Wildlife Gardening in November

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 - fallen leaves add beautiful colour to the landscape.

© David Beeson – fallen leaves add beautiful colour to the landscape.

Much of the terrestrial life in the wildlife garden is now on ‘pause’, with comparatively little showing itself. Over-wintering butterflies only show themselves on warm autumnal days, the omnipresent cool-weather insects are still often on the wing, but most bees have decided to hibernate until better nectar supplies are again on offer. Many of the resident avian species are still around in good numbers, whilst we are yet to see any winter migrants.

90% of the main Summer Meadow is now cut to near ground level, with the herbage composting away beneath polythene sheeting. A small remaining section of meadow has been left uncut for slowworm and vole cover; mind you the latter have been conspicuous by their absence this year. Our bank voles, usually common around the patio, have been reduced in number by our resident stoat. The short-tailed voles, which can be in good numbers in the Spring and Summer Meadows, have been lacking all year. Indeed even common and pigmy shrews have been scarce. Sure I’ve seen an odd short-tailed vole, and hear an occasional shrew, but numbers have been as low as I’ve known them. Perhaps it has been the stoat, and the numerous birds of prey, at work controlling the populations.

Last year, during the one hour RSPB bird watch early in the year, I spotted a female sparrow hawk dash through our bird feeding station at twenty-minute intervals. During the same time this year, I saw none. Presumably that animal had died, but no new bird has taken over the territory. A surprise as the variety of small birds, available for easy picking, is almost too good to be missed. We do see kestrels and sparrow hawks occasionally, but it has been at a lower level this year. Not so for buzzards. They seem to be almost constantly around, and the occasional sighting of a red kite is also welcome.

© Laurie Campbell - A sparrowhawk takes bath.

© Laurie Campbell – A sparrowhawk takes bath.

I saw a lucky wood pigeon today. It had been plucked out of the sky by a female sparrow hawk, and the two landed on the road near my parked vehicle. A car travelling in the opposite direction spooked the raptor before it could effectively subdue the prey, and the latter escaped. Lucky pigeon.

With the meadows controlled, I have now been putting some effort into cutting back some of our trees and shrubs, which have overgrown in some garden locations. The best chunks of wood are saved for the house’s fire; the twigs are either burned of stacked away for small mammal cover. These stacks of twigs, or even spare roofing tiles or bricks, are put into our conservation hedges and covered in cut herbage, to provide secure over-wintering locations for whomever wishes to reside.

Some hazel, growing along our Saxon woodland boundary at the end of the garden, is due for chopping to ground level soon. Most stools have been cut at least twice during our twenty-year residency at Forest Edge, but one is still hugely pristine. But not for much longer! My guess is that that particular hazel is uncut for sixty years, and represents quite a challenge. Once coppiced the plant will regain much of its lost vigour, it should then be happy for another ten to twenty years.

Our compost bins are now nearly all emptied onto the flowerbeds, to slowly rot down and be incorporated over the winter. The organic material enhances the soil; the stored nutrients from the humus will be released slowly in the spring, and any weed seeds will be inhibited in their growth by the mulching effect. Tree leaves are also deposited onto open soil, and left to decay over the winter. I’m told that spreading the leaves is bad practice and they should be separately composted; but scattering them works well enough here, for they’ll all be gone by March.

© David Beeson - Asters add colour after the meadows are cut.

© David Beeson – Asters add colour after the meadows are cut.

The soil humus has been considerably enhanced over the years by our leaves and compost, this has allowed earthworm population to grow and provide food into the food chain.

We use no artificial fertilizers on our soil, but rely on natural garden compost and composed tree mulch to maintain fertility and soil structure.

Around two hundred ladybirds have attempted to hibernate in one of our B&B bedrooms, sadly for them they were spotted, and have had to make do with a wooden shed.

If you saw my comments recently about my ‘disgusted of Andover’ letter to the Royal Horticultural Society: I’m pleased to report that a wildlife gardening expert, who has a regular contribution to the RHS magazine and various newspapers, has come to my support over the value of native plants to UK wildlife. Val Bourne’s letter is in the November edition of The Garden.

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/