Wildlife Gardening in April
N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.
The longer days and bright sunshine of middle and late March has really stimulated our local ecosystems. The frog spawn has hatched, without disturbance from pesky mallards this year, and the minuscule comma-like tadpoles are slowly spreading out in our wildlife pond. We might have anticipated seeing the resident palmate newts stalking the aquatic environment for live meat, but they are still maintaining a low profile. Perhaps the early morning visits by grey herons have had a strongly negative impact on their population size. Carnivorous water boatmen (the ones that swim upside down) and pond skaters have appeared from somewhere.
The pond margins are always slow to grow for the pond water penetrates it deeply and delays the warming effect of the sunlight. But there are signs of snake’s head fritillaries and star of Bethlehem pushing skywards. The southern marsh orchids (see below) are not yet extant.
We grow a range of orchids in pots as well as those that freely seed themselves around the garden. The ultra-rare lady’s slipper orchids are now sending up strong shoots but, as they are highly attractive to molluscs, we do go against all our principles and protect them with a mini scattering of slug pellets. Before I am chastised, can I say that access to birds such as thrushes is near impossible and dead snails are soon removed to soil burial. The southern marsh orchid crosses that we maintain in pots are looking especially strong, already being well established, and I can look forward to some massive flowering spikes and a generous supply of seed.*
The orchids are grown in a free-draining soil and are covered in granite chippings to reduce competition and discourage mollusc invasions. Our slipper orchids, derived from the seed of the then single UK plant, arrived via Members of The Hardy Orchid Society (http://www.hardyorchidsociety.org.uk/ ) who were growing them for reintroduction. I’m sure specimens can still be purchased from that source but do not assume that growing them is easy. I have given away four plants, that I had grown myself as off-shoots of my own plants, but results were not as I would have wished. I passed the valuable plants to people whom I thought had the skills to grow them on and who would pass the eventual seed into some conservation project. All the plants are all dead. In fact they survived less than a single season. I am not amused! So if you plan to buy similar plants do ensure you have both the skills and enthusiasm to nurture these treasures.
My new tawny owl box has achieved instant success, with at least one bird in residence recently. We now await the possibility of the local pair breeding and seeing the associated activity. Certainly there is a female calling regularly most evenings. Other bird boxes show little sign of being used, but possibly the birds are merely being very choosy as they have many boxes to select from. However a locally rare house sparrow has been prospecting our bird box terrace and I suspect log-tailed tits are resident again this year in one of the shrubs.
Last year, for the first time ever, our bird feeders attracted flocks of rooks. This year none have so far been spotted. Presumably the winter 2007 / 8 was unusual and the birds lacked early year food supplies.
This morning I awoke to a duet from both a male song thrush and blackbird. Lovely. Except it was soon after 5am and future snoozing evaded me.
Slow worms have emerged from hibernation and one especially chunky specimen has been spotted sunning itself. Again it is amazing what a low profile these garden residents maintain. Bumble bees, a few lonesome butterflies and an occasional bee fly are all around on sunny days.
On the mammal front there has been some activity. Yes, we have sure signs of brown rats, moles, grey squirrels and an odd rabbit but our stoats may well have been killed during the gamekeeper’s deadly foraging through the forest. The sound of the countryside can so frequently be ‘Bang, bang, bang.’ So depressing.
Deer sightings in the adjacent forest are quite good now as the vegetation is low. If you have not ventured out deer spotting then this is worth considering. The fallow will shortly be shedding their thick and dark winter coat for their snazzy summer version. During the changeover the animals appear scraggy, but it allows individuals to be more readily recognised from one day to the next.
Annual seed has now been spread into prepared sections of our Summer Meadow, as mentioned last month. Some gentle rainfall will aid its germination. The yellow rattle seeds, vital to control the height of the meadow grasses, will be germinating soon and will give a sheen of yellow flowers in early summer.
Meanwhile the wild daffodils are still in strong flower and the first cowslips are blooming where they have spread into our borders. Blue and white violets grow especially well around the trunks of our walnut trees and may well be home to silver washed fritillary eggs later in the year.
Enjoy your wildlife and the sounds of spring.
*Orchid seed is usually available for people with a genuine conservation objective. This seed will be from potted plants and will most likely be a hybrid between various Dactylorhiza species as the plants are grown in close association. Email in mid / late June.
* Pyramidal seed, pure from Summer Meadow, can also be made available. Contact me in mid / late June. Other meadow seed may also be available, depending on their flowering / seeding.
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/