Wildlife Gardening in September

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

Life and Death in the Countryside

I’m sure you’ll all have similar stories to these but they reflect all our interest, and concern, in wildlife and green issues in general – so I’ll share them with you.

Badgers

© Laurie Campbell: Badgers foraging.

© Laurie Campbell: Badgers foraging.

I’ve long had a soft spot for these big beasts of our countryside. For centuries they’ve been ‘got at’ for little reason, yet they survive and indeed thrive in some locations. And that says a lot about these plucky creatures of the night.

Recently someone I know has taken a whole host of our wildlife-friendly B&B guests out deer, hare and more recently badger set looking. To his horror virtually all the local sets, shown to us both by the then keepers and woodmen, have mysteriously died out. Not one site, some of which must be hundreds of years old, showed fresh badger digging signs.

Now it is easy to jump to conclusions and our clay-over-chalk soils can be a difficult medium in which to find worms when the soils dry and bake into concrete – so that could be the reason for the amazing death of all the local badgers that we knew about? But could that really be the situation this year, with continual showers dampening the ground for much of the summer and encouraging worm activity? Answer: Best for me to check in a similar habitat, but with a different landowner and ‘management’ policies.

So I take a guest just a couple of miles to another section of oak-hazel woodland, with identical soil. I know of only one largish set in that area, so naturally we headed in that direction and stood in the middle of the set, at a touch after 7pm ……… six or seven active holes, bedding and badger digging signs everywhere and three rapidly-growing young badgers watching us from five meters away! Naturally we retreated, to minimise disturbance, and came back just over an hour later to watch mum grooming two of the cubs and various other activity.

So what conclusions would you make from all this? And importantly what on earth would, or could, you do? Advice would be appreciated.

Female sparrow hawk

Pigeons hardly notice us as they strut around the lawn and court on the bungalow’s extensive roof. We adore their antics and are happy enough to share ‘our’ garden, and lashings of bird food, with them. In exchange they share ‘their’ garden, and their lives, with us. But such a benign location should never be taken for granted and keeping an eye on the sky is always wise.

[I well remember the wood mouse feeding centimetres from my nose, the other side of our patio window, on a feeder of peanuts ….. until it was plucked away by a near suicidal plunge by a kestrel.]

Whoosh, crash and a fluttering of feathers ….. and a pigeon, just a few metres from our vantage point, is mortally wounded. However the female sparrow hawk is partially disturbed by human movement and flies up into an adjacent tree so allowing the pigeon to stumble into a flower border.

The pigeon still had the slightest chance of survival and, to my surprise, two of its friends mobbed the hawk and forced it to briefly depart the scene of ‘crime’.

Such a meaty meal was however too good to neglect and, after a few half-hearted attempts had failed, we later spotted a feather mass on the lawn edge; each feather’s quill showing the signs of sparrow hawk plucking.

Bird Food

Most wildlife enthusiasts believe that wild food is best for wild creatures, but few of us can resist coaxing closer views by supplementary feeding. So, just as Forest Edge is awash with artificial bird boxes and other animal breeding or hibernating spots, we keep our feathered companions well filled for much of the year.

There are almost infinite variations in the feeding of wild birds; some people feed all year round on bread crusts, others buy in seeds. We mainly do the latter but stop feeding during the height of the breeding phase, to encourage their utilization of the then abundant invertebrate supplies. Now however the cute birds are eating their way through a national debt worth of seeds. The question then arises … where is it best to obtain the seed? I shun the local market, despite its attractive cheapness, for the seed could be contaminated or old. How about RSPB or an eco-friendly farmer or commercial firm for my supplies? In the end I plumped for the eco-friendly farmer – just to encourage other agriculturalists to follow the same routeway. What are your thoughts?

Wildflower seeds

© Laurie Campbell: Cowslip.

© Laurie Campbell: Cowslip.

Sowing time approaches. Now would be a great time to obtain your seed for next year’s wildflower and nectar supplies for your garden. Some ripe seeds will come straight from the local environment but others could be sourced from a wild seed supplier. An Internet search will give a list of suitable firms selling seed, but do select a specialist firm rather than from some generic firm (like Thompson & Morgan) whose supplies may be of foreign origin.
What to plant? Foxgloves and other biennials, like teasels, are popular with wildlife. How about wild blue UK aquilegias? Cowslips or primroses for the lawn? The choice is wide, but the general advice is: grow what occurs naturally in your own location.

If you’ve space in your flower borders I’d fill it up with wild daffodils or snake’s head fritillaries or native bluebells; there is always a spot that suitable somewhere.

Garden insects

As August melds into the cool mistiness of September the nectar supplies are diminished. In our Summer Meadow the wild marjoram and black knapweeds are popular with the flies, whose colouring always seems to make them look fiercer than their characters are in practice, and minute carder bees that grow smaller as the summer progresses. We have green crickets, dark brown crickets and grasshoppers all over the place.

The white butterflies have had a great summer and we grow nasturtiums in odd corners for larval food. High summer butterflies are now sadly on the decline and all too often one discovers ‘discarded’ wings; but with nuptial flights common all of August we can feel confident of plenty of adults again next year … if the weather is good.

The Beesons of Forest Edge are probably about to purchase a high-tec beehive and bees for next year. Has anyone seen the new hive design from English Nature? Advice would be appreciated.

http://www.omlet.co.uk/products_services/products_services.php?view=Bees&gclid=CK2dsPOfmZwCFc0B4wod7j0udA

Squirrels

Our squirrels have taken their feeding locations elsewhere for the whole of August, and hardly an animal was to be seen. Instead they sit twenty metres up in our walnut trees and shower down the discarded shells onto our heads. Cute creatures! So, no progress in evaluating the Squirrel Slinky.

Forest Edge

© Laurie Campbell: Slow Worm

© Laurie Campbell: Slow Worm

The Summer Meadow remains full of flower and is attracting the late summer butterflies in good number. Marjoram, knapweeds, scabious, St John’s wort and the maligned ragworts all add colour. At ground level the slow worms have had a good year and the growing froglets are everywhere.

Already the plans for next year’s meadow are well advanced, with an early cut to most of the Summer Meadow in prospect to reduce the growth of the grasses, which have put on too much height with the wet summer. Some sections of the meadow will be left uncut this autumn to allow vole populations more cover and to better survive the winter.

Evening deer watching in the adjacent woodland has enabled B&B guests to have good views of two different deer species (roe & fallow), whilst barking muntjac can frequently be heard in the cool still evenings.

On my own last excursion with guests close views of our resident barn owl along a set-aside field, yet at the same time hearing a tawny in the woodland, gave some Israelis a feel for the differing ecology of meadow and wood. The group of three young children and their mother experienced total blackness in the forest with fortitude. No lights are employed on the jaunts to encourage us all to hear the sounds of the near pitch-black woodland night. A two hour trip I feel they will remember with pleasure long into the future.

Next month:
Yellow rattle.
Bird boxes.

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/