Nature's Garden

   by Jenny Steel

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MAY 2016

Having a good range of butterfly species in our gardens is something that most wildlife gardeners strive for. Butterflies brighten our days and make a garden feel really alive. Most people have several species visiting their garden flowers, especially small tortoiseshell and peacock and the small, large and green-veined whites. If you are fortunate you might see brimstone, red admiral, small copper, common blue or meadow brown. I however have a relatively unusual butterfly breeding in my garden and feel a great responsibility to look after it as best I can. It is the Wall Brown, a gorgeous spotted orange and brown butterfly and a member of the ‘brown’ family. All the browns lay their eggs on our native grasses and in my garden the Wall Brown prefers the grasses Yorkshire Fog and Cock’s-foot, both of which grow here in profusion. It generally appears here sometime in May and is often first seen sunning itself, as its name suggests, on the wall of my house in the warm back garden. As May progresses I am likely to see it feeding on buttercups and oxeye daisies and the second generation butterflies, which appear here at the end of July or early August, take nectar from Buddleia, Knapweed, Marjoram and Cosmos all of which we have plenty of. This lovely butterfly is declining dramatically in our countryside and is now more likely to be found in coastal locations although small inland populations like mine, still remain. One of the most extraordinary things about the Wall is that, like our other brown butterflies – the meadow brown, gatekeeper, ringlet and speckled wood, it spends the autumn, winter and part of the spring as a tiny, vulnerable caterpillar deep in grassy vegetation. Luckily we have lots of long grass in places around this garden, including our wildflower meadow. We leave the grass under our apple trees uncut all through the winter. However the precarious life cycle of this butterfly makes it very special and I do my best to preserve whatever habitat we have in the garden here to ensure its continued survival.


MAY 2016

I was recently asked to do an online question and answer interview, giving thoughts and suggestions about wildlife gardening. It was an interesting challenge to synthesize my thoughts and keep my answers brief – I am used to teaching courses or giving talks where I often have plenty of time to ramble on or go off at a tangent! But challenges such as thinking about my top tips for bringing wildlife to any garden, or how we can specifically help pollinators – a really hot topic at the moment – gave me an opportunity to think carefully before writing my answers. The value of growing some wildflowers in our gardens was also a point raised as well as the importance of gardening organically. For me though the most interesting question was about how I became let’s say obsessed, with garden ecology and remembering my fascination with the small creepy crawly things and caterpillars in particular in my mother’s tiny organically managed garden in Oxford many years ago.  Mostly though, this interview led me to ponder on the complexity of the inter-relationships of plants and animals - in other words the ecology – not just of our gardens but throughout our countryside too.  Ecology is a huge, fascinating and important subject and one which gives us an insight into the intricacy of these inter-relationships. So my advice to become a better wildlife gardener is to read about the small things; the way that the tiny caterpillars of certain butterfly species spend the long winter months in the depths of the grasses they feed on, or how blue tits time the hatching of their eggs with the emergence of the small caterpillars of the oak tortrix moth in our oak woodlands to ensure a plentiful food supply for their nestlings. These facts give us just a taste of the complexity of the natural world around us. Appreciating these amazing relationships between plants and animals, and so learning about the ecology of our wildlife, helps to make us all better wildlife gardeners and better people. Read Interview



MAY 2016

I get great pleasure from having lots of birds nesting around my garden but with that joy comes a great feeling of responsibility. It is not easy to turn a blind eye when I see a weasel searching around the hedges looking for nests to raid or when birds such as jays, crows and magpies visit the garden. Luckily our hedges are thick and prickly with hawthorn and blackthorn and we have a number of woodcrete style boxes all around the garden for tits and robins, as well as thick wooden ones which are generally left alone by predators. Our open-fronted robin nestbox always looks very vulnerable but is used successfully most years. This year however robins have decided to nest on the ground in amongst a tangle of long grasses close to my potting shed and the four young are growing quickly. I walk past this spot several times a day but the robins seem unperturbed by a human intruder. Elsewhere around the garden we have a variety of different nest boxes for specific birds.  Some are used every year while others are used only occasionally and there are lots of birds that nest here that of course prefer not to use a nestbox. Chaffinches, dunnocks, bullfinches and greenfinches nest in the thick hedges but their nests are usually only noticed in the winter when the leaves have fallen and the hedges are bare.  Yellowhammers and dunnocks use the thick vegetation in the hedge bottoms and one blackbird pair has nested in the same spot for several consecutive years. Wrens build their wonderful mossy nests in our twig piles and log stores and last year marsh tits nested in a hollow elder stem on the edge of our tiny slice of coppiced woodland. But in spite of the many successful nests that are raised in our garden here, there are always those that don’t make it. Early this month a song thrush nest was discovered by a predator and the eggs were taken. The thrushes however are already collecting nest material around the garden are are starting again in a more protected spot.  I really hope they are successful this time.


MAY 2015

Living in a cool and slightly windswept location in the South Shropshire Hills means that the arrival of migrant birds or the appearance of the first spring butterflies occurs a little later here than it does in counties further south and east. These wildlife events are very weather dependant too, so we are now used to the appearance of butterflies in our garden rather later in spring than it was in our Oxfordshire garden. The first Orange Tip butterflies were seen here in mid-April when the weather was unexpectedly warm. It is a common butterfly in the lanes around us where one of its preferred larval food plants, garlic mustard or jack-by-the-hedge, Alliaria petiolata, grows in abundance. Lady's smock, Cardamine pratensis, another of their larval food plants, once grew extensively in this area and does appear from time to time, but here in the garden garlic mustard pops up along our hedges and there is no need to remove it. It isn't a nuisance in any way and I rather like the garlicky smell it produces if I brush past it. But in spite of the abundance of this species, the orange tips are always observed egg-laying on honesty. This is also a flower that the adult butterflies take nectar from and the pinky-purple heads draw them more than anything else we have in flower at this time of year. In spite of this not being a native plant, female orange tips will also lay their eggs on honesty close to the seed pods, as it is these that the caterpillars resemble and feed on. The females can easily be observed egg-laying as they are not especially shy butterflies, although they certainly don't hang around for long! It is a single egg here and there, not a cluster in the way that some moth and butterfly species lay. The caterpillars are cannibalistic so keeping them away from each other must be an effective survival strategy. The green caterpillars resemble the seed pods of these plants, a very effective camouflage if you attempt to find them. This gorgeous little butterfly brings a welcome flash of colour to the garden this month.



MAY 2014

Anyone who reads this blog might have noticed that I have a great fondness for small mammals. Mice, voles and in particular shrews are wonderful little creatures that I love to see around the garden.  Photographing them is a challenge as they never stay still for long. I have made sure that there are plenty of useful habitats for them, especially long grass (the Big Meadow, the Mini-meadows and the Orchard), wood and twig piles (in the Copse and our tiny patch of woodland) and undisturbed vegetation in general around the edges of the garden. We also have water shrews and the areas around the Big Pond are obviously their preferred habitat.  Over the last few weeks we have had a Common Shrew 'living' in the Log Cabin in the garden where I sometimes work when I am writing. She (as I now know for sure) has found a way in through a small gap under the door, and I have enjoyed seeing her coming and going while I have been working. She seemed to have no particular fear of me or at least was prepared to ignore me.  But disaster struck last weekend when I removed some papers from a cupboard, and uncovered a nest of eight squeaking baby shrews, plus mum who ran off under the sofa in a state of agitation!  It wasn't possible to return the nest (or indeed the cupboard) to its original position, so my dilemma was how to reunite her with her babies and then find a secure place for them.  I quickly rebuilt the nest around the babies with handfuls of soft dry grass and placed it in a small container on its side, and sat and waited for mum to reappear. After a little while she made her way to the container, but was not going in under any circumstances! There followed about an hour of my trying to encourage her into the container but I had to admit defeat and leave her to make her own decisions. I left the nest overnight, and the next morning all the young had gone and there has been no sign of her since.  I can only hope that she moved them all to a new nest in a safer place.


MAY 2014

In late April and early May I look forward to migrant birds taking up their nesting territories in and around my garden.  We usually have Willow Warbler, chiff chaff, whitethroat and blackcap and garden warbler also visits from time to time but I rely on my ears to detect that species as I hardly ever catch more than a fleeting glimpse. Sometimes, with a bit of patient watching, I can find out roughly where the nests are but usually I am simply enjoying the songs and calls of these special birds from the depths of the hedges, although they do have their favourite song posts which sometimes enables me to get a photograph.  I am fortunate to be living in a rural area where the local road to my house is small and relatively quiet, and blackcaps and chiff chaffs in particular can be heard at regular intervals all along the roadside here this month.  This year however, one of my favourite little warblers is missing so far.  The gently descending song of the willow warbler has been absent this spring and rather a worry as this is one of the migrant warblers that has suffered a dramatic decline in numbers in some areas over the last few years.  The BTO reported a 28% decline between 1995 and 2010 in England, but an increase in the north and west of the UK - regular trips to the Isle of Mull confirm that this lovely little warbler is certainly abundant there.  So I continue to wait and listen in the hope that this favourite bird still shows up in my area.  In the meantime I am happy to have at least two males blackcaps singing at either end of my rather long garden which has made me wonder just how large a blackcap territory is?  Are these really two male birds competing for the same space? Or is it just one male, streaking up and down and making his presence known?  Short of hearing both singing at the same time, I guess I will never know!  But whether there are two or just the one, I look forward to seeing fledglings of blackcaps, whitethroats and chiff chaffs around the garden in the near future.

MAY 2013

Everything is very late in the garden, and even now at the very end of May the weather is cold, windy and wet.  Very few plants in the borders are yet well in flower in the garden but there is one thing we have in profusion – and that’s dandelions!  I love the bright yellow of the flowers at this time of year and they are always the first choice for any bees or butterflies out and about now searching for nectar and pollen.  Several butterfly species are feeding on them including the newly emerged orange tips plus the over wintered small tortoiseshells and peacocks that are still around.  Even more exciting though is the fact that once their lovely dandelion clock seed heads are apparent, the garden fills up with finches, taking advantage of this abundant food supply.  Greenfinches and goldfinches are usually first on the scene, but we also are rewarded with excellent views of one of my favourite birds - the glorious Bullfinch.  Two males and two females are around constantly but sadly these birds are not the easiest to photograph, being shy and flighty.  I’m happy to spend a bit of time by an open window with my camera as long as the rain isn’t pelting down too heavily.  Their soft piping noises give away their presence in the hedges, but over the last week they have become increasingly bold and are slowly visiting the dandelions in the lawns closer to the house. This has given me the perfect opportunity to photograph them even if they do look rather bedraggled in the pouring rain. Later in the summer we will have small family parties here - generally male, female and two young ones, feeding on the seeds of scabious in the Nectar Garden.  Occasionally two families merge as other favourite seed sources ripen - common sorrel in the meadow, herb Robert that pops up everywhere and the seeds of tall sow thistles.  Sometimes the ripe berries of honeysuckle also attract these stunning birds, but by and large they are fussy feeders, having their favourite, predictable seed sources.

MAY 2013

At this time of year my focus around the garden is undoubtedly the birds and insects which we have in abundance.  Waiting to see the first orange tip butterfly or to hear a blackcap singing from the hazel outside the back door gives me a feeling of anticipation matched by very little else in the wildlife world.  Where small mammals are concerned, I tend to take for granted the occasional glimpse of a wood mouse around a bird feeder, a vole dashing across the path between the two wildflower meadows or a fox wandering around the orchard.  A stoat or weasel is always a very exciting sight, and we see both here frequently and a polecat has also been seen on one occasion. One little animal that I have been really puzzled about though is the Water Shrew - a rather scarce and very beautiful creature that lives around ponds and streams in the countryside and has a rather poisonous bite!  Even though the one pictured above was dead when I found it there was still an instinct to use gloves when I picked it up.  It is much larger than our commoner shrews and its coat is almost black on the back with, by contrast, an white underbelly.  Twice we have caught a glimpse of what we thought was a water shrew in the garden, and a dead shrew floating in the middle of the pond (and unreachable) also looked like this species.  Last week though, this little chap was found on the pond bank.  I was rather sad to find him (although this species does have quite a short life span of around 24 months) but it was good to finally confirm that we certainly do have this species in the garden and that this slightly unusual mammal has made its home here.  Water shrews are very aggressive little animals feeding on a range of aquatic creatures including pond skaters and water snails and something makes me think we will have fewer tadpoles around in the next few weeks if our water shrew population is thriving, which I hope it is.

MAY 2012

Every time a new species of bird or butterfly appears here I quietly congratulate myself on my wildlife gardening skills, even if technically it has nothing to do with how I have designed and maintained this garden!  Obviously specific things do produce the desired results - for instance it is unlikely we would have so many orange tip butterflies if I didn't plant and encourage their larval food and nectar plants, but there are times when something turns up and I really have no reason to gloat.  This time last year a wheatear appeared on the garden hedge - clearly simply on migration, although I like to think that the fact there was a nice hedge for him to sit on had something to do with all my hard work.  This spring's amazing visitor really was just passing through, although he did have a bit of a hunt for earthworms on the short grass around our recently planted orchard.  Our handsome visitor was a male Ring Ouzel - a stunning bird that used to breed in Shropshire but now just passes through.  Their migration from the uplands of Southern Spain and Morocco to their breeding grounds further north, takes them to Clee Hill in South Shropshire where they tend to rest up for a while before continuing northwards via the Long Mynd, where they did breed until fairly recently. Again they sometimes stay around for a few days here before continuing northwards to the craggy upland heather moors that they prefer. Reasons for their precipitous decline are not well understood so to have one visit the garden, and find food here, made me not just excited but rather proud that we had a haven here for a brief stop over.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017