March, 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!
  • One step ahead of the squirrels?

    In my day job with the RSPB, I spend much of my time out in the communities local to the projects I'm involved with.

    And this week, I was delighted to visit the home of a parish councillor, who not only is a joy to work with on a major project creating the new RSPB Medmerry nature reserve (the largest realignment of the open coast in Europe, I'll have you know!) but also has a lovely garden in which he does loads of things to give wildlife a home.

    Sat in his kitchen, eating very fine home-made cake (one of the perks of my job), I was admiring his line of bird feeders strung across one end of the garden

    Now my photo, very unhelpfully, shows it devoid of birds, but at times it was thronged with Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Starlings and House Sparrows. Yellowhammers even visit.

    I could see that feeders 3 and 5 (from the left) were the ones which close under the weight of a squirrel, closing off the food supply.

    But what really impressed me was the stainless steel tensioned wire on which the feeders were hung.

    This, Keith told me, was his main line of defence against squirrels chomping their way through most of the bird food - the wire is just too difficult for them to navigate, even when the squirrels are hung upside down as they like to do.

    Now I know many of you are engaged in a similar battle of wits with these cute but ever so gluttonous creatures. So what are your tricks of the trade? Or are they currently one step or athletic-squirrel-leap ahead of you?!

  • So are native plants best for bugs in gardens?

    For a long time, it was accepted 'knowledge' that the best plants for wildlife to grow in gardens were 'native' plants.

    It was the Biodiversity in Urban Gardens in Sheffield (BUGS) project, driven by the uncompromising Dr Ken Thompson, that began to challenge that assumption. After all, what plant do we all consider the best for nectaring butterflies? Yes, Buddleia, from Asia (although now there are concerns about its invasiveness).

    And what exactly is a 'native' plant, given that many species we think of as native, such as poppies, aren't. I summarised the conundrum in RSPB Gardening for Wildlife (I allow myself the plug. given that it has raised several thousand pounds for nature!).

    Now, important new bits of science are underway, setting hypotheses and testing the benefits or otherwise of growing native and non-native plants. So, on Monday, it was with some anticipation that I attended the Wildlife Gardening Forum's major conference at Wisley to hear the preliminary results of the RHS's Plants for Bugs project.

    And, blimey, what a project they have undertaken. For four years, the RHS staff and volunteers have tended and studied 36 plots, each of 3m x3m. Twelve are planted with native plants, 12 with 'near natives' and 12 with non-natives. My thanks to my lovely RSPB colleague, Kathy Berkery, for remembering to take some photos of the plots (below). (Kathy is another of those RSPB staff who, like me, has an RSPB day-job but is mad keen passionate about gardening in her spare time).

    The RHS has studied the creatures that live in the soil in those plots, which has meant counting thousands of microscopic springtails.

    They've captured 35,000 invertebrates in pitfall traps, which are where surface creatures such as spiders and ground beetles drop into buried plastic cups.

    They've sucked at the foliage with a giant vacuum cleaner and counted and identified whatever creatures it caught.

    And they've stood and counted bees and butterflies visiting the plots.

    The results are still wrapped in big caveats, but here are some of the headlines that appear to be emerging:

    • The native beds proved best for hoverflies and true bugs
    • The near-native beds proved best for bumblebees
    • The exotic beds proved best for wasps, spiders and springtails.

    Plant-choice in those beds will of course have played a huge part - growing a different selection of plants would probably make a huge difference.

    But it is great to have some solid science as another piece of the jigsaw in understanding how we can best give nature a home in our gardens.

    In my book, I said that "the question of native plants versus non-native is far from straightforward. Just don't feel that growing non-native plants and gardening for wildlife don't mix. If you're careful, they most certainly can." After Monday, I'm sticking by that...for now!

  • Spring butterflies mark the rhythm of time

    With every passing year, I get ever more of an emotional response to the signals of the seasons. It's that bittersweet acknowledgement - and comfort, it seems - in recognising in nature the rhythms of time. Do you get that feeling too? Tell me it's not just me!

    The emergence over the last week (down here on the south coast at least) of spring butterflies really got my hormones sloshing around in that excitement that spring engenders.

    In one sunny day in my garden, I first had a brief Peacock flashing its staring 'eyespots'.

    Then a Comma returned repeatedly to the same sun-warmed stone, angling itself to get the full benefit of the sun. Butterflies at this time of year love those little micro-hotspots - it helps them warm up their body temperature ready for the serious business of tracking down a mate and seeing off rivals.

    And then, barely a couple of metres away, a Small Tortoiseshell dropped in, perhaps lured by the scent of the fresh Nettle growth which will be the foodplant of its caterpillars. (However, one or two Nettle plants won't do - they demand a good-sized clump in full sun, the picky devils).

    As you can see, the wing surfaces of this individual are a little battered, some of the scales having worn off. But then it will have been alive since last September or even August. It will have spent the winter, wings closed, body cold, in a shed maybe or amongst Ivy.

    And then finally a male Brimstone came wandering through. At this time of year, they seem to be on an eternal search, looking for the love of their life tucked down in the vegetation.

    Yes, in the rhythms of life, I'm hearing spring's heart now firmly beating.