Archive for May, 2013

May 31, 2013

You can help wildlife just by counting it

31 May 2013

Did you see Springwatch on TV tonight? Great range of species covered, from the hen harrier to the garden snail. They also announced a Garden Bioblitz this weekend, which sounds fun – I shall join in. The idea is that the general public are asked to record the wild plants and animals in their garden over a 24 hour period in the first weekend of June – which is this coming Saturday and Sunday. If you don’t have a garden, you can’t join in this particular Bioblitz, but you can do one at any time in any place. Go to for full details of it all.

Two of the creatures I shall record in my Bioblitz: Newts in the pond. The male is on the left - identifiable by his crest, his red tummy and being generally darker.

Two of the creatures I shall record in my Bioblitz: Newts in the pond. The male is on the left – identifiable by his crest, his red tummy and being generally darker.

When it comes to recording butterflies and moths, the way is led by, who gather data from a host of sources, much of which gets to them via their 31 branches throughout the UK, like ours in Dorset. Butterflies are one of the easiest forms of wildlife, certainly of insects, to spot and identify – while some of the more specialist butterfly species are hard to find, there are a lot you will see in your garden or your local park, or if you go out into the country.

What excites me about joining in these recording efforts is that it is citizen science in action, and it really does make a difference. If someone said to you “get out there and save the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly”, the first thing you would ask is “well, where do I find them, and when, and where, and what do they eat and are their numbers going up or down ?”  It’s the same for the expert conservationists: they can only base their efforts on known data, and the more of it, the better.

Small Tortoiseshell on bright pink sweet william

Small Tortoiseshell

To take the Small Tortoiseshell as an example, it is known to have declined by 64% over the last 10 years (State of the UK’s Butterflies Report 2011). This is worked out from data contributed by people, including me, who do regular butterfly walks in certain sites every year, producing the data for the conservationists. If you go out and see a butterfly today, and report it to your local branch of Butterfly Conservation, it will be used to direct conservation efforts. So go out and make a difference – report a butterfly, do the Bioblitz, anything – just help put citizen science into action.

May 29, 2013

May 2013 compared to May 2011

29 May 2013

We all know it’s a “late Spring”, but gardeners are probably one of the groups most particularly aware of it. I keep a small section of the garden for annual plants, to give me a different display every year, and some of them could be killed if I put them out and then we have an overnight frost. I usually reckon, being near the south coast, that after the second week of May I can chance it, but this Spring is so reluctant to turn up properly that I’m not risking the tender plants going out until 1 June. This means a balancing act between protecting those young plants that need it, but also getting them used to the outdoor conditions they will have to face, as well as trying to keep those hardier youngsters who are still in their boxes happy, when they badly need to get their feet into some deep soil. Aaaaaggghhhh!

The photo below is the garden on 21 May this year: the majority of colour comes from violas, with a purple splodge in the middle being bugle (good for bees) and the bright pink spots being the wild flower red rose campion and the dusting of pale blue coming from forget-me-nots.

View of garden 21 May 2013

View of garden 21 May 2013

The photo below, taken on 25 May 2011, is of the same bit of the garden, but looking in the opposite direction. The bright pink in the front is valerian (great for butterflies and bees), which is nowhere near blooming this year. The blue spikes are delphiums, which are well up but without much bud visible yet, which also applies to the one splodge of orangey-red in the middle near the top, which is an oriental poppy. The clouds of white are sweet rocket, which is still so small this year that I’m not always sure that it really is sweet rocket and not something else.

View of garden 25 May 2011

View of garden 25 May 2011

How the wildlife cope with the different timing of the season remains to be seen, but the more of us that try to make our gardens wildlife-friendly, the more chance they all have of finding food and shelter when they need them. So – plant something for wildlife today!

May 27, 2013

Butterfly white holes

27 May 2013

I got away from the garden for a while today, and spent some time trying to fill some local butterfly white holes. “White hole” is our terminology in the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation for places where no butterfly sighting has been received by us in the current cycle of recording. Recording is done nationally in five-year cycles, at the end of which time all the data is collected together and analysed, so it is possible to see how the various species are doing in different parts of the country. 2013 is year four in the current cycle, so the pressure is on to do more recording – or persuade other people to record more for us. I’ll give you the map of white holes, so you can see what I’m talking about: the dots on the map show where at least one butterfly species has been recorded in 2010, 2011 or 2012, so the white holes are where there is no dot.

Map of butterfly "white holes" 2010-2012

Map of butterfly “white holes” 2010-2012

It might seem odd in a way that a lot of the white holes are in rural parts of the county, where you would think there are lots of butterflies, but there are two reasons for this. One is that there are less people to do the recording in the less populated areas, and the other, sadly, is that too much of our countryside is now not wildlife friendly. One of the sights we saw a lot of today were fields full of the bright yellow rape, for example. This attracts bees (though I’m told the honey is rather lacking in flavour) but not many nectaring butterflies; I guess some of the White family of butterflies might use it to lay eggs, but the crop may not remain standing long enough for the eggs to turn into caterpillars, and for the caterpillars to become chrysalises and then adult butterflies. There is also an associated problem of the fields being sprayed with pesticides and herbicides so the crop is pure and not attacked by pests: understandable from the point of view of the farmer (at least short-term) but no good for producing the diversity of plants which would feed a range of insects, including butterflies. Visually, however, it has to be admitted that  fields of rape can be very eye-catching, especially when there’s some nice clouds, as below.

Field of bright yellow rape

Field of bright yellow rape

Our trip had some success: three white holes “filled” with a combination of Peacocks and Small Whites. I was hoping for the odd Orange Tip, but no luck.

If you are in Dorset, please do make a note of any butterflies you see and report them to the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation website – there is a nifty map-based tool to help you pin-point where you saw them. Please don’t look at the white hole map and think it is only in the white holes that sightings are needed: the hole may be “filled” because I have recorded a Peacock there, but if you see a Red Admiral at the same place, we need to know about that, too. Other areas of the UK will also have branches of Butterfly Conservation which need records.

Recording  butterflies helps us to help them, so please do what you can.

May 25, 2013

Baby birds and apple blossom

25 May 2013

I was talking in my last article about a garden with a lack of birds – the problems, whatever they are, don’t seem to apply to my garden at the moment: it is so full of movement that it’s almost dizzying at times. At least two families of starlings are coming to the feeding station, and all the youngsters shriek at once to get Mum or Dad to feed them – the collective noun for a group of starlings is a “murmuration”, which is lovely, but at times I think it should be a squawk of starlings or a squabble of starlings. Mr and Mrs Blackbird are also much in evidence, though no young as yet.

Parent robin defending his (or her) family

Parent robin defending his (or her) family

Today’s treat was going down to the far end of the garden, where a pair of robins are in residence: they have been chitting away for over a week now every time I (usually with the cat accompanying me) go down there , and the reason was to be seen sitting on a low branch of our ginko tree today: a baby robin. The young do not have red breasts, but are speckled in shades of brown: presumably for good camouflage against predators.

I’ll leave you with a shot of the far end of the garden – both apple trees now have a lot of bloom on them, so hopefully we’ll get a good crop of apples this year, and my husband is under instructions only to mow a path through the daisies, not to decimate them: hopefully the insects will appreciate the flowers – I do.

Left: the far end of the garden with one of the apple trees surrounded by daisies. Right: close-up of apple blossom

Left: the far end of the garden with one of the apple trees surrounded by daisies. Right: close-up of apple blossom

May 23, 2013

Gardening for wildlife – some things not to do

23 May 2013

A friend has just moved to a few miles outside Weymouth, down towards the Fleet, in a nice rural, sheltered spot, surrounded by trees. The strange thing she is finding is, though there is lots of shelter for birds and you can hear some around the garden, virtually none are coming into the garden. She knows the previous gardener kept the grass mown very short all the time, so presumably that ceased to be a good habitat for the seeds or the insects on which birds feed. It also seems likely that herbicides were used, certainly on the patio area, again killing off the very things which might have tempted birds to visit.

One suspects this was the usual “well I only use weedkiller where I have to” sort of argument, but the people who say this sort of thing don’t stop to think of the knock-on effects of what they are doing; if you kill the plants, you remove food and cover for insects, and if you remove the insects, local birds will have less food. We also have no idea of the incremental damage we all do, together with the farmers using similar herbicides/pesticides, and the effect it may have on the very planet which supports us. I have some sympathy with people who make their living from the land, but little for a garden ownder just wanting a pretty view.

Left: eight starlings - we see up to 20 at a time now, whereas they used not to be here at all. Right: adult starling collecting large mouthful, presumably to feed its nestlings.

Left: eight starlings – we see up to 20 at a time now, whereas they used not to be here at all. Right: adult starling collecting large mouthful, presumably to feed its nestlings.

Gardening for wildlife isn’t just some things to do, it’s things not to do as well, and most of them are good in that they reduce the time your garden takes up or save you expense:

  • Don’t use weed killers or pesticides. I personally won’t even use the supposedly hedgehog-friendly slug pellets: as far as I can ascertain, there isn’t any conclusive research to prove or disprove how “safe” these slug pellets are, and I certainly don’t trust what the companies selling them to us say – they are bound to be biased. Our hedgehogs are in a lot of trouble, so I don’t think it’s worth taking any risks with them.
  • Minimise the use of nitrogen-rich fertilisers: the nitrogen is seeping into our water courses, causing problems, and you will end up with soft-growing plants which aphids and snails find particularly yummy.
  • Don’t use peat. What right have you got to help ruin precious habitats elsewhere just to make it easier to grow things? If you set yourself the rule “no peat” you will find ways round the problems, and if it’s not quite so easy, so what?
  • Be less controlling. If serried ranks of begonias with absolutely no weeds please you, OK, have some, but compromise – leave other areas of the garden less ruthlessly controlled. For example, all that leaf litter around your herbaceous plants in the autumn, or round the edge of your patio, isn’t just “rubbish” –  it probably contains a lot of insect pupae, which are aiming to spend the winter hiding from predators and from which the adult insect will emerge next Spring. Leave it on the herbaceous bed where it can rot down and feed your soil naturally: you can always just pull it back from the crowns of any plants you fear will rot, though personally I think it’s good cold weather protection for them. By all means sweep up the patio, but tip the sweepings under a bush somewhere, so anything in it will survive.
  • Stop pulling up every last “weed”. Many of them are British native wild flowers, which are useful to wildlife in a multitude of ways. Again, if you like things very neat and tidy, try to compromise a bit – you might even find you come to like it!
Left: baby starling waiting to be fed. Centre: robin. Right: chaffinch to the left and goldfinch to the right.

Left: baby starling waiting to be fed. Centre: robin. Right: chaffinch to the left and goldfinch to the right.

When we moved in here, the garden was nothing but grass, and the total bird life was one pair of blackbirds. The photos on this page were all taken here a day or two ago, so you can see how the right habitat, some food and no poisons, can bring in the winged wildlife. And yes, I know custard creams aren’t good bird food – they get very nutritious food most of the time: the biscuits were a bribe so I could photograph them!

Jackdaw defying all comers to steal his bit of custard cream.

Jackdaw defying all comers to steal his bit of custard cream.

May 21, 2013

Super-sized (recycled) water butts

21 May 2013

I said in the last blog that I’d tell you about our VERY large water butts. These are plastic vats, which are used to ship liquids like orange juice from the countries where they are produced to here. They are not re-used  for the same purpose (boo!) but some enterprising souls have been realising that they have alternative uses and buying them up to re-sell: they are popular with farmers, and have also been used for very large floats by fishermen, apparently. Any sort of rain saving is good, but if we have a dry spell, you need a serious amount of water storage to see you through.

To give you an idea of size, the “normal” water butt is about 3′ (1m) high and contains around 45 gallons (200l). The orange juice vats are 6′ (2m) high and hold about 330 gallons (1520l). At that rate, you’d think they’d dominate the garden, but with careful screening that isn’t necessarily the case: we’ve got one just inside the back gate, which everybody walks by without realising it’s there.  We put it in at the same time as re-modelling the gate area – see the photos below.

Left: the butt ready to go in. Centre: the butt in place. Right: the butt disguised by green-painted trellis.

Left: the butt ready to go in. Centre: the butt in place. Right: the butt disguised by green-painted trellis.

Part of our ability to hide it very quickly was that there was a large rambling rose just to the side of where it was to go, which I insisted was not to be removed or cut down while the wooden pergola was being errected (you can see some of the pergola in the left-hand photo). I supect the poor workmen doing the job cursed me up hill and down dale as they battled with the very thorny stems, but it worked, as you can see from the right hand photo. I did have a couple of lovely shrubs called coronilla covering the foot of the trellis, but lost them the winter before last, so am still looking for something to go there permanently, but last year grew a climber called asarina up it.

This butt catches the rainwater off one side of the garage roof, and we’ve got a second one which catches the flow the other side, which is particularly useful for topping up the pond in the summer. I have got smaller butts, catching the rainwater off the top greenhouse, which are tremendously useful for odd bits of watering as needed. It is possible to link several small butts together, so you can store more water.

Left: butt once rose and clematis had grown over. Right: butt last year with asarina growing up the trellis.

Left: butt once rose and clematis had grown over. Right: butt last year with asarina growing up the trellis.

Looking on the Internet tonight, it seems these recycled vats are no longer so easy to get, though it’s not impossible., and they aren’t cheap, but they do a great job, and it’s good to re-use something. Remember, recycling is good, but the best option of all is to reduce consumption, the second is to re-use any item as it is, and the third is to recycle: i.e. re-use the item after it has been re-manufactured in some way – we’ve only got one planet, let’s work to keep it.

May 19, 2013

Baby starlings and blackbird nest building

19 May 2013

Sitting in our conservatory the other evening around 7.00pm, the bird activity was going on late, with various species zooming to and fro. I didn’t take too much notice at first of the starling on the ground near the bird feeder, as it’s such a common sight, but then I saw it approach another bird and appear to feed it. Grabbing the binoculars, the parent bird had two youngsters with it, both pestering for food; young starlings are very easy to recognise, as they are the same shape as the parents with the same strutting gait, but they are brown – it is some time before they start growing their adult feathers, which are most noticeable first on the breast, making them look to me as though they are wearing flash waistcoats.

The three starlings disappeared out of sight, but my eye was then caught by movement on the far side of the pond. We’d been scooping algae and moss out of the pond earlier, and it was sitting in small heaps on the side, where we leave it in the hope that any pondlife we’ve accidentally dredged out will find its way back. One of the piles was being energetically turned over by a female blackbird, and I assumed she was looking for food. A moment later, however, she straightened up with a beak full of muddy pond weed and flew off with it, towards the house, disappearing out of sight into a tangle of ivy and rose which grow over the top a very large water butt we’ve got (I’ll do a post on that soon, so you can see just how large). I watched for some time, and in the course of about half an hour, I saw her make nine return trips to the pond; when the piles of weed by the side ceased to provide nest-building material which met her approval, she started getting down into the pond. You have to realise at this point that our pond has become very overgrown over the years, and though we have cleared large sections out this year, other areas are so matted that they are nearly dry land, so she wasn’t actually going underwater. The male blackbird meantime, was also around, spending some time on the end of the cottage roof, watching her endeavours.

Black male pheasant

Black male pheasant

I haven’t yet managed to get any photos of the young starlings, but I thought you might enjoy this recent shot of one of our visiting black pheasants.

May 17, 2013

Dandelion Appreciation Society

17 May 2013

I like dandelions! There – I’ve said it.

Small bee on dandelion flower with seedhead beside it.

Small bee on dandelion flower with seedhead beside it.

I don’t care that they are “weeds” – they are a lovely splash of colour and if you take a careful look at them, they are the most incredibly intricate flower. And is there any more perfect sphere than a dandelion clock (seedhead)? If you want to see the process by which the flowers turn to seed, I’ve just found a good time lapse sequence on You Tube:

I’m not alone in liking them – early butterflies will use them for nectar, as will many other insects, such as the small bee in the photo above; that photo was taken yesterday, and wandering round the garden with the camera, the two flowers on which I kept finding insects were the dandelion and the deadnettles – forget all my carefully nurtured “plants”.

Peacock butterfly on dandelion flower

Peacock on dandelion

If you can bring yourself to let them seed, you will also be very popular with your local goldfinches. Apparently there are an average of 180 seedheads in a clock, so that’s quite a lot of food all in one easy container for a hungry bird. From the dandelion’s point of view, it is also 180 chances at producing offspring, and with – I’d guess – 6 seedheads on the average plant, that’s over 1,000 young dandelions per parent plant. Even I wouldn’t want all that lot to grow.

The seedheads are called “clocks” because if you blow on them, some of the seedheads will float away, and the number of blows it takes to dislodge all the seeds is supposed to tell you the time. I wouldn’t like to guarantee the accuracy of this – I’d stick to wearing a watch if I were you – but it’s a nice idea.

Any other takers for the dandelion appreciation society?

May 15, 2013

Another easy wildflower for wildlife

15 May 2013

Teasels! Or if you want to get technical about it, dipsacus fullonum in this case – there are others in the family.

Red Admiral on teasel

Red Admiral on teasel

Teasels are bienniels, which means they start growing one year but don’t flower until the next. This doesn’t matter once you have got them going, but if you want a reliable supply of them you are advised to grow them two years running – after that they will self seed. As you can see in the photo above, they are really unusual in that their flowers don’t open from the bottom up, as many do, or even from the top down, like some: they open in rings around the flower. They are great wildlife value, as the blooms are attractive to butterflies and to bees, and then the seedheads are a great draw for birds, especially goldfinches.  In the photo below you can see the brown seedheads standing above the pink michaelmas daisies and the lavender aster frikartii ‘Monch’.

Teasels among michaelmas daisies and asters

Teasels among michaelmas daisies and asters

In their first year, they only make low-growing rosettes of leaves, but in year two the main stem goes up and produces a bloom, then the various side stems come out too. In my very fertile soil they can reach 4-5′ (1.5m). The area where the side stems join the main stem form a cup-like formation which catches water, and the word “teasel” is thought to derive from the word for thirst. Why the plant grows these water-catchers is uncertain: it could be a trap for aphids etc trying to climb up the stem, and there is even a suggestion that the plant can derive nutrition from the drowned insects – a sort of amateur fly-catcher arrangement.

They are a very architectural plant and usually only need staking towards the end of their life. You can leave them standing all through the winter for a bit of extra interest in the garden – and the birds will like it too. The only thing I’ve got against them is that they are quite prickly, so I’d advise keeping them away from paths. Some people complain at how they self sow, but they are easy enough to remove even when big: they don’t have much of a root system.

So – sow a teasel today, and keep your wildlife happy.

May 13, 2013

Bird alarm calls

13 May 2013

I was sitting having lunch in the conservatory when I became aware of an unusual amount of noise from the birds : both a starling and a blackbird were making noises which weren’t quite out-and-out alarm calls, but certainly ones indicating they were unsettled. I went out to have a look round, but couldn’t see anything, so I settled back to lunch – and it started again. Going out once more, I spotted the starling, sitting on top of our garage, and as I watched him he opened his beak and made a blackbird alarm call followed by some starling noises, followed by another blackbird alarm sound! 

three starlings on the bird feeder

Starlings on the bird feeder

I had come across the idea that starlings were good mimics before. There used to be a TV gardening guru called Geoffrey Smith, and at some point I bought a book of his. I can’t remember anything of the gardening advice he gave, but what really stuck in my mind was his tale of how the starlings used to confuse his dog by imitating Geoffrey’s “come here” whistle to the dog. The poor thing apparently was totally taken in, and used to tear round the garden to find Geoffrey, only to be very confused that he wasn’t wanted.

I wonder what the blackbirds made of it.