Ends and beginnings

Red Valerian

On the news the other day, there was a report stating 2018 was looking like it was going to be the hottest year on record. I’ve heard this kind of report a lot over the past 20 years and whilst listening to facts and figures in the report I looked over the mini reserve and pondered the effects of the weather on its progress.
I went outside to have a closer look and not having any engagements for a couple of hours gave me the chance to clear another small area and remove most of the weed species root by root.
In the last week the temperature has dropped considerably and there had been a notable drop in butterfly numbers visiting the area, the occasional Large White visiting the cabbage being the only regular species observed. I found a dying individual under the cabbage the other day which probably indicates the ending of the season. There was still quite a lot of colour on show with several species still in flower providing food for the regular bees that are daily visitors. Still the most numerous flowering species is Borage and although I previously mentioned they were already up/downgraded to a weed species their importance was obvious when you watch the Bees feeding. Next year I intend to manage this species carefully. One species that had been confusing me was the Hysop that I had grown from seed indoors and planted out as soon as space was available. The plants had grown well and seemed to look like they were about to flower but failed to do so until last week when their deep purple coloured flowers added to the food for now bees and hoverflies.

Hysop

More colours came from the continuous Cornflowers spectacle! The hardiness and adaptability of this species has amazed me. As previously mentioned, the whole site is on a quite steep slope and many of the flowers that have emerged this year have grown up vertically and then fallen over with the weight of flowering heads, or rain or even strong winds and then grown horizontally over the grounds for a short distance and grown another vertical shoot that has often ended up with new flowers on them. Nature is adaptable. The Cornflower flowers seem to be experts at doing this. They are also a very long time flowering with my very first plant to flower in the garden being a Cornflower and now, still 8 weeks later, producing new flowers.

Cornflower

This species adaptability is further shown by the fact it can grow from seed to flower in 3 – 4 weeks. A few Groundsel flowers bloomed with their small yellow flowering heads giving a different colour to the mix.
My mind is already drifting to the possibilities for next year’s show of colour and insects.

Having been fortunate to have worked on the majority of wild habitats that are to be found in the UK from mountains to moorland and Bogs to beaches I know that all areas that are managed for wildlife need a management plan no matter how large or small the area is. It’s in my blood really and my views have immediately been challenged when I realised that several of the flowering species I have grown are not native species to the UK but are introduced garden plants. Much of my time doing practical conservation work was spent removing or killing invasive plant species like Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Daffodils to name a few, and all these started out as “harmless” garden plants!

Sedum, friend or foe?

Was I creating or contributing to a new problem?
The seed mixes I had planted were all carefully selected species good for bees and butterflies and were advertised as such. I felt OK with this and realised that the non native species included had already provided vital food for a whole variety of bees and other insects.

Common Carder Bee

It was also increasing my knowledge as I noticed species in flower that I’m not familiar with. Feel free to help!
Management is vital to create the optimum balance of flowering species. Lots of work to do over the winter but so far so good and there’s still time to plant a few more seeds………

Blues and Poos!

I am a sucker for an invite! Supposedly to help but in truth just an observer who enjoys a chat and a stroll, particularly if its on Chobham Common. I met Ken, who is one of the volunteers working with the  Amazing Grace Hedgehog organisation , to check some survey tunnels. Many people are aware of the crash in hedgehog numbers and there is still much to learn about their distribution and use of different habitats. Though the days checks showed no indications of Hedgehog activity, its often forgotten that “negatives” are as important as “positives”in that you can’t figure out whats going on without understand distribution. I had never seen one of these!

Hedgehog Tunnel

The food and inked sheet slide back in to the tunnel and the idea is that a visiting hog will leave inky footprints as it walks through, having a snack on the way.

Do check out this work on the web, its easy to find as the Amazing Grace has the very public support of Queen,s Dr Brian May. My only sadness is that this kind of laudable species work continues the sidelining of the core important conservation work of protecting and managing sites like Chobham Common, but it was forever thus.

Whilst on Chobham Common Ken did take me to the home of an easier to find mammal, the badger. Bearing in mind a badgers size I am continually amazed at how discreet their setts are, even in areas that I know well.

This sett is well established in a bank next to a road and path but unless you looked over the fence or notice the signs you really could miss it.

Near neighbours.

Badgers keep a tidy and clean home but it was a surprise here that the latrine, or lets call it as it is , their poo point was so close to a main entrance.

Poos!

Hardly discreet! But a further indication of the sense of security this sett must feel. My Grandson will be delighted I dared to post this, just for you River!

In a previous post I had mentioned my love for the Grayling butterfly, master of camouflage, but on a recent visit I noticed something new to me. On the ground this species can be almost invisibly unless you see it land and I now see that a Grayling on a tree is similarly protected.

Just tree bark?
Master of camouflage.

Don’t forget the Gentians! If you wish to see the glory you only have a little time left this year.

Sometimes big.
Sometimes smaller.
Always beautiful.

Bees and Borage

After rain

 

As the rain falls today, I noted that it was exactly two months since I had started the new reserve/ garden area where I live. Already there have been big changes to the wild life in the area in this short space of time and the potential of the project was looking very promising for next year. Earlier in the week I sat and watched up to 10 bees of 3 different species along with 6 butterflies of 4 different species all using the new area. I also noted several Hoverflies busily feeding from the Cornflowers and Borage showing that the area was attracting more than bees and butterflies.
One of the most notable things to me has been how my neighbours have been once I began creating the new area. Everybody has been pleased to see the area ‘tidied up ‘ and some colour put back on the land and most encouragingly one neighbour has told me he has never seen so many butterflies and bees in the area before and he has lived there longer than I have. Things are working! I am also very grateful to my neighbours for buying a few essential tools that have helped me to do the work. The work carries on and this rain will help me plant a few more flowers later on today to bring some more colour for next year.

New growth

As you’ve probably noticed the weather and climate have been somewhat extreme this year and the wildlife will be dealing with these changes first hand. These extreme weather patterns have been long predicted as part of the process of global warming. My garden reserve has felt the effects of the very hot weather we experienced a few weeks ago and has manged to not only survive the heat but use it to its advantage by being able to grow rapidly and start to establish ready for next year. It was interesting to note the rapid growth of some newly sown additions after the rain finally returned. In the space of six days I watched seeds to seedlings appear before me.
The cooler weather and rain showers have slowed down the insect activity a little bit but every day I see new activity in some shape or form and another. A new bee species was observed feeding in the area and it, Common Carder Bee, seemed to making full use of the Cornflower and Borage flowers in bloom. A total of eight flower species have made it into bloom and drawn larger numbers of bees, butterflies and various other insects into the local area. You can look at this from a different angle and say that in a very short space of time the biodiversity of the local area has increased by improving ground vegetation, which leads to attracting more insects which in turn will provide food for many bird species, other insects and an almost instant food chain is created.

Bee hotel

It’s all well and good getting carried away but the rain also brought ‘ weeds ‘. A few hours have been spent digging or pulling docks, mosses, bindweed, brambles and Borage has been added to the list!

Francis

Old friends and new acquaintances.

Having promised myself to keep my ramblings, both literal and physical, to Surrey I hadn’t figured out that this leads to problems if I am away! However I am now pleased to say that it is now very likely we will be staying at Hempstead for at least a further year.

What’s changed in and around our patcher the last couple of weeks? Well physically, and rather sadly, the elderly and substantial apple tree in the front garden has quietly subsided to the ground. Still attached with bark and laden with fruit I am not going to clear yet in the hope that we can use the last crop. (they are the best apples in the garden). I suspect this tree dates from shortly after the house was built, 1911, and as you may know the best Bramley apples grow on an old tree. To my knowledge this wonderful tree has hosted a tit family every year for the last 24 and some years has also provided home for families of House sparrows, Blackbirds and Robins. A good friend and supplier to me and to the birds.

After a short pause in bird activity round the feeders, probably whilst many were in moult, numbers are rising again with the addition of some “non Hempstead breeding” species. A family of Starlings seem to have discovered the fat balls and my pleasure is tinged with sadness as Starlings nested regularly in my loft till a couple of years ago. The nest hole and habitat round us still looks good enough to me but it now seems unlikely that we will ever again see the autumn and winter flocks develop over the field rounds us.

Much is being said about declining numbers of some breeding birds and how that relates to the massive drop in flying insects across Europe and the further loss of marginal land from agricultural landscapes. It seems the blame is frequently attributed to intensification of agricultural practices and this is often in turn attributed to EU legislation embodied in CAP. To me this explanation is far too simplistic. There is very little intensive agriculture anywhere near where I live and there is still much undeveloped land including large areas of uncultivated military; yet there are still only a tiny proportion of the flying insects about as there used to be. I am old enough to remember it wasn’t long ago that ones car windscreen would be covered in squashed insects particularly during a summer like we have just enjoyed/endured.

I have little doubt that the causes for declines in insects and hence birds are largely anthropogenic but they are going to end up being a cocktail of atmospheric pollution/habitat fragmentation/interruptions to migration routes/hunting/climate change as well as industrialisation of agriculture  and subsidy driven farming. Most real farmers instinctively understand the arguments for conservation, most profit driven agribusinesses simply don’t care enough.

Old haunts, expanded outlook.

Last week was National Heath Week and for everybody in the western part of Surrey, land of much heather covered hills, it will be no surprise to find that there are lots of events and walks that could have been enjoyed. August running through to September is the best of times to witness the landscape becoming purple.

Have to say though, that to my mind describing the glory of heather as purple is a poor reflection of the pinks, mauves, purples and rich greens that convert the heaths from a pretty boring (rather bleak even) palate of muted tones to the rich tapestry of almost royal hues now on show.

Photos don’t really cut it (at least I haven’t got anything good enough!) so go and enjoy the displays at your local heaths during the next few weeks.

Glovers Pond

For me the pull of Chobham common and a walk with Dr Mike Simmonds was enough to get me out. Thanks to Sarah Bunce and her team at the Thames Basin Heaths Partnership for organising the walk and thanks to Mike for sharing his knowledge and insight regarding his research looking at vegetation history through the pollen records form peat. Hope to expand more on this topic with links on the OneObservatory website so keep looking.

It would be very easy for me to eulogise about the wildlife at Chobham common, and I might just do that a little more!

Right now is the time to see a special flower on the common, the only site for it in Surrey, Marsh Gentian.

First of the Season

When they open……

Glory

There is much to enjoy on the heaths at this time of year but the best treasures are often small and need a careful look for…

Wasp spider

Hedgehogs and absent friends

Unusual happenings in my life always seem to involve wildlife and last weekend was a pretty strange coincidence…..

An afternoon with Roy and Vala, they of of the garden of wildlife and peace, is always an intense pleasure with talk of family and the creatures and plants that they share their life with. July and early August is the quiet time for most birds with an almost complete lack of song whilst birds undertake moults which require discretion to reduce the threat of predators during the periods of reduced flying ability. Birds concentrate on feeding and keeping safe rather than advertising their presence with song. So quiet gardens everywhere including Roys! Still got hand tame Robin though!

High summer is the time of flowers and insects but this really hot dry weather presents problems for both. Plants including flowers are obviously having a shorter life , unless watered, but it is an unseen knock on effect which is likely to cause a longer lasting ripple to insect populations. On the surface it looks like a good year for most butterflies (yet again those that overwinter as butterflies have done poorly) but there is a serious problem for the larvae, not enough food of good quality. A year of boom in some butterflies this year may be followed next year by a crash due to a lack of  healthy larvae to overwinter.

Deptford Pink

Before we left our hosts I had the opportunity to have a quiet chat with their resident Hedgehog. Have to say he, she, is the biggest hedgehog I have ever seen! A delight for me as I have never seen a Hedgehog in my garden, 24 years and nearly everything else you could expect but no Hedgehog but then……

As we pulled in to our drive at home my wife remarked that “wouldn’t it be nice to find a hedgehog in the garden?” The words were barely out of her mouth when we both spied a dark shape on the lawn next the drive… Yep our first ever hedgehog at home!! Smaller and speedily hid in the honeysuckle stems at the base of a pear tree, hence no photo, but a joy nonetheless.

Do remember that planting native species in your garden is great for wildlife and makes common sense as they are likely to be best adapted to UK conditions (Ok there is little that can cope with this heat and drought!).

Spring Snakeshead Fritillary

 

Project progress

Watching the new garden/reserve develop, each day has been an amazing spectacle to observe. The local wildlife has reacted to the changing habitat in some interesting ways and I have already seen an increase in bee and butterfly activity. The butterflies or to be more exact the Small and Large Whites have been attracted by the accidental cabbage that is growing in amongst the new flowers, which tells me sometimes accidental plants can be beneficial. After six weeks there was enough flowers in bloom to create a food source for at least 3 bee species and Gatekeeper butterfly was observed attempting to feed on the Borage. The Borage itself was proving to be an interesting species in the new area as I had grown them from seed and they were already the dominant species in the meadow area. I am aware of how quickly Borage can take over and shade out the smaller delicate flowers and with this in mind I did some weeding and removed some of the many emerging plants.

From seed to flower

As I realised when I started work, the results for this year would not be the end result for the project. For although after six weeks there were flowers in bloom and insects were visiting the flowers, it would take time for a sustainable balance to establish. That said there were also a few practical jobs that needed to be carried out once the ground had been dug over. As the site is on a slope some of the earth tumbled down when I turned the earth over. This was not only messy in a communal area but I need to try and establish some plants in the ground so their root systems could spread and hold the ground together. This was achieved in some areas and the mini avalanches have lessened but the problem has been made worse by the drought that we are still experiencing as I write this.
The establishment of a wildflower meadow in the middle of summer, in the middle of a so far six week drought seems a bit stupid but as I hope you all know, nature is a powerful and resilient force to be reckoned with for although I have watered the plants they have only received a couple of watering cans a day and been left for a couple of days with no water on weekly basis since they were planted and I have yet to lose any plants. This is some indication as to the drought tolerant wild flowers are in comparison to many vegetables and garden cultivars that the majority of the population grow in their gardens.
Feeling pleased so far with this year’s results I decided to spend a invest a little money by buying some extra plants and even though I have seen the resilience and power of natural species, this time I upgraded to plant plugs hopefully giving them a better chance of establishing themselves. We shall have to wait and see what happens as I still have an image in my head of insect filled meadowland. Itself starting to happen already and it’s looking good for next year.

Time for plugs

When trying to attract wildlife to an area, it is always helpful to know what is actually already there in the first place. With this knowledge you can help to encourage wildlife to your area with the provision of food and cover so they can flourish. My project was trying to create a new habitat, particularly for insects of the species already present in the area. I have lived at my flat for seven years and over that time I have observed many interesting species of various different groups and felt that the creation of a wildflower area would help a number of those I have already observed. To further my knowledge earlier this year I got a moth trap and started recording the species in area. Moths are good indicators of how healthy a habitat is because like butterflies, they are sensitive to changes of vegetation and habitats in general. Like the UKs butterflies, moth numbers are falling because of habitat loss and this shows that we are needing to create new habitats to help these populations survive. I had also thought that if I could find out which moth species were present, I could then plant some plants that would help to encourage them to the area. After a month of trapping I have already recorded over 50 species of moth which has given me some ideas on a few more plants to put in the garden.

Scalloped Oak

 

Poplar Hawkmoth
Nut Tree Tussock
Clouded Border

By week seven things were looking promising with over 100 plants and seedlings planted and a number of these were flowering and attracting bees and butterflies on a daily basis. A Red Tailed Bumblebee was an addition to the site and has been seen regularly over the last week. The most notable thing that has happened was that we finally got some rain! It was amazing to see how the ground reacted and on the days after how the green came back into the dried out vegetation around the site. It also meant that all the weeds came up as well and I spent some time removing docks and bindweed from the meadow area trying to stop their spread.

FW

Who Pays?

Priorities for spending of tax payers money by both national and local government seem rather perverse to me. I think we all understand that there isn’t enough in the pot to pay for all the things we, the ordinary people, would like but it is the assumption that politicians of all ilks can make decisions based on their personal beliefs without accountability or realistic debate that infuriates me.

Surrey County Council’s attitude to the management of our countryside estate expressed through Cllr Mike Goodman as cabinet member for environment and transport is truly strange and deeply flawed in its application.

For me and many many others it is perfectly reasonable to use taxes to maintain and enhance the countryside both for public access and wildlife. In fact as I wrote the last sentence it struck me just how “reasonable” it is. Why would you imagine anything else when your very own health, both mental and physical, is so interlinked with the health of the countryside?

Calm

Many politicians believe that the “user should pay” but this principle is so unequally applied across services as to become empty rhetoric. It’s politically expedient to make noise about Global warming, climate change, international treaties on CO2 emissions, local and national strategies on waste…….the list is endless BUT what about meeting the simple challenge of maintaining and enhancing the local countryside for local people and the wildlife that lives in it?

I do not believe that all “countryside” should be managed by private landowners or NGOs or that it should be dependant on funding subject  to the vagaries of whatever grant scheme is politically expedient. Public access countryside is not self sustaining financially, and never will be, if looked at purely as a “direct user pays” revenue earner.

One day…

Please do understand that I am also a pragmatist and therefore, sadly, whilst there are politicians like Cllr Goodman and others who stick to their own agenda no matter what, despite advice and consultation, it may well be that all access land should end up owned by NGOs and the existing private landowners.

Think the heat is getting to me!

That’s better!

S

New Beginning

Anybody interested in wildlife and nature conservation in the UK should be well aware that we are living in some serious times. The loss of our habitats and species is being well publicised and some of the statistics are truly worrying. With this in mind the creation of new habitats will always help to try and reverse this trend and I am aware of ways many of us could help and offer some sanctuary for our dwindling wildlife.

Some of us are lucky to have gardens from window boxes in high rise flats to large country gardens. The areas that people’s gardens cover in the UK is many times larger than all of the UKs Nature reserves put together. Their importance for wildlife becomes obvious when you realise this. And then six weeks ago…
I live in a small block of 10 flats with the front looking at the road but at the back was a sloped area of rough ground leading up to the woodland. Since I moved here the only thing that ever been done to it was that it was cut once a year when the vegetation got really high. I have often dreamed of a flower meadow as I look out of my kitchen or bedroom window and seeing it full of bees and butterflies. I saw my neighbour and asked him about the ‘ garden ‘, he told me it was a community garden and I could do what I want as it needed a damn good tidy up. My plan was immediately put into action and the habitat creation began.

Before..
During clearance
And more
Nearly
Almost

In my years working in nature conservation I found it ironic how often I was killing various plant life in order to ‘make a better home for nature ‘. The point is that you have to have the right vegetation to encourage more wildlife and the new garden was full of bindweed, dock, hedge woundwort with bramble creeping in from the surrounding woods. Large areas of pendulous sedge dominated large parts of the garden. With my dream of butterfly and bees in the back garden still firmly placed in my brain I began to clear the rank vegetation. It should be noted that all the work was being carried out at the wrong time of year, the middle of the growing season but in my mind the sooner I started to clear the area the sooner I could be able improve the area. I had grown some wildflower seedlings in my flat and they would soon need to be planted. I spent a good few hours cutting, raking, trimming and chopping down the problem vegetation leaving one quarter of the garden relatively weed free ready for the wildflower seedlings

Bee food?

There was a sense of excitement when I planted the first seedlings into the cleared ground. I had an assortment of native wildflowers ready to plant including, Cornflower, Borage, Field Poppy, Black Knapweed and a few more, all insect friendly species. I marked all the seedings with little canes next to them and began the wait. During the wait I continued to improve other areas of the garden by digging over the ground and removing deep roots of docks and other problem species. The root systems on some of the dock and bramble were so extensive and deep rooted that they took a good 20 minutes to remove. It is important to remove these roots as they will only regrow and it can ruin all the work you have done. This job will continue into the winter as there is still a large area to prepare for the ground to be ready for wildflowers.
I monitored the progress of the seedlings and some were well established very quickly and by the fourth week a Cornflower came into flower, hooray, and in the fifth week I observed a white tailed bumblebee taking nectar, bliss!

Fulfillment

FW

New friends

Always surprises me just how nature provides a peaceful moment of wonder when you need it, even not invited. Difficult and busy few days but “our” young doe is spending plenty of time eating round the garden. We had noticed she was enjoying any low hanging apples and accompanying leaves, surely indigestion must follow……..

Our regular gardener!
Too many apples?

A delighted call from my wife pointed out that this week our young doe revealed that she was in fact a mum with twins. I will never tire of such encounters.

Where’s mum?

The youngsters gradually relaxed and commenced further pillaging of the garden.

What’s a Tayberry?

On a serious note, we all (particularly politicians) grossly underestimate the role of the natural world in maintaining our mental, let alone physical, health. Whatever the mechanism is , ecosystems services, green pound or many other ways of monetising the natural world, it still strikes me that they all obscure the basic truth; most of us ordinary folks instinctively understand the value of the natural world and accept that we should spend taxes when necessary in order to maintain and improve that natural world. We are all part of the natural world not just consumers of it.