Wildlife Gardening in December

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


© David Beeson: Sea Otter

© David Beeson: Sea Otter

Well another series of Autumn Watch has been and gone – and what a delight it has been yet again. We are so fortunate in that the BBC has such an effective Natural History Unit in Bristol and that its productions are both visually stunning and informative. TV allows us all to experience the stunning beauty and diversity of our natural world avoiding the cost and pollution of global travel, without the long waits and traumas that accompany wildlife observation for ourselves.

One day, more years back than I care to calculate, I was wandering along a hedgerow looking for signs of dormice when I amazingly encountered someone walking in the other direction doing the same. He knew how to find dormice and I knew where to find the cute mammals. A perfect combination! The chap, at that time, was working as a photographic technician and he took me out one evening to photograph badgers. Illuminating: he could remain still for ever, ignoring buzzing insects and annoying itches on the side of his head and leg – something I’ve never ever managed. No wonder he was so good, and I so poor! So I introduced him to Ron Eastman, a friend and probably the UK’s first professional wildlife filmer. The rest, as they say, is history. Owen Newman has since become undoubtedly the UK’s best wild carnivore photographer and has endless BBC productions to his credit. I even ‘starred’ in one – well you could see my hands and feet anyway!

My admiration for the patience, skill with a camera and astounding understanding of wildlife of the top wildlife cameramen (and women) is complete, but finding your own wildlife is sometimes even better than a close encounter on the TV. The thrill of seeking out some elusive animal, or better still observing it for some time is quite delicious.

Northern & Central California

© David Beeson: close encounter with a Black Bear

© David Beeson: close encounter with a Black Bear

My wife and I have recently returned from an exploration of Northern & Central California. The environments and wildlife that we encountered were majestic. And, to my total surprise, the wild animals showed an amazing lack of fear of humans – for I had the impression of a gun-toting mob that shot everything in sight. We encountered, on foot, a huge black bear so close that the photograph needed no cropping to totally fill the frame (and we’re still alive and not in bits), spawning river salmon as close as a metre, wild ground squirrels that tried to fall asleep at our feet and sea otters (with a young born that day) at just a few arms’ lengths. A black-tailed mule deer, with young, allowed us to follow them along a track for quite some distance – again so close we could have almost touched them. I ask you, where else will you find signs asking you to treat the rattlesnakes kindly for they have priority? It almost felt as if we’d entered a children’s petting zoo. The wildlife in my own garden is far less tolerant of humans … all credit to the positive folks of California I say.

One reason why the truly wild wildlife in California was so unflustered may be due to the fact that dogs were always forbidden from such wild places. Many of my favourite UK reserves are almost infested by free-running dogs. Little wonder then that we pay the price for this approach with lesser views of creatures.

So if you want a longer distance* wildlife trip try California – it was just marvellous.
[*We ‘carbon off-set’ our travel via World Land Trust. This is the least one can do these days.]

I’m not a ‘ticker’. Just being taken to see some organism is nothing like enough for me. It’s the searching and the ecology of the area that really holds the fascination. So I avoid organised wildlife tours and just aim in the correct direction, after a fair bit of research admittedly, and hope for the best. Whatever you are likely to encounter in some location needs to be adapted to survive there: survival of the fittest.

© David Beeson: Rugged Scenery

© David Beeson: Rugged Scenery

Gardeners can see the world ‘through rose-tinted glasses’, for their aim is to ensure that the soil and/or climate is so manicured that virtually any plant from around the globe will grow. As likely as not if the conditions change slightly then that prize specimen will be in the compost heap before too long: yet given a sun-baked hillside and grotty soil and that very same species will thrive, flower and seed for generations. Organisms have their own ‘niche’ in which they can (just) survive, as in the garden, but if genuine competition occurs they will be pushed out of much of this to survive only in their ‘core niche’ into which they are superbly adapted. Some of those adaptations are wonderful.

In California we encountered poison-oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum ) growing in many different habitats. This plant, which is unrelated to oak trees, can be a small shrub or even a climber and spouts three-lobed leaves that look superficially like those on the UK oaks. However touch Toxicodendron and the difference is soon shown – a strong alergic reaction** occurs in virtually everyone. It is a hated plant and warning signs are at the start of every trail. Yet what a superb adaptation! Humans and wildlife generally gives it a wide berth so it can get on with its own business of growing and reproducing. Of course virtually all plants (except annuals and grasses) in the UK have toxins in their tissues and this will limit how many animals can consume them; we all know to avoid foxgloves, deadly nightshape and the most toxic of all monkshood, but Toxicodenron is supreme.

Carnivorous plants have their own extra special adaptations; this time to obtain mineral nutrients in regions where they are lacking in the soil. Introducing children to these plants is one of the very best ways of ensuring that they quickly understand that plants ‘do something interesting’. {If you’re still looking for Christmas presents – look no further.}

** “Poison-oak, and the very closely related poison-ivy, accounts for an estimated ten percent of lost work time in the U. S. Forest Service. In fact, hundreds of fire fighters who battle summer and autumnal blazes in California’s coastal ranges are so severely affected that they are unable to work. People who breathe in the smoke and soot may develop serious inflammation of respiratory mucous membranes.”

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/