, a fair number had a torpid damselfly larva clinging on. Most of them proved unshakably obdurate, so I dropped them back into the water. Perhaps I’ll see them in their adult brilliance a few months from now.

  • Christmas time, blankety blank and wine

    It's Christmas! So it's only right, surely, that we have a bit of a Christmassy theme to the blog today.

    Fans (or otherwise) of Sir Cliff Richard will have filled in the blankety blank in the title to have guessed our puckersome little topic of the day - mistletoe.

    And what a curiosity it is. It makes its own food through its simple, paired,evergreen leaves, but lives only up in trees, penetrating the bark with its 'roots' (properly known as a haustorium) to sup the sap. And Mistletoe is fussy too, much preferring apple trees over any other, but also found in poplar, hawthorn and occasionally oak and field maple and a few other species.

    It's value for wildlife is mainly in its white gloopy berries, which are borne in midwinter. You may have gathered by now that I like things that are connected, so if you're similar you'll enjoy that the Latin name of Mistletoe is Viscum album; something that eats Mistletoe might then be called a viscivore; and the Latin name for Mistle Thrush is Turdus viscivorus. It all adds up, doesn't it?

    So here's your little post-Christmas wildlife gardening job with the Mistletoe that you've had hanging over your door - take the berries, crush them with your fingers, and wipe the two seeds within them into a crack or crevice on an apple tree, just as a Mistle Thrush might do after a spot of Christmas berry hunting. Only one in a blue moon will successfully grow, but imagine the happy thrushes - and the surplus of kisses - that will await you if it does!

  • Keeping tabs

    With the garden under 4 inches of snow (and then ice) this weekend, and the coldest daytime temperatures I've recorded in 7 years here, all wildlife gardening thoughts turned to that of some more supplementary food and ice-free water for the birds.

    Our went mealworms, and fatballs (including some with 'buggy bits' in!), and peanuts, and nyger seed. Oh, and some left-over flapjacks.And down came the Starlings in force, plus a Song Thrush, a Dunnock, Great and Blue Tits, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Houses Sparrows, Blackbirds, a Robin, Collared Doves and Wood Pigeons. The numbers of birds in my garden shot up massively.

    I know this for certain, for as well as religiously recording the temperatures (and the rainfall), I've kept numerical tabs on my garden birds each week since April 2001. I can't recommend it enough. The difference this weekend was clear to see, but what happens with recording in the long-run is that whereas I regularly talk to people who THINK that their bird numbers have gone up (or down) over many years, I KNOW for certain.

    What's interesting is whereas I might think that, for example, my House Sparrows are holding their own, or that my Greenfinches are on the increase, I can turn to the statistics and find out for certain, and it often turns out to be different than my mind imagined. Whether recording weather or bird numbers, it removes all that 'guesswork' disguised as fact that one is otherwise tempted to. What I do with the birds is record the highest number of each species seen, just as many of you will do in the RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch recording hour each January, but I do on a weekly basis (as well as taking part in Big Garden BirdWatch, of course!)

    What the figures show for my garden are Goldfinches and House Sparrows on the long-term slide, Greenfinches and Blue Tits holding steady, and Collared Doves and Chaffinches on the rise. And then comes the creative bit - trying to do something about it!

    Are you taking advantage of the RSPB’s free wildlife gardening advice? Check out RSPB Homes for Wildlife here.