August, 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!
  • Oh! Oh! Jiminy Crickets!

    I'm not sure what cricket Walt Disney used as the basis of his cartoon character, Jiminy Cricket, but it sure wasn't one of ours!

    But how do you identify a cricket? And what makes it different from a grasshopper? And what then is a bush-cricket? And can they be helped in gardens?

    Ok, let's start with identification. You know you've got one of them if you find an insect about an inch long with a giant back leg, so long that the 'knee' juts right up over its back.

    Now there are only about 27 or 28 regular species in the the British Isles, so there aren't many to consider. And many of those are rare or very restricted in their range.

    But the first place to start is with the antennae. If they are rather short and stout, you're looking at is either a grasshopper or a groundhopper. This is the Meadow Grasshopper.

    If they are really really long, then it is a bush-cricket. Simples!

    And the crickets? Well actually there are only four species, and all are rare. Oh, and there's a very strange thing called a Mole Cricket, but that's rare too.

    The grasshoppers eat mainly grasses in unimproved grasslands and downland. One can only imagine how many there used to be when there were hay meadows everywhere, but now the chirruping of grasshoppers is something you rarely hear.

    They are difficult to accommodate in gardens UNLESS you have a really large lawn or paddock or fields which you can let grow as a meadow. If you do, it will benefit so much other wildlife too. And there are four species (Common Green, Field, Meadow and Mottled) that are found in lowland areas throughout much of Britain, so this isn't just a 'southern' wildlife thing.

    The bush-crickets are rather easier to entertain, but unfortunately most are found only from the Midlands south. Boo! But many are expanding their range, and they are definitely ones to watch out for in the north in the future.Hooray!

    Bush-crickets tend to like hedgerows and shrubberies, with thick grass and flowers at their base, although the fast-expanding Roesel's Bush-cricket (which has a Nike tick along its side) likes rough grasslands too.

    Species to watch out for include the Oak Bush-cricket (which is green and has long wings) and the  Dark Bush-cricket (which is brown and wingless - photo below).

    And don't be afraid if you see one with a giant spear of a rear-end - that's just the egg-laying apparatus of the female, such as this Speckled Bush-cricket which I photographed on the wall in my hall one night when it paid a visit!

    And, and quiz question for ten points: in which famous film does the lead character utter 'Oh! Oh! Jiminy Crickets' upon entering a wizard's palace?

  • Wildlife bliss on the first floor

    Many of you will know that all this gardening for wildlife stuff I do is not my day job - it's my hobby and out-of-work passion. But I've found a sneaky way to take it into work with me!

    The thing is that, at the start of the year, our office moved into a different part of Brighton city centre. Our new home is on the first floor of a terraced building, but it does have a 'light well' - an open air gravelled square, bounded on all sides by 8-foot walls of glass and white-painted brick. And you know what that means - garden!

    Here is was on 3 April, with the first few pots in place.

    My simple plan for year one was just to begin to fill the space with plants, and get a feel for the growing conditions up here, such as how much sunlight would penetrate into this 'elevated hole'. If any wildlife arrived this year it would be a bonus.

    And here's where we'd got to by last week:

    (As I said, don't judge me on design! It's just wildlife-friendly plants in pots at this stage.)

    Various of my RSPB colleagues have helped with watering and some of the planting, and over time I want to involve them more.

    The fab thing has been that some wildlife has already arrived, even though to get into this garden they have to fly up two storeys and drop into this green pit. So far we've had regular Buff-tailed Bumblebees, at least three species of hoverfly, Lime Hawkmoth, three species of moth caterpillar (so presumably their mother visited to lay her eggs), Blue Tit, Red Admiral, and our first Honeybee this week.

    Almost all the plants are from cuttings or seed, so thus far the only cost is compost and pots - about £200 in total. And I estimate the time spent is about an hour a week.

    And it has turned out to get very little sun, and be surprisingly breezy. But it is light, and it is slug and snail free. And a refuge for a few moments each day from emails and meetings. Bliss!

  • Wildlife gardening on the podium

    Life is sweet when you can mix together your favourite things, and last weekend was the perfect combination - sport and gardening.

    I don't mean that I got to compete in speed-weeding or synchronised digging. No, I was one of the lucky ones who got to go to the Olympic Park to see the high diving final (go, Tom, go!) and at the same time enjoy the special Olympic planting that had been done on a grand scale.

    They looked simply stunning, and they were packing in the pollinators too.

    The team that created the garden were from Sheffield University, who created the what they claim to be  UK's 'largest man-made wildflower meadows' ever. (Of course in the past nature and Man combined to create a nation full of wildflower meadows, most of which Man has since destroyed, but I know what they mean with this claim.)

    Now these weren't all native wildflowers and included flowers such as a swathe of Coreopsis (below).

    But then plants like poppies aren't strictly native either, so I'm not critical of their choice. The good thing is that the species had been chosen to offer nectar and pollen for insects as well as looking great. and it was certainly working for Honeybees and hoverflies.

    And there were gardens themed geographically too, such as this southern hemisphere garden with Agapanthus showing off in it, another great pollinator plant much loved by bumblebees.

    And what's great is this style of planting is becoming ever better understood and available, in large part due to the work of Sheffield University and the company Pictorial Meadows.

    It was definitely a gold medal from me!