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.

© Laurie Campbell: Grey Squirrel

© Laurie Campbell: Grey Squirrel

You know how it happens. Something, perhaps quite trite, just ‘gets to you’. It nags away at the very seat of one’s soul and whenever one’s guard drops – its there again, in full glaring Technicolor. The stimulus may be little, but the effect is enormous over a period of time and can grow until it is all-consuming.

And so it is with one of ‘our’ grey squirrels. But you’d really have suspected that he, for I’m sure that a female would be more circumspect in its approach, might have relaxed a bit during the late summer – when all our tree-based rodents took a well earned rest from our garden to sample the glut of tasty nuts and berries on offer in adjacent Harewood Forest. For at the very end of August, as you may recall from my article, the cute furry squirrels departed for more lucrative trees and my squirrel Slinky project was put on hold.

Now, as December moves towards Christmas, the forest fruits are less attractive whilst sunflowers and peanuts are the ambrosia of choice. Our squirrels are back to challenge the Slinky.

Firstly, a touch of geography: Our main bird feeder is located some two hundred metres from the forest margin, but a green routeway exits along which the animals can easily leap from trunk to trunk or more readily scurry along some overlapping branches.

The nearest tree to the main free food source is some 4.2m distant and the jumping location of choice at a height of 3.2m. Other smaller and weaker shrubs are closer, but none nearer than three metres. A smaller, unprotected peanut source sits at 2.3m in the general direction of the tree, and its top is level with the peanut holder on the main feeder. Now you’ve got all that? Well, you’re doing great guns as I’ve had to draw it out for myself!

Several squirrels camp out around the bird feeder for much of the middle part of the day for, being winter they like to sleep in late. [Must be teenagers.] Most of this flock happily accept the free offerings of sunflowers scattered with gay abandon by our flocks of passerines. But not all; some squirrels have had that deadly sin of frustration sewn into their furry coats and only the freshest of bird food will suffice. He must climb the feeder.

Initially, as you will recall from previous articles, the rodents had free access to the food, but the purchase of the Slinky upped the anti. Initial attempts to scale the Slinky failed and he took to leaping from the tree – and succeeded, despite having to land on a metal spike and various other metal objects. That the animal had achieved such a feat, as we watched, astounded us … so we moved the food an additional 1.5 metres away from the tree. [What killjoys.]

Alpha-male was up to this challenge so resorted to renewed pole climbing – eventually beating the Slinky – reaching the feeders regularly. Grease, liberally applied merely resulted in a fat, greasy but satiated animal.

Finally the Slinky supplier suggested that a thicker pole would ‘do the trick’, and they supplied one free. However at that time the squirrels departed for the woods. Now they have finally returned; with the squirrel sabbatical over, let battle commence again.

Some squirrels have made attempts, that I’ve witnessed, to climb the Slinky – and failed, falling back to ground in a mildly controlled tumble – and been none the worse for the experience. Alpha has tried this and has failed each time we’ve watched. So the next move, after much tail flicking and taking out his frustration on his neighbours, is to climb the tree to the jumping point. This is a great squirrel viewpoint and the potential jump trajectory is clear of obstructions, but surely beyond its leaping capacity … surely? It’s 4.2m in distance and a drop of 1.6m to a metal end point.

I watched five abortive attempts to pluck up kamikaze courage, but each time the jump just didn’t happen despite vigorous tail flicking to heat up the muscles. Finally Alpha departed to harass anyone nearby that happened to be near enough. But he did eventually make one staggering jump, only to fall some 0.5m short. He landed a ground distance of 3.7m from the leaping point and 5.0m through the air. What an attempt – and we awarded 9/10 for style too.

Many angry glances were aimed at the feeders, but the glares had little impact and the protected poles failed to vanish in a flash of magical smoke. A new approach now came to mind and an agile climb through the twiggy shrubs was attempted – until Alpha end up upside down and falling, in a most unbecoming manner, into the surrounding herbage.

So how is ‘frustrated squirrel’ today? Does the Slinky work? Best to look at the photograph and comments at the very end of this article.

Forget the big picture…

It is good to look at the small organisms occasionally.

It’s always the flowering plants that get all the credit. You’d sometimes think that they are the only green organisms out there in the big wide environment … so let’s hear about the mosses, liverworts, and ferns. They are fascinating – especially at microscopic level.

The first thing to understand about plants is that they all, yes even the trees and roses in the back garden, have a two stage life-cycle; a bit like tadpoles and frogs. One plant life cycle stage is sexual and the other asexual, with the plant cycle alternating from the one to the other.

[If you’d care to read up further – it’s called Alternation of Generations.]

The green moss [gametophyte – gamete producing plant] that you spy is the sexual phase of its life cycle and, incidentally, has only one set of chromosomes. Equivalents of egg and sperm are produced, with the sperm swimming through the surface moisture to reach and fertilize the egg. Then the fertilized egg, called a zygote and now with a double chromosome set, divides and grows to form to form another life phase [sporophyte]. In many mosses this sporophyte is like a little pin, with a cap, that sits above the green moss that matures, opens and releases asexually produced spores*.

The life cycles of mosses and liverworts are very similar and the latter is somewhat easier to study– so here’s a practical for you to try.

Visit a garden centre and look at the cheaper plants, the one’s on special offer because they’ve been sitting around for too long. Some will have their soil covered by flat, green plants … that look a bit ‘livery’ in shape …liverworts! Buy that plant, then transplant the liverworts on to a humus-filled pot or saucer. Keep moist and shaded outside. Your liverwort, probably called Marchantia or Pellia, should grow and reproduce before your very eyes.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marchantiophyta But a general search will yield much more data.

A good botanical book from a library is a great borrow for a few weeks.
Life on Earth, Private Life of Plants and other BBC productions are worth a study for their botanical content.

Above: Marchantia – general structure and some details of its reproductive organs.

Above: Marchantia – general structure and some details of its reproductive organs.

Now let us jump up to the ferns. Here, if you look beneath a frond, you’ll easily see the spore producing structures – for the plant you see is now a sporophyte and the gametophyte is miniscule, looking similar to a liverwort. In this case the gametophyte can live kilometres away, but eventually after fertilization the new big fern plant grows out of the little sexual phase.

Ferns often live in drier situations than the mosses and liverworts, yet they still depend on surface water on the gametophyte to allow sperm to swim to the egg. In the so called Higher Plants, the conifers and flowering plants, that link to water has been severed and so they are much better adapted to life on dry land.

Investigation

When you are next bored, and in that same garden centre, investigated the potted ferns for their spores or for mini new fern sporophytes growing out of minute gametophytes at soil level.

You may also find another group of non-flowering green plants in the same shop. These are the ‘Lycopods’ and one called Selaginella used to be sold as an indoor ‘green plant’ – for it will never-ever flower!

What a horrid present to give to a gardening friend with the challenge: ‘I bet even you could not get this plant to flower!’

So where are the gametophyte and sporophyte in the Higher Plants? – for that you’ll have to wait for next month.

*Spores do not contain small root, stem and leaves as you’d find inside a typical seed.

A Wander in the Woods

© David Beeson

© David Beeson

A grey, soggy early winter has not been great for wildlife viewing, but clear days do arrive occasionally and can be rewarding.

We are hugely fortunate in living alongside a large native forest with its complexity of wildlife. Sadly few plants look their best in December, but that does have its advantages too – for the bracken is smashed to the ground and views through the woodland are much longer. The wild deer are now very visible and fully active.

A recent frosty morning gave me the opportunity to skip the chores and escape with binoculars.

My first encounter was with fallow deer – they were only metres away from the garden boundary and still displayed their perky summer coats. The rut is behind us now and the animals were relaxed, but eventually trotted elegantly away.

In contrast to the summer coated fallow, the noisy roe deer appeared to have thickened their pelage and the colours were darker; yet they too generally ignored me for they had encountered me before and decided I presented no major concern.

Roe live in smaller groupings than the fallow, which prefer the protection of the herd, so are more regularly encountered. Many of the roe groups are quite predictable, tending to specific locations at known times of the day – if they’ve not been disturbed by the stalkers that use the wood. They are often very vocal.

The third deer species I encountered within ten minutes was a surprise, for it was not the diminutive muntjac, whose males bark so frequently on warm evenings; I saw two red deer. There had been an odd comment that the species had been released into the forest, but the two fleeting glimpses I’d had previously had not been 100% conclusive. Now I had no doubt for the encounter with the hind and her well-grown calf was close. The only worry being the colour – each had a deep charcoal coloured face, neck, shoulder and back; flanks were grey and the tail patch showed no white colouration. Being less familiar with this species I’m seeking advice – has anyone else encountered this colouration before?

Harewood Forest is used for ‘field sports’, so the ecology is distorted towards pheasants, partridges and deer. Presumably a premium will be extracted for killing the red deer, and possibly that will be enhanced by the seemingly unusual coat of the animals.

It was also good to notice the greater spotted-woodpeckers in amorous mood – spring is ahead! Eventually!

© David Beeson: The Victorious Squirrel!

© David Beeson: The Victorious Squirrel!

The Squirrel Slinky:

So what is the definitive result?

Having changed to a recommended thick diameter pole, quite why that would be better eludes me; I tried again to tempt the rodents.

Well within a day Alpha had again climbed the pole and was photographed. The helpful supplier of the Slinky, ever mindful of a good outcome for their product, pointed out that the anti-squirrel product should be fitted as high up the pole as possible – and it could go up a smidgen. I obliged and waited. The result is visible below.

The Squirrel Slinky is a useful deterrent, and it will defeat some of our smaller animals, but determined and strong squirrels can beat the system. It is not, from my as near scientific research as is possible here, 100% effective – for I’ve seen animals beat the product.

Would I buy it? Yes, it has been great entertainment and has cut down losses to squirrels. End of saga!

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/