July, 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!
  • Skipper-di-doo-dah

    I have a list of species that I want to try and give a home to in my new garden. High up on that list are meadow butterflies, species such as Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Common Blues, but it also includes a number of our smallest butterflies, the skippers.

    And this week, as I walked the new paths I've mown through the few open areas of the garden, I was delighted to see a flash of amber dart by me at knee level, a typical view of these speedy-Gonzalezes of the butterfly world. Skipper-di-doo-dah, skipper-di-day!

    I followed it as fast as my eye would allow and, fortunately, it alighted on the seedheads of some Yorkshire Fog grasses.

    The four triangular wings, held rather like the open pages of a four-page book, instantly point to one of three species - Large, Small or Essex. (Yes, a very few people in Dorset on chalky soils have the chance of a fourth 'open book' species, Lulworth Skipper, and by August a fifth species called the Silver-spotted Skipper emerges on a few limestone grasslands in South East England).

    But which one is it? Well, the Large Skipper has subtle dark patches on the outer half of the wings, whereas this one is golden all the way out to the thin dark-then-white outer lines.

    So we're down to Small or Essex, for which the main technique is to check whether the undersides of the antennae tips are black or orange. Yes, it was time to ever-so-slowly drop onto my belly and crawl towards the butterfly to get a sneaky peek. And here was the result:

    Black under the antennae. Ta-dah! Essex Skipper.

    And it does make a difference in terms of giving them a home. Small Skippers need Yorkshire Fog grass to breed on - well I know I've got that. Essex Skippers prefer Cock's-foot grass, a taller rougher grass.

    So a-collecting I will go later this summer, collecting some Cock's-foot seeds from the footpaths around home. And, with luck, in future I will have a colony. My oh my what a wonderful day!

  • Giving bats a home

    Once in a while you meet someone who takes your understanding of a subject forward in leaps and bounds. Last week, it was the turn of bats.

    The revelation came from a conversation I had with Matt Dodds, a leading light in the bat world in the Midlands. And he was able to share with me some emerging results from in-depth studies of the roost and nest sites of bats.

    The advice that is normally meted out is to have a range of boxes at different aspects, for example putting three boxes in a ring around a tree. And, unlike birds, the advice normally says to include a box on the south side as bats need the warmth that birds would find unbearable.

    But studies are now showing something rather different. What bats appear to prefer are:

    • Boxes to be in shade. This is perhaps the most important element.
    • Boxes don't need to have a southerly aspect. Maybe a lone male Pipistrelle will use it, but it is much too warm for most, especially for groups of females rearing the pups.
    • Boxes should be as large as possible - bats like to feel they are a long distance from the entrance, and the interior climate will be much more stable.
    • Nor do boxes need to be at great height - they can be fine a couple of metres off the ground, although they still need a good flight path in..

    It means that boxes such as these above are probably very unlikely to be successful.

    It has also been shown that traditional methods of counting bats emerging from boxes using bat detectors underestimate totals, often considerably. New, expensive thermal imaging technology is showing that large roosts can hold dozens of bats.

    Bat boxes will still only provide a home for a small number of species; trees, caves and buildings (if they can access the lofts and cavity walls) will still provide most of their homes. But for me, the new advice is still very relevant as I am just planning where to put bat boxes in my new garden.

    Of course bats still have their other Home Needs if they are to find a home, plentiful small insects being the key. Having a chemical-free, plant-rich garden complete with large pond, shrubberies and tall trees should do the trick. In combination with the box advice, I will have every chance of successfully giving some of my local bats a better home.



  • Taking the flowers to the people

    One of the ideas I'm very keen on is anything that takes wildlife gardening out of the back garden and brings it into our front gardens and public spaces.

    So I was delighted this week to find that the volunteers who look after a tiny park just up the road from the RSPB offices in Brighton have transformed it this year with some cornfield wildflower planting.

    There are Poppies and Corn Chamomile and Corn Marigold creating a splash of colour in a part of the city that is very much concrete and steel dominated, and where colour is usually provided by graffiti.

    What is also so encouraging to see is that the flowers have survived the rigours of everyday life, which in this park includes revellers at many times of day. Sometimes wild flowers can command respect in the way that other things can't.

    I also love the little home-made signs helping people recognise what the flowers are.

    I realise this is happening in many places around the country these days, including the RSPB's Glasgow Living Nature project as part of the wider Grow Wild partnership project - check out all the exciting things the team is doing up there to give nature a home across that vibrant city.