Wildlife Gardening in July

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

Spring begins to merge into Summer

© Laurie Campbell: Painted Lady Butterfly

© Laurie Campbell: Painted Lady Butterfly

As the freshness and lime green of the UK spring merges into July so the sound of wildlife changes. Here the dawn chorus is diminishing in its range, as some birds start to recover from the exhaustion of breeding, and the young fledglings become less exuberant in their excited twittering that is such a feature of late May and early June. But now the calming cooing from the pigeons is more noticeable and the chirp of crickets and grasshoppers provides the sound clue that real summer is here at last.

Mid-June saw us cutting our Spring Meadow down to lawn as the flowering sequence had been completed, seeds shed and the area was being trampled by pigeons, rabbits and their friends. Just an odd couple of patches were left uncut to allow twayblade and pyramidal orchids to complete their seeding. Some un-rattled sections of the Summer Meadow have grown too well this year and have engulfed the large numbers of pyramidal orchids that flower there, so a selective ‘hay cut’ has been carried out to reduce the growth of grasses but to leave the orchids. The cut herbage now resides in the compost bins and the area has been seeded with rattle from elsewhere in the meadow.

© Laurie Campbell: Yellow Rattle

© Laurie Campbell: Yellow Rattle

I collect a percentage of the accessible yellow rattle seeds from sections of the meadow at this time of the year. This seed is redistributed to areas that have grown too strongly. Clearly it would be easier to buy in commercial seed – but that is quite expensive! It is also probably better to utilise local seed as it may be slightly genetically adapted to the local area.

Whilst the rattle does a great job in controlling our unruly grasses its effect starts to diminish in July as it dies off to merely leave its seeds extant for next year. This decline allows the grasses to recover, so they are not killed off.

A trial sowing of the semi-parasitic rattle amongst some patches of marjoram has indicated that this plant is also attacked by the rattle. However marjoram does still grow, but less vigorously.

A visit to Andy McIndoe’s* garden recently re-emphasised just how soil type influences meadows. His sloping site has an underlying geology that generates a nutrient-poor sandy soil and the resulting summer meadow looked better than our own. The lack of fertility ensures a very limited overall height and allowed much thinner grasses to develop, but the plant bio-diversity was less than our own equivalent meadow. The lack of strong-growing grasses also means that he did not need to control bindweed for it did not seemingly cause the lighter grasses to crash with its weight. Andy also had no need to employ yellow rattle to reduce herbaceous growth – which however means that the late spring nectar and pollen supply is somewhat reduced. Certainly our garden appears to have more bumble bees.

The comparative thickness of our own Summer Meadow gives added protection to animal wildlife with visual protection afforded by the vegetation. Hopefully there will be nests of bumble bees and various voles hidden at ground level.

Whatever soil conditions you have in your own location will largely determine the characteristics of any meadows, and there is little that can be done to change things. However always reduce the fertility by removing herbage and employ yellow rattle. Never fertilize a wildflower meadow, as this will encourage grasses to the expense of the more flowery species.

Mammals in the garden

With our clay over chalk soil now drying rapidly the mole runs show up much more clearly. In the lawn the vertical connections to the surface open up as distinct holes and the longitudinal feeding channels cause the lawn surface to crack up. These effects are obvious too in the flowery borders and some plants wilt badly (whilst others adjacent are fine) due presumably to root damage around their roots from mole runs.

This could well be a very difficult time for Forest Edge’s moles as our soil fauna will have become comatose, so unavailable as mole food. Even for humans, with forks and spades available, this is the time of the year to avoid digging the concrete-like soil so moles have no chance in extending their trap system. They must make do with whatever food stumbles into their tunnel system, and that could be very little indeed.

Activity: Searching for vole runs.

It is possible to gain some knowledge of the local vole population by a study of a local grassland area. This needs to be one that is not too short and is left at least semi-natural. But by parting the grasses down to ground level it is easy enough to spot vole runs. The runs are around a centimetre wide and hug the soil.

Nests are commonly located in grass tussocks or beneath some form of shelter. Here at Forest Edge vole nests can be encouraged beneath strategically placed concrete slabs or metal / felt sheets.

Leaving pieces of black felt in locations where slow worms or voles are anticipated means you can check for their presence quite safely, for when the felt is replaced it will not crush and animals (which can happen with heavier materials).

Searching for harvest mice.

These less-common rodents are a tad harder to locate. Locally I have found their nests in longer grass or amongst semi-overgrown shrubs. The flimsy, fist-sized nests are frequently located near ground level or up to half a metre high in strong grassy tussocks. Cocksfoot grass is especially popular.

Finding the nests is somewhat time consuming and you have to invest half an hour on each site, gently parting grassy tussocks and keep your fingers crossed. Clearly this is an invasive technique and could disturb the delightful creatures so only look if you have a real need to know if the species is present.

General small mammal advice.

There are various animal capture techniques available for all these small mammals but a license may be required. Clearly dormice should be left well alone. If you are really a keen rodent person my advice is: Join the Mammal Society. They can provide small mammal trap training and may still have a trap loan scheme. Untrained individuals can cause considerable mortality to shrews. When I was trapping I checked the boxes up to six times a day (and at night!).

Squirrels

Love ‘em or hate ‘em those pesky / lovely and cute grey squirrels are an important part of every wildlife gardener’s calendar.

During World War II the introduced Eastern USA squirrels were called ‘tree rats’ and for many years there was a bounty on them and folks could claim money for each grey tail presented to the local police station. Why were they so detested? Well I guess it was the damaged they caused to growing trees for, like rabbits, they relish the sweet juices carried up the outer reaches of tree trunks and branches in the late winter (the equivalent of delicious maple syrup). The nibbling of the bark causes distorted growth and allows the introduction of diseases into the valuable timber crop. Also the UK human population cannot really forgive them for out-competing our native red squirrel, which is a now mainly found in smallish relic populations.

But greys have quite a lot going for them. I remember carrying out some small mammal research on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. It was claimed that long and short-tailed voles did not occur there, and their niches were filled by water voles. Indeed I found that to be the case, but the point of the story is that the population of red squirrels on the island was quite a draw to visitors. However the reds are crepuscular, active mainly at dawn and dusk, so visitors seldom saw the cute creatures. Greys however are just like human teenagers: more likely to be seen during the middle of the day!

Forest Edge has a very healthy grey squirrel population and they can aggressively dominate bird feeders. I’m only too happy to share the bird seed with them – but I did say ‘share’, so total domination is not appreciated. Hence my new toy: A Droll Yankee Squirrel Slinky. This is designed to return bird feeder climbing squirrels back to ground level and so frustrate their attacks on the bird food.

Success? You’ll have to wait for next month’s article.

For a different anti-squirrel device do see these videos. Quite wonderful!!!

Do follow these links.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NocRG3r2zBw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8YZIhlWpS0

Stoats in the meadow

© Laurie Campbell: Stoat.

© Laurie Campbell: Stoat.

Our local stoats have been shocked. I doubt that they will ever be the same again … for we have negatively compared them to the activities of those appearing on Spring Watch. However, pleasingly they have decided to rise to the challenge and I witnessed a magical display earlier today.

A trip to feed household peelings into the distant compost bin allowed my escape from B&B duties and a meadow wander resulted. By our pond I loitered to spy what was happening below water level, but my attention was immediately distracted by a frisking and frolicking young stoat. It was just enjoying its body and rushed hither and thither, bouncing high into the air and executing handbrake turns of the highest quality. Jeremy Clarkson would have been proud!

After a couple of minutes of these fake high-speed chases the beast explored the pond for small mammals and quenched its thirst before exploring that tall stationary human from most angles. Confusion showed on its cute visage so a quick approach to within a metre was required. Clearly the static human offered little fun and it bounded off at top speed to explore our woodpile on the other side of the water.

I trusted my luck and followed, going clockwise rather than anticlockwise.

I then had another five minutes of very close observation as the animal climbed and explored the wood and constantly approached, at waist-level and often as close as a metre, to view the watching human. Finally, back on terra firma it came up virtually to by feet, looked up then around and resumed its life hidden from human eyes.

Magical indeed.

Those sad individuals that never experience the joys of our natural environment are missing out on so much life. Those for whom wildlife merely equals a killing spree have my total contempt.

Forest Edge’s birds

Our lawn is surprisingly quiet now as the feeding frenzy of parents is largely past and the solid ground means that earthworms are off the menu. Even the ant-eating green woodpeckers have gone on holiday elsewhere. Only insect-eating pied wagtails and herbivorous pigeons are much in evidence.

Naturally the sexy male pigeons continue their everlasting courtship, but the females are largely unimpressed by the bowing, scraping and two legged jumping of their lovers. Ructions in the trees, however, provide clues to the eventual success of these amorous adventures.

The garden has been graced by both mistle and song thrushes this year. The song thrush’s melodious song continues even now but has changed to a slightly harsher and a less diverse repertoire. But he is still singing mightily at dawn (4.30am), morning, late afternoon and at dusk. The energy expenditure must be considerable and it is doubtful if it really is needed. Still whilst there may be a lack of worms to consume there are good numbers of snails and slugs available.

*Andy is i/c the Hillier Garden Centres and organises their multi-gold winning Chelsea Flower Show exhibit. The garden occupies around three acres to the west of Romsey, Hampshire.

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/