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……


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.


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?


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!


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.

During clearance
And more

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!



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.

Just a Field

I lent against the old fence the other day watching marbled Whites and Meadow Browns flying over the rough grass land. To my side was bramble scrub where Whitethroats and Garden warblers fed their young and like all of those who watch wildlife  felt a sense of excitement to see these wonders of an english summer. Excitement soon turned to sadness as I turn to see the metal fence round the fields where last year as saw the same species and many more disappearing under a housing development.

Old Fields, new house.
More to come

This field can show us many things if we take closer look. Situated on the edge of a large Surrey village and like many other formerly productive agricultural fields are now seen as a financial asset by the owner and potential building land. I first encountered this field 8 years ago, rough grasses , bramble patches and a few small Sallow trees already established and then we have seen the changes in the species that have occurred from the ground to the skies. the species lists collected show the incredible variety of life that these fields can support given the chance to recover from its former species poor state as an agricultural field. We have observed 24 species of butterfly including Small Copper

Brown Argus, Common Blue, 3 species of Skipper and the Marbled Whites. Amongst the grasslands we found Grass Vetchling.

Scarlet Pimpernel, Birds foot Trefoil

and clumps of beautiful Black Knapweed all feeding a mass of insects. We stood and watched Red Kites and Buzzards in the air together last year, after the presumed farmer cut the grass and made a short lived bounty of food. One winter we watched a Goldfinch feeding on a teasel head and then in a split second its life over  taken by a male Sparrowhawk.

My partner Sam and I have watched the sad decline of the wildlife in these fields after so many amazing wildlife scenes, too many to describe.

We believe all habitats are vital if we are to repair the already fragile natural habitats in this country. The current UK government have nature conservation as a low priority which is fundamentally wrong on so many accounts. They and local government need to realise that building on the Greenbelt is whats slowly killing natural biodiversity. Protect what we already have and lets try to repair some of the damage is what I believe we should be doing. Time for the politicians to actually do something constructive to protect our countryside.

For my dad Francis,

Francis Willis

Childhood haunts

Unexpected time available for a walk this morning led me to think about change in the countryside over time. Seemed like a good idea to go and wander round some of the commons and woods that my mates and I used to roam. In fact the countryside where we first found a wonder for the natural world which for ,most of us has never diminished.

I couldn’t park outside the house where I was born as most of the road is now yellow lined but its clear that there are now no House Martin nests or Swifts along the road. Sad when you think that 40 years ago there would have been at least 40 House Martin nests along the road and another 40 odd nests around the junior school down the road. My first school project aged 9!

Parked instead along Stafford lake Rd which runs across one piece of Bisley Commons. Happy days, this was our patch, assiduously watched for birds and butterflies but also home to camps and favoured climbing trees. Much to my surprise it felt very familiar (though admittedly this little site had been part of my responsibility as a ranger). In fact over the next couple of hours I really did feel that I was on familiar territory, I didn’t even get lost!

Our “best” pond!

Walking through dappled light along wooded paths quietly on my own was a reminder of how much more you hear and see when you shut up (in company I talk too much!). Foraging Nuthatch and a close encounter with a whole Jay family was topped by a very close encounter with a Tawny owl. Standing in the shade enjoying the sights and sound of a lovely bit of wet woodland I jumped when I turned to see a rather surprised owl suddenly change its flight path inches, yes really, from my face. Don’t think it was aggression just surprise.

Watched a beautiful Golden ringed dragonfly hawking the stream in the woods and disturbed a sunbathing Grass snake but both were too quick for a snap. Would have been happy with just a walk in the woods but by heavens I was enjoying myself.

Left the woods and walked across Sheets heath pausing at the sandy pond to admire the dragons and damsels.

Sandy pond

the dragons were too fast but the damsels were more obliging.

2 of the blue ones!
Red eyed damsel

Back to the woods and shade to return across the old fields of Brookwood farm which look like they could make a fantastic local country park with great potential to build on what is already a great place for wildlife.

Brookwood farm

Not the place to be picky and criticise the lack of management but it would be great if they could put a little effort in keeping a little of the stream exposed to the light as it is getting too closed in, pushing some wildlife on to bits of water that really are marginal.

The smallest of stream pools

Amazingly there were at least a dozen tiny fish in this pool crammed with freshwater snails. Again couldn’t get the dragon, a Black tailed skimmer to stay still but this wonder did….

Beautiful demoiselle

As usual gone on a bit and there was more………..


Cost of some Joy

My father was a lovely man, gentle and kind, with a passion for gardening and in particular growing just about anything edible. Our vegetable plot is a pale imitation of my dads but it also gives a great deal of pleasure to us.

I learnt the hard way that growing vegetables in a garden open to Roe deer is a frequently frustrating process. Once the regular agricultural activities stopped in the surrounding fields deer quickly found the refuge and at least one doe has given birth to young every year since the millennium. On telling my father, soon after seeing deer actually in the garden for the first time, and being met with incredulity and disbelief it led to great mirth. Whilst berating me for dreaming the sighting a Roebuck chose that moment, in broad daylight, to step out of the hedge behind my father and begin nibbling windfall apples! Joy and wonderment and a lot of giggles!

For a couple of years I kind of gave up growing much at all using the deer as a rather lame excuse for my laziness. Very early in the morning following my fathers late night passing I looked out of the bathroom window to find 5 deer quietly grazing in the garden, reassurance that life goes on comes in many forms.

The experience led me to interpret their appearance as a challenge and my mum and I then fenced the veg plot and started growing again.

Some years we have had very relaxed does who have treated the garden as their private refuge, bringing quite young kids (often twins) in to sleep. During the worst of the snows there were often 3 snow covered humps outside the patio doors which morphed in to mum and babes as the sun came up.

The fence round the veg has to be high obviously and you have to remember to close the gate!

Guilty carrot thief

Forgot the gate last night after watering and my wife had even commented over breakfast tea that we hadn’t seen any deer for a couple of weeks. Result……….runner beans gone! The cost of joy, indeed!

What’s an apple?