January, 2016

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!
  • Walking in the footsteps of the great Charles Waterton

    Back in the early 19th century, the squire of Walton Hall in Yorkshire was called Charles Waterton, a man for whom the term 'eccentric' might have been invented.

    For example, it is said that he would crawl around on the floor pretending to be dog, biting people's calves. And he apparently rode on top of a cayman (a type of crocodile) on a trip to South America. I think he sounds great fun!

    However, this was the same man who, on his estate, watched his birdlife through a telescope and decided that he wanted to encourage them to nest. So he set about making a stone box for Barn Owls to use.

    He didn't stop there. He built homes for Jackdaws, for Tawny Owls, and used 50 drainpipes to make nesting chambers for Sand Martins.

    Of course, there had long been dovecotes, while the Dutch had used clay pots to entice House Sparrows and Starlings which then ended up on the dinner plate. But we don't know of anyone prior to Waterton going out of their way to make homes for birds to try and help them.

    What a long way we've come! Nowadays, it is a fairly common sight to see a nestbox in a garden or on the side of a house, and you no longer have to be eccentric to put one up - quite normal people do it these days, I'm told.

    The big winner over the years has been the chipper little Blue Tit, which relishes the simple square boxes with a 25mm (1 inch) diameter hole. Such boxes have made a wonderful alternative to natural tree holes, given that few gardens have old enough trees.

    But maybe we've come to the next turning point in the history of the nestbox. All those gaps in the eaves and roof tiles and house walls and barns and outhouses which once made such brilliant nest sites for House Sparrows, Starlings and Swifts? Well, such sites are disappearing fast.

    So, with National Nestbox Week looming, we need the great British public to take on the mantle of Charles Waterton and adorn house walls everywhere with nestboxes to help in the battle to give nature a home.

    So far, I've gone for a Starling box...

    ...four Sparrow boxes

    ...a Swift box

    ...and I've even had nesting holes built into my front door porch roof.

    I know many of you are also walking in the footsteps of the great Charles Waterton - the more the better if we are to save nature, I'm sure he would take his hat off to you. And probably eat it!

  • The things that make you go 'Ooh!'

    I attended a talk at my local bird club this week, the Shoreham & District Ornithological Society. It was a lovely evening among 80 or so people, where we were whisked off by the speaker (the ever-popular Bernie Forbes) for a tour of the beautiful island of Lesvos, so much in the news these days because of the human migrant crisis.

    As slide after slide came up of all manner of gorgeous and colourful birds, from Bee-eaters to Squacco Herons, plus the abundant poppies and wildflowers that adorn the fields and olive groves, the audience gave little murmurs and ripples of appreciation. It was a powerful reminder of how much nature can wow us, just with its innate beauty.

    I passionately believe that one of the best places where we can all have such moments of joy is in our gardens, and I've been having some 'Ooh!' moments of my own recently.

    The have been courtesy of this little delight.

    I'm afraid the photos are a little grainy in the low January light, as it flits about constantly, nervously, testing me and my camera to our limit. But with those tiny proportions, green back, bronze shoulders and heavy and theatrical eye make-up, there is only one thing it can be - a Firecrest.

    This next photo was the best of the bunch - isn't this a cracker of a bird?!

    It is the much rarer cousin of the Goldcrest, predominantly confined to a few areas of southern England. It first bred in the UK in 1962 and there are now thought to be over 500 pairs, but that still makes it one of our rarest breeding birds.

    It is also seen on migration at coastal hotspots such as along the east and south coasts, and small numbers also winter here in milder parts of the country, especially in the south near the coast. Which I guess is where my garden comes in, a mile or so from the Sussex coast and somewhat sheltered by the South Downs.

    Firecrests may be lovely, but when you stop and look, you realise there is beauty all around, in even the commonest of garden visitors.

    So, when I'm doing my RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in a couple of weekend's time, I will be hoping for my Firecrest to come along, just for that bit of top-notch-glamour, but I'm going to enjoy all the other Ooh moments that nature brings.  

  • Saving nature in bite-sized chunks

    So here we are, just over the threshold into 2016, and my thoughts turned to what I need to do in my new garden this year to help save nature.

    In fact I made a list, and it got longer and longer until it all became rather daunting. After all, I have a day job to do, too!

    I know, I thought, I'll just look back over some of the things I achieved in 2015.

    It started with two solid weeks of me directing a team of tree surgeons, ridding the garden of dangerous and fallen leylandii and helping me to get sunshine back into the garden.

    I then planted 17 new trees, all chosen to give me more wildlife-friendly variety.

    The clear-up of the garden yielded a lorry-load of rubbish...

    ...and the old, mouldering swimming pool needed emptying before more wildlife drowned in it

    I rotavated in order to plant a poppyfield, a quick way to fill an area of bare ground.

    All the logs from the tree work were built into what, once covered with spoil from the digging of the new pond, has affectionately become known as The Northern Hills.

    Never one to be particularly good with making things, I nevertheless had a go at making wildlife sunbeds...

    ...putting up bat boxes...

    ...and making birdbaths.

    And areas such as the three oldest apple trees, which I call 'The Three Graces'...

    ...began to come alive...

    ...as the 'poppyfield' filled with Corn Marigolds, Corncockle and Corn Chamomile.

    It's all been great fun, and I haven't even revealed the new pond, which took from July to December to dig.

    You know what? That daunting list of things to do? Bit by bit, chunk by chunk, I reckon we can save nature, and have a darned good time along the way.