April, 2012

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!
  • Sticky business for the Song Thrush

    At last! I’ve had some rain in my Sussex garden. It’s nowhere near enough to fill up the wetlands or stave off the hosepipe bans, but it is dearly welcome.

    But it does come with a downside – the synchronised emergence of a marauding army of snails and slugs in my garden each night. It's raining now as I write, and I can almost hear the sound of chomping!

    Now all the gardening for wildlife books (including my own) will tell you of all the things that will eat them – frogs, toads, slow-worms, badgers, foxes, thrushes. So, given the several hundredweight of slugs and snails on offer, why is my garden not full of a welcome band of mollusc munchers when I go out there with a torch?

    The truth of the matter seems to be that, while some creatures will take slugs and snails at times, they just aren’t top of the menu.

    Watch a creature trying to eat one of them that you realise how well adapted slugs and snails are at avoiding becoming lunch. When tackled, they exude a vile, slimy mucus that must be a devil to swallow.

    So I was pleased to grab some photographs of a Song Thrush tackling a slug.

    It involved a lot of smearing of the prey in the dirt of a path, wiping it one way and then the next, to make it swallowable. [Quick disclaimer: They're action shots, taken in the shade, so please excuse the photo quality!].

    What Song Thrushes really prefer is a nice earthworm, and the wet weather should at least have brought some of them to the surface too. Dry summer weather limiting the availability of earthworms has been one of the factors behind the dramatic decline in the number of Song Thrushes in recent years, as reported in the Biodiversity Action Plan report here.

    Great too to see the excitement on the RSPB Community where various readers have Song Thrushes nesting or visiting gardens. Let's hope this signals the start of a good breeding season for them.


  • How to set a garden on fire

    Just before Christmas, the RSPB did me the most amazing favour. I work out of the South East regional office (from which I help set up new nature reserves - this gardening lark is my hobby), and in November the RSPB moved to a new office.

    For the RSPB, it meant that we now have much a more environmentally-friendly building.

    For me, it meant that I now have the Pavilion Gardens right opposite. Heaven! I've actually started to take lunch breaks, seduced by the wonders of wildlife in a city centre.

    There are Wrens, Dunnocks, Blue Tits and Blackbirds. My favourite Hairy-footed Flower Bees are everywhere at the moment. Plus there are wonderful old flower varieties, and Elms that support an urban population of White-letter Hairstreak butterflies.

    But on 23 March, it was a thin, ultra-high seeping coming from some Yew bushes that caught my attention. It was a weedy little noise, the kind that unfortunately many people lose from their hearing range in middle age - I'm clinging to the fact that hearing it was a sign of my continuing youthfulness!. Normally it would signal Goldcrest. But I wondered, just wondered, if it was something even more special.

    And when it appeared, flashing its black and white head stripes and bronzy shoulder and golden crown, I knew I was in the presence of a bird with big charisma for its size - the Firecrest.


    What a stunner! There are just a couple of hunded or so breeding pairs in the country, mainly summer visitors to the New Forest and other spruce plantations in the south. They also pass through mainly eastern counties on autumn migration, and a few hardy souls winter in the south.

    But numbers are on the increase, and with climate change we could see them do increasingly well in the future.

    It is Britain's second smallest bird, just behind its much commoner cousin, the Goldcrest, which may well be present in your garden in any large conifer. The Goldcrest shares the think golden crown stripe, but in contrast has none of the headstripes, giving it a blank, almost scared expression on its face.

    Note the fine bill, perfectly adapted for picking tiny insects and their eggs and larvae from between conifer needles.

    Note my excitement!

    Aren't gardens fantastic!

  • Rosemary the Reliable

    There are some flowers which, wherever I see them, I know I will find some insect enjoying itself there.

    Right now, one of these reliable wildlife plants is the glorious bushy subshrub from the herb garden, Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis.

    Down here in the south, it has been flowering happily since the end of February, and the Honeybees seem delighted with that fact! I realise that further north it may only just be coming into flower (if you managed to see if safely through the winter that is for Rosemary can be a little sniffy when it comes to wet, cold winters).

    Two weeks ago, I popped over to the Isle of Wight, where I visited the Ventnor Botanical Gardens, and the Rosemarys there were radiant. Some, like the one below, carried flowers of such a deep mauve blue that they were intense.

    Notice how the pollen baskets on the rear legs of this Honeybee are empty - Rosemary is clearly a plant where nectar is their primary harvest.

    As Rosemary grows old, it tends to sprawl somewhat - but don't we all! I love the way it is lounging so seductively under this tree in this garden, again taken just a couple of weeks ago and yet to come into full flower. It reminds me so of the maquis and garrigue, those hot, herby, dry habitats in the Mediterranean where everything grows to about waist high and no more.

    So if you like helping Honeybees, and fancy a bit of fragrant seasoning for your lamb dinners or pot pourri, choose a sheltered, warm spot in your garden with free-draining soil and I guarantee* success.

    (*Now there's confidence for you!)