January, 2014

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!
  • Life begins to stir

    The sun came out today here on the south coast. Only briefly, you understand, but enough to gladden the heart.

    I set about some weeding - plants with tap roots such as Alexanders and Cow Parsley were coming up quite well in my chalky soil, although I realise that for anyone on clay the idea of weeding in gloop is out of the question.

    As I crawled around on hands and knees, it was lovely to see the unfurling shoots of all sorts of flowers, like the first glimpse of old friends after a long time of absence.

    In fact, some tulips have emerged way too early. They won't be reached by direct sunlight so are unlikely to open wide enough for any insect to take advantage.

    The crocuses are much more on schedule, and should be open within a week or so.

    The Pulmonaria is just coming into bud, and should be right on cue for the first Honeybees in March.

    And I was pleased to see the corrugated leaves of Lamium orvala poking through. This is a very well-behaved 'dead nettle' from the Alps that I'd recommend for any shady part of the garden.

    Will we get a proper cold snap to freeze everything in its tracks? It's looking unlikely, isn't it? If things continue the way they are going, we could see ridiculously early fruit blossom, February daffodils all over the place and nature all out of kilter. This could be a very 'interesting' spring indeed...

  • Here comes the biggie...

    You all will be aware of the big dates on the calendar, I'm sure. And we've had some huge ones lately, as I'm sure you are aware.

    Last week, of course, it was the international Winnie the Pooh Day, for which I ceremonially ate some honey. Ten days ago, I know you will all have been active participants in National Dress Up Your Pet Day. I jest not.

    But I like to think that they all pale into insignificance compared to the RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch this weekend.

    Last year, half a million people took part. I think back to my day at the Olympics in 2012, which I think was the greatest number of people I had ever been amongst. Google tells me that the capacity of the park was 200,000 people but it seemed the whole world was there - well, two and a half times that number will be counting their garden birds this weekend. It's strange - I will be counting alone, but I will feel part of a very large community.

    At the moment, I've got a flock of Greenfinches visiting daily. The peak count lately has been 19, which is so encouraging given the problems they have had with this trichomonosis disease.

    And once the Greenfinches are in, they seem to give courage to the other birds, and down come the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, Blue Tits and Great Tits.

    Forcing yourself to sit and watch the birds for an hour I think makes you enjoy the small pleasures of life. Think of female Blackbirds, perhaps the plainest bird to visit the garden. But here is 'my' female in my cherry tree - she has so much character. Now, in the depths of a soggy winter, it's the little things that can bring so much joy.

    So get counting, have a great hour, and let us know how our garden birds our faring at the same time as demonstrating to the nation how much we all care about our garden wildlife.

  • Monitoring the health of gardens - your chance to play your part

    When we give nature a home, we all want it to be a healthy home. So, while the subject of wildlife disease isn't perhaps top of your list of pleasant reading material, as responsible gardeners it is good to know what the problems and risks are out there.
    So it was good news that, yesterday, Britain's biggest public-led investigation into the health of native wildlife began - the national Garden Wildlife Health project.
    It is a partnership between the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Froglife and the RSPB, and it is calling on wildlife-loving gardeners to send in observations of wildlife suffering from disease, to build up a national picture.
    Of course, that relies on us knowing something about the common symptoms to look out for, and certain garden wildlife appears more prone than others.
    The two biggies in recent years have been trichomoniasis, which jumped from pigeons and doves and has been ripping into populations of Greenfinches. I thought I'd share a picture of healthy Greenfinches at a feeder in my parents' garden, but the things to watch out for are listless, fluffed up birds, unusually tame, often with bits of food stuck to their bills.
    The trick is to keep your feeders clean to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
    The other garden wildlife that are succumbing in unusually large numbers are Frogs and Toads, struck down by Ranavirus. Symptoms are all rather unpleasant and usually result in death, and include reddening of the skin, emaciation, listlessness and often loss of toes. The best thing to avoid is transferring spawn between ponds.
    Other diseases you may come across include avian pox, causing red lumps on the faces of tits in particular, and two diseases that can cause crusty growths of the legs of Chaffinches.
    The idea of the initiative is that, if you spot signs of disease, you can now report them online at gardenwildlifehealth.org, where you'll find lots more information about garden wildlife health problems.  
    But I think we need a happy photo now, don't we? So how about this to cheer us up. I didn't take the photo this year, I hasten to add, but it can't be long now, given these mild conditions. Let's hope they have a disease-free year.