Wildlife Gardening – March and the world is all a twitter

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: Snowdrops

© David Beeson: Snowdrops

It really is great to be alive at this time of the year. The days are lengthening, so there is the stimulus of light in the morning to help me drag myself out of bed… and the weather is improving. Our avian friends have transmogrified from communal living to being fiercely territorial and squabbles seem to break out unexpectedly where harmony existed before. The male birds have again found their voices and are proclaiming territories around our garden. Quite wonderful.

Having said that we do still have loose flocks of finches that appear occasionally, but the long-tailed and related tits seem to be in family pairs or small groups.

We appear to have two populations of wood pigeons here. We have our semi-tame resident pairs that wander around the patio and sit on the bungalow roof for much of the day. But we also have flocks of the same species, sometimes counted into their hundreds, that fly through and use the farmland for their feeding and then rest in our high walnut trees.

Frogs have rediscovered our pond and have an overdose of sex hormones driving them to do ‘what comes naturally’. The colder than average late winter has delayed the amphibian romantics this year, but they have arrived in good numbers and spawn has been laid in the shallow end of the pond. The younger female frogs, with smaller spawn masses, laying first in the water this year.

© David Beeson: BTO Woodcrete birdbox.

© David Beeson: BTO Woodcrete birdbox.

I do not currently have many digital images of frogs, so this year set up a hide to allow easy photography. But the frogs are failing to play their part for they appear above water only when the day is dark and cloudy, and hence shutter and aperture settings would generate poor images. Our frogs stay around the pond only for a matter of days and then merge again back into the undergrowth. I suspect this is due to the high level of potential predation in a smallish and shallow pond.

Our palmate newts only show themselves once the frog’s spawn has hatched and there is an abundance of easily Hoovered-up food.

A whole new set of nesting boxes has been added to the existing stock. These woodcrete models, recommended by the BTO, are expensive but have a 25-year guarantee, so will be better long-term value than wooden versions. Even hardwood boxes, which I had made myself, have quickly shown the effects of decay and many are now less desirable as nesting venues than I would have hoped. The new boxes include designs aimed at tawny owls, and I await to assess their attractiveness to the species – but they can not be worse than my own wooden ones which have been ignored for years.

The winter has suited our mole population. They have extended their runs in both the flower borders and in what we previously called the lawns or meadows. We have re-named the latter as ploughed meadows now! While the velvety insectivores enjoy our peaceful garden they appear to actively ignore our neighbour’s ecological disaster of a horse paddock. Presumably the herbicide and fertilizer use, compaction and horse movement is not to their liking.

The plant life is also stirring with the enhancement in temperatures. Clearly the non-native snowdrops are well into flower and have been joined recently by crocuses. Both species provide sustenance to the few bumblebees that have so far emerged from their terrestrial hibernation.

Yellow aconites are flowering in the sunnier locations and the wild daffodils are mainly in large bud with only one or two showing their yellow colouration – possibly because our cold, wet and clayey soil inhibits early flowering.

© David Beeson: Common Frog taken from hide.

© David Beeson: Common Frog taken from hide.

I have now cut back most of the remaining herbage in my spring tidy up. The dead vegetation is left as long as possible to allow sites for insect hibernation and to hold seed supplies for the wildlife over winter, but now the soggy stems and frosted leaves grace the compost heap and will slowly decay over the remainder of 2009. Last year’s composted trimmings have now been added to the borders as a surface mulch, but with the higher temperatures and spring rainfall it will be incorporated into the soil quickly and will vanish by high summer.

Soil humus is an important store of carbon from the atmosphere, and there is much more in woodland, grassland and garden soil than arable farmland. Adding any organic matter to your garden is a firm anti-global warming action as well as a positive gardening and wildlife move. I often have a lorry load of chipped wood to add to the soil, delivered and supplied free by a local tree surgeon, to further improve the soil structure. Well worth exploring this free mulch yourself, for there is a great added bonus – there is no need to weed or tidy up the soil surface, for it is immediately covered up and not seen again for many months. That’s my style of gardening!

The meadows, both the Spring and Summer, require little effort at this time of the year but I will shortly be raking one or two sections of the Summer Meadow and sowing cornfield annuals (corn cockle, corn flower, corn marigold, corn buttercup and a variety of poppy species) to add a little sparkle in July and August. As the moles have been overly active this year there is more than normal surface soil visible and this will allow some less hardy annuals to germinate and emerge.

[My seed is from Carver’s Hill Farm. http://www.charlesflower-wildflowers.co.uk/. ]

Recently I have been giving advice to a local school and village community to develop a wildlife meadow in a currently unused section of the graveyard. The project seems to have galvanised the whole community and the organiser almost has more money for the work than he knows how to spend. (None goes on consultant fees.) The school pupils are itching to start the project and are just about to grow the miniature plug plants that will later be added to the site. Happily the ground is already lacking in fertility, so their chances of reasonable success are high.

Do you know a local site that could be turned into a mini-meadow?

Orchids for your garden?

Chiltern Seeds have some packets of wild UK orchid seed on their lists at low price. You will understand that they are not easy to grow, requiring a mini-meadow and patience, but we have been successful in the past. The investment of money is worth the anticipation!

See: 432n / 921f / 921h.

By now many of the UK’s reptiles will again be active. I saw an adder pair before the end of February last year and there were good numbers of lizards around too. Select a sunny day and search along easterly facing hedgerows for adders as they warm in the morning. The serpents will easily pick up heavy footfalls, but chatting does not disturb them.

Our own slow worms have yet to be spotted in the garden, but we expect to see them any time now.

The Reptile Centre in the New Forest is an easy (cheating!) way to see the whole range of UK reptiles and amphibians. Entrance is free, and if you visit during the breeding season may be you’ll even spot the male adders in their combat dance – something I’ve seen only once in the wild … when they ‘danced’ between my legs as I was kneeling on the ground photographing them. Unsurprisingly the images were blurred!

Enjoy the season. The bird song and fresh early spring flowers are already stunning.

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/