September, 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!
  • Are you ready to go oding?

    Yes, in my mission to give you yet more words you can use in Scrabble, I give you ‘'oding'’. You might already have done it without realising it, for it means to go looking for dragonflies. Honest!

    Ok, so it is a term that hasn'’t quite caught on in the UK yet, but it will if I have anything to do with it, and I certainly have been enjoying oding around my new garden. Apparently, that makes me an 'oder'.

    In the past few weeks, one species has been particularly prominent – the Migrant Hawker,– and what a beauty it is. It is one of the biggies of the dragonfly world. When I say big, it is still only about 6cm long and weights about 0.5-0.75 grams, which means that about 15 would weigh the same as a pound coin.

    Here is a female, perched on one of my bamboo canes:

    And here is a male on an old apple tree.

    I thought it would help to point out some of the features that make it a Migrant Hawker. So, from a to e:

    a: Males have blue-tinged eyes

    b: Migrant Hawkers have a short yellow bar on their 'shoulder' - it is called an 'anti-humeral stripe'.

    c: The 'golf tee' shape just behind the wings is diagnostic.

    d: The abdomen is then patterned with pairs of spots all the way to the end - blue spots on mainly black in the mature male, small yellow spots on brown in the female.

    e: Migrant Hawkers have very long 'anal appendages'. You can tell male dragonflies from females by the appendages - males have three, females have two.

    It is a dragonfly that your grandparents wouldn'’t have seen in their gardens because it was just a rare visitor to Britain until about 1940, but it has since spread and prospered, such that it has now just about made it into Scotland and Ireland.

    Numbers here are boosted each year by influxes from the continent - isn'’t it amazing to think of these things migrating potentially hundreds of miles and crossing seas?

    One of the things I really like about Migrant Hawkers is that you can sometimes see several in action together because, unlike many dragonflies, they tolerate each other.

    My new garden already has two ponds and a stinking old swimming pool, but none are in a fit state for dragonflies to breed, so this is one of the things I intend to rectify this winter. My prediction is that I can increase the number of dragonflies and damselflies in my garden ten-fold - I'll let you know if my confidence is well placed in due course!

    So, go on, while the Indian summer is still with us, there's plenty of time to be an oder!

  • Could your lawn become a meadow?

    One of the beauties of giving nature a home in your garden is that there are things you can do that are very simple but, if you like a challenge, you can try some pretty tricky things too.

    My blog this week is a tribute to a couple of friends who, I’m delighted to say, have given one of the most difficult things in wildlife gardening a try and delivered superb results. It is like the wildlife gardening equivalent of the quadruple toe-loop in ice dance or doing the splits in Strictly – they have turned their lawn into a wildlife meadow.

    There are three main ways of creating a wildlife meadow, all of which can be mixed and matched. The overall aim is to stem the vigour of grasses which can otherwise overpower all the meadow flowers you were hoping for.

    • Method 1 is to simply let your existing lawn grow long and see what flowers are in there, removing all the cut grass each rare occasion you mow to gradually reduce the fertility. You can boost your efforts with a few plug plants of favourite meadow flowers.
    • Method 2 is drastic – it involves removing all of your turf and taking it somewhere else! This gets you down to subsoil where you can sow your meadow from seed and add plug plants.
    • Method 3 involves using nature’s own magic grass-suppressor – Yellow Rattle. Once found in meadows across the UK, this annual ‘weed’ taps into the roots of grasses, helping itself to some of the water and nutrients the grass is trying to use and so sapping it of its brutishness.

    And it is a combination of Methods 1 and 3 that my friends tried, with the following wonderful result.

    Now I should quickly explain that in midsummer this would have been chock full of Yellow Rattle flowers, an excellent nectar source for bumblebees. What you see now are the dried seed pods of the Rattle in what I think still makes a pleasant and interesting tapestry.

    You can hopefully spot there is barely any grass to be seen because, in amongst the Rattle, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Lady’s Bedstraw have prospered. The former is the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Common Blue butterfly and, sure enough, there in the meadow were a couple of males, a little tatty at the end of their season but still gorgeous.

    There’s the chance too that Six-spot Burnet Moths, whose larvae also feed on the Trefoil, will take up residence, while Hummingbird Hawkmoths may breed on the Bedstraw. The 'meadow' also has glorious Cowslips in spring and Harebells in autumn.

    The Rattle, being an annual, needs the turf scuffing a little each year to let the seed make contact with the soil. but then can be left to do its thing, topped up with a bit of supplementary seed each spring.

    The next goal for this meadow is to plant Horseshoe Vetch; it is the foodplant of Chalkhill Blue and Adonis Blue butterflies which breed within half a mile of the garden. Wouldn't that be something?!

    Have you given wildlife meadows a go? Once established, the management regime is quite simple, mowing only from July through to the end of the growing season (for a spring meadow) or from September (for a summer meadow), and removing the cuttings for compost after they've lain on the ground a couple of days.

  • De-decking the world, bit by bit

    Today's story of a little bit of the world becoming a better home for nature comes from one of my colleagues, Jenny Sweet, who is the RSPB's Volunteer Officer in South East England.

    She and husband Mark moved into their new house in February, which meant a shift for Jenny from her upper-storey flat with 'wildlife-balcony' to a much larger garden, about 40 foot long, down on terra firma.

    "In one way it was 'Oh my word - what are we going to do with this?" Jenny says. "It was so poor for wildlife. The garden had just a piece of rough grass, one Magnolia tree and a couple of small shrubs that were no good for wildlife. But on the other hand, it was an exciting blank canvas."

    This spring and summer, Jenny and Mark put in bird feeders, enlarged the paltry flower beds, transferred all the potted wildlife-friendly plants from their previous balcony - Chives, Marjoram, Thyme, Lavender, Ox-eye Daisy - and planted some plug plants such as Verbena bonariensis.

    In have come Red Admirals, House Sparrows, a Dunnock, a Robin and loads of Starlings (up to 25 at a time, wolfing the sultanas).

    But in the past two week it has been time to take a deep breath and deal with 'the monster'. The thing that saps the garden of half of its potential. (Cue dramatic music). The Decking.

    Yes, Jenny and Mark had inherited an expanse of the stuff at the bottom of the garden next to the garage.

    I understand why decking is so desirable, so useful. But here we are with our little bits of this precious planet that we can call our own and it seems such a shame that so much of it has been buried under what is lifeless desert. Great if you manage to resuscitate life there with some potted plants. But so often it is left as a piece of wildlife 'no-man's land'.

    So here is the moment when Jenny and Mark started to 'de-deck'.

    And the satisfying moment once it was all ripped up.

    And, ta da! Barely a few days later with a new flower bed planted up, water butt in place, and some of the decking turned into a double compost heap (the ideal sort with slatted sides that wildlife can clamber in and out of).

    We're promised an update next year. Can't wait!

    But have you released part of your world from its wooden or concrete prison and then seen wildlife able to move in? If so, we'd love to hear.