Wildlife Gardening in March

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

The Importance of Wildlife Gardens

Wildlife in the UK must have been so different before human numbers started to build up in the Bronze Age. Even a thousand years ago – before 1066 and the Norman Conquest – the Saxon environment would have been rich: beavers, wolves and vast forests. The Somerset Levels were so wet and remote that King Alfred hid away there for five months – and the Danish Vikings could not access it to wheedle him out no matter how hard they tried. In southern England Sellwood Forest stretched from north Wiltshire through to Dorset and formed a barrier between the east and west – with only a couple of through routes available. In Hampshire the wastes of, what would be, the New Forest joined to Harewood Forest and to the Windsor Forest – another continuum of natural environment – and to Sellwood. These wooded areas were huge tracts of land through which wildlife could flow. What a contrast to today – where isolated pockets of woodland, downland or wet pasture, for example, survive in isolation.

© David Beeson: Snowdrop on the woodland floor

© David Beeson: Snowdrop on the woodland floor

Forest Edge has its own oak, wild cherry and birch trees that share wildlife with the adjacent woodland, but our flowery meadows and fish-free pond are isolated. We have had burnet and cinnabar moths in the garden, three species of skippers and three types of blue butterflies but now only holly blue and common skipper survive. The others, in small isolated colonies, have died out and we have to hope that re-colonisation occurs sometime in the future.
But with our mini-nature reserve surrounded by horse desert, ploughed farmland and woodland the chance for grassland organisms finding us is slim. So any initiatives around the country that link up habitat types should always be applauded – green corridors.

In some ways towns are easier for organisms to re-colonise than our own meadow. For adjacent town gardens can offer different mini-habitats that give something to many species. Railways, canals and motorways also offer ready-made green routes. These factors do not occur to the same degree in the countryside where one crop type may dominate an area, so acting as a barrier to many beasties.

Consequently it is important that people keep their gardens as diverse as possible to attract wildlife and, importantly, to allow it to flow to new territories. So what actions can be taken? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Log piles in the damp corners of the garden for newts, frogs and small rodents. Invertebrates use them too.
  2. Make an underground home, accessed by a piece of plastic piping, for amphibians and their friends.
  3. Paving slabs, raised slightly off the soil with stones or bricks, will give access to slowworms and small mammals. I also use squares of old roofing felt along the edge of my meadows for reptiles.
  4. We are about to have a photo-voltaic electrical system fitted and the spare roofing tiles will be piled along a fence, with straw or hay packed between the layers, for wild bees to colonise. Old bricks or stones work just as well.
  5. A hay or straw-filled box allows small mammals a secure, warm location and will fill with insects in the spring, summer and autumn.
  6. Ponds, of course, are wonderful. Try to allow some space for a damp, marshy, patch if space allows.
  7. It is very tempting for the gardener to remove all the ivy from garden trees, but bats use these areas as summer roosts and butterflies can hibernate there too – so ensure some is left in the area.
  8. Be different. Why just grow the boring plants sold at garden centres? Use seed (#) from your common local wild flowers – these are as hardy as nails and will grow, flower and seed easily for you. Importantly these plants are suited to your location and the ones that your wildlife is adapted to.
  9. Do not be too tidy!

© David Beeson: Daffodils.

© David Beeson: Daffodils.

# – there should be no problem with common species from roadsides etc, but be aware that some plant seeds are protected by law. Clearly no plants should be dug up without the landowner’s permission.

Some wildflowers seeds are available from Chiltern Seeds and other firms. Wild bulbous species are also obtainable. Try the Internet for sources near you.

I adore chalky hillsides covered in downland. In the past these generated the ‘Great’ bit of Great Britain – with the downland sheep producing the western world’s best wool; wool that was in great demand, and could be exported, at premium prices, around Western Europe.

From a wildlife enthusiast’s viewpoint these patches of short turf are both good news and bad. Bad because they are complicated: place a square quadrant down and count the number of different species – often twenty or more in a quarter of a square metre. Repeat the same on heathland and you’d often do well to find three. So when I taught practical ecology it was easier for the students to study the latter – fewer names to learn!

The good news about downland is its diversity – there are many charismatic species adapted to the thin calcarious soils, and each can be a joy to behold.

Chalky soils are quite rare around the globe, but coastal sand dunes hold similar plants. This could seem, at first sight, surprising but: each is chalky, the one from the rocks the other from broken shells; both are free draining and they warm up quickly in the sun. So bee orchids, for example, are found in each of these habitats.

The dry soils could mean water stress for plants in the summer: so you’d expect to see plants with small and hairy (hence often grey-coloured) leaves. Many may be aromatic – for these volatile oils help to reduce water loss. Some may even have leaves that roll up in dry conditions – marram* and sea lyme grasses both do that on sand dunes.

So my suggestion to you is: set aside a weekend this year to explore a sand dune system and a chalky (or limestone) hillside. Look for the similarities and enjoy the open space.

*On a wet day the plant looks quite different – with flat grass-like leaves.

© David Beeson: Forest Edge resident frog.

© David Beeson: Forest Edge resident frog.

Downland is maintained by the constant nibbling of animals – usually sheep or rabbits. Without this constant grazing the seeds of shrubs, such as privet or hawthorn, would be able to establish themselves. The open grassland would then change into scrub and to woodland.
Low density grazing by rare-breed horses can also be beneficial to maintaining grassland, but the horse paddocks near here all seem to be grazed almost to bare ground and I consider very poor habitats.
[The February article looked at the different growth habits of monocots and dicots – this explains some of the biology behind succession and grazing eco-systems.]

Motorway verges have provided the UK with wonderful linear nature refuges and it is pleasing to see the range of native plants that have been planted or encouraged**. Some zones are cut, others allowed to progress through succession and additionally areas have been planted up with shrubs. With the expected swinging government cuts surely hitting wildlife and conservation more viciously than other areas we may well see any activities on these verges abandoned. Already one hears of whole teams of countryside and wildlife civil servants being awarded their P45, redundancy, notices.

Here, at Forest Edge, we expect to have a photo-voltaic (P-V) electrical system installed soon. The aim is to generate our own green electricity and so cut back on greenhouse gas production. We have already carried out many green measures – lots of insulation, double-glazing, condensing boiler and cropping our own wood for the living room fire – so P-V was the next logical step.

Having looked at most of the green energy systems this is the only one I find economically convincing in our location, and we would hope that the package would pay for itself within about ten to twelve years. The panels are guaranteed for 25 years and are likely to be hassle-free.

Had we had a stream or river on the site I would like to think that a waterwheel would have been economic – sadly no chance!

If you have advice about green technologies, such as solar water heating, wind turbines, ground heat pumps – please pass it on via Forum. I will keep readers up to date with the effectiveness of my P-V system.

Squirrel Slinky – the anti-squirrel device is now totally useless, as even the smaller beasts have mastered it!

Frogs – our frogs have decided it is spring enough and a mass spawning occurred on 25th February. The herons and buzzards have arrived to eat them.

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/