October, 2017

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!
  • A skyful of nature to add to your garden

    Last week, I was fortunate enough to spend a few nights in Norfolk, enjoying long, head-emptying and soul-filling walks on the beaches and marshes.

    The little flint-clad holiday cottage I stayed in had a bijou garden that I was pleased to find still had things to commend it for wildlife. It had well-stocked little flower borders with herbs, and climbers such as honeysuckles growing up the fence, ripe with berries.

    However, what struck me the most about the cottage was the constant movement of Pink-footed Geese overhead. Skein after skein of them passed by every day, strung out in wavering ‘V’ formations, some moving about to find the best areas for feeding, but some just arriving after an exhausting migration from Iceland sounding so excited to have made it.

    To see them was awesome, but to hear them was something else, for they made their presence known long before the came into view thanks to their incessant calls. The adults make a rather deep ‘ungh-ungh’ call, the youngsters a rather shrill and much higher-pitched ‘wink-wink’, and the combined chorus carries far across the open coast in almost constant, evocative soundtrack.

    These are the calls of families working hard to stick together, mums and dads saying “Stick with me” and their youngsters on their first visit to their winter home saying “I’m here, I’m here” and, occasionally, heart-wrenchingly, “Where are you? I’ve lost you!”

    Now in terms of what you can do in a garden to help Pink-footed Geese, well, the answer is nothing! A postage stamp of a space, even if it had a pond in it, is of no consequence for a bird that needs to feed in vast open marshlands and fields.

    But what it brought home to me is that, for all of the people who live and work in places like north Norfolk, the 'Pink-feet' and their calls help create their sense of place, their connection with nature and with the seasons and the rhythm of life.

    It made me think back to my own garden, where in the past month strings of Swallows and House Martins have passed overhead on migration, when I don’t see them at all for the rest of the year.

    Now, in late autumn, they are gone but I now hear the rich ‘syrup’ calls of Skylarks and the ‘sip sip’ of Meadow Pipits flying over, again species that never visit my garden but are an important part of my bond with the living world when I’m in the garden.

    You, too, may not see Pink-footed Geese overhead on a daily basis, but I bet there is wildlife where you live that helps create a sense of who and where you are, and with it the power to bring you a whole heap of happiness, too.

  • Admiring the Admiral

    I reckon there is a good chance that this autumn you will have had the pleasure of seeing a Red Admiral. Or two. Or twenty.

    While many of our butterflies have been struggling in recent years, at least this beauty has had a good year, and recently they have been on the wing in numbers.

    They are found either sunning themselves, or feeding on Ivy, ripe blackberries, Buddleia x weyeriana (the yellow one), juicy windfall apples, and here at Wisley last week I photographed one of several that were on Ageratina altissima 'Braunlaub'.

    Many have been freshly emerged and pristine, although some have clearly been in the wars, in particular with cobwebs, like this one on a dahlia in my garden:

    We can all see where the 'Red' bit in the name comes from, but what is the origin of the word 'Admiral'?

    Well, for many years I was under the enticing but wayward idea that it was a corruption of the word 'Admirable'.

    But no, no, and thrice no! The original name was Admiral, as in the Admiral flag, which has all the busy bits up in the top corner, like this blue ensign from the 17th century.


    It was only later than the name got changed to Admirable, because it seemed to fit, which then got changed back again!

    With so many Red Admirals around this year, most are identically attired, but if we get another sunny day or two, it is worth playing the 'spot the difference' game because about one in six have a little white spot in the red bar across the forewing, like this one

    And if we have a mild winter, it is very possible that many will sucessfully overwinter, either as adults, eggs or caterpillars, very different from the past when almost all were killed by the cold and we had to wait until a new generation arrived from the continent the following spring.

  • One man went to sow, went to sow a meadow

    Do kids still sing the 'One man went to mow' song these days? I do hope so. It was a staple song on school coach trips in my youth, and is a wonderful throw-back to days of yore when harvesting the hay would have been something that all the locals turned out to do.

    Well, I'm one step closer to being a man who goes to mow, with the sowing this week of a haymeadow...in my garden.

    A meadow needs to be as infertile as possible; unfortunately, my ground is very fertile so I first had to dig off the top six inches and get down to flint-rich subsoil.

    Then it needed to be free of weeds, so I let the ground lie fallow for the last six weeks, hoeing off the weeds each time they germinated. Some people might use glyphosate weedkiller, but I garden organically so that wasn't an option for me.

    And I was careful not to recultivate the ground, as that would have just brought more weed seed up to the surface.

    Then I raked it to create a nice tilth to receive the seed. (Oh and I dug a rill along the near side of it, just to create a bit more diversity).

    At last, I could buy a wildflower meadow seed mix, four grams for every square metre of meadow. We're not talking cornfield annuals here, but native perennials and meadow grasses, such as knapweeds and scabiouses, bedstraws and bird's-foot trefoils.

    To the mix I added extra seed I collected from the countryside this summer, so that I had about 70 different plant species in total, all jumbled together.

    And then I split the seed up into four equal amounts so that I could try and get an even coverage as I scattered the seed. (I got into a bit of trouble by using the best pudding dishes, but they made great seed bowls.)

    A little trot all over the plot ensured the seed was in good contact with the ground, and that was my job done. It's now over to Mother Nature to work her magic...

    This is what I hope will be the ultimate result - this is one of my favourite wild meadows at a Worcester Wildlife Trust reserve called Eades Meadow.

    You can see how a haymeadow isn't a riot of colour like a bed of annual wildflowers, but it has a more sophisticated, subtle rustic charm, here dominated by Common Spotted Orchids. If all goes to plan, it will be the place in my garden where butterflies such as Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Small Coppers and Common Blues can breed.

    In terms of management, it should then just be a bit of spot weeding, a main hay cut at the end of each summer, and removal of all the hay.

    I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, all together now: "Ten men, nine men, eight men, seven men, six men, five men, four men, three men, two men, one man and his dog, Spot, a bottle of pop, Old Man Riley and his brown cows, went to mow a meadow."