Wildlife reports 2019 thanks to Gill Massey, Wildlife Area Leader
October/November As well as being a “season of mists”, not to mention downpours, Autumn is also a time of “mellow fruitfulness”. Of course in the orchard this is most noticeable with our fruit trees, but other fruits are also on offer. Nature starts providing some snacks in summer with wild strawberries, but it is in Autumn that the fruity feast really begins and continues to provide a variety of courses for our wildlife well into the new year. Depending on the weather, the little berried stems of Lord and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint glow in shady woodlands and damp hedgerow ditches as early as August. They are followed by the showy berries of the rowan and guelder rose, and the dark fruit of elderberries, and the fruiting season is up and away. Hedgerows may not have summer flowers on show but are full of juicy blackberries, threaded through with necklaces of the red berries of black and white briony and enchanters' nightshade. Later, scarlet rosehips and hawthorn berries, duller but no less tasty for local and migrating birds, take the season onwards by ripening over a longer period of time, and spindle trees make up for their insignificant looks earlier in the year by producing bright orange berries in a vivid pink casing. Sloes and bullaces keep going past the first frosts which soften and sweeten these often sour fruits, and holly and mistletoe help many birds through tough winter months. One of the last fruits in hedges and on trees is one whose flowers are only just out now and producing much need pollen and nectar for late flying pollinators. This is the often maligned ivy whose berries only ripen from green to black late in the winter and provide vital sustenance in a time of scarcity, especially for wood pigeons, blackbirds and thrushes. Our birds and small mammals are given a running buffet to see them through the lean winter months. So, don’t pick all those rosehips, and leave some holly berries, someone else may well be relying on them for their next meal or two!
August/September High summer means high grass in the Orchard, and we have recently been scything (a chance to channel your inner Poldark), and raking our meadow areas These are patches where we have sown yellow rattle to try and subdue the dominance of the grasses, and have planted some wildflower plugs to create a “flowery mead”. However the “flowery mead” has been somewhat reluctant to come into being. The yellow rattle was left to seed itself this year and has done reasonably well, but the grass is still enjoying our rich soil and swamping any poor wildflower that dares show its head. Jubilee Green gave us one of our biggest successes when we found that the gloriously named corky fruited water drop wort had not only flowered but set seed, which produced much surprised rejoicing. Scything has to be timed so that most of the wildflowers that have managed to bloom have had a chance to set seed. Raking uo the grass means that it does not have a chance to rot down and increase soil fertility.
We haven’t scythed all our long grass as it is an important habitat for wildlife, providing cover for small mammals, frogs, and invertebrates. The caterpillars of several butterflies like the Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood and Ringlet feed on grass, and, not surprisingly, grasshoppers love longer grass. It has been a good year for Meadow Browns in particular and we have seen some of the Painted Ladies that have worked their way up from Europe on southerly winds. If they arrive early enough some may breed but our winters are too cold for them to survive.
Dragonflies have been seen flying briskly over the pond hoovering up the all day buffet of small insects while the sun shines. There are still some wildflowers for the pollinators: yellow toadflax, red campion, hemp agrimony, and near the pond, purple loosestrife. When you look into the hedges though, the berries of rowan, hawthorn and lords and ladies are already red. “Summer’s lease” is now up, and however hot the sun may feel, Autumn is stepping forward for her turn in the cycle of the year.
April 2019 Well, after a false start to tease us in February, I think we can say that spring has finally settled in and spread her skirts over the countryside following on from March’s lion like beginnings.
It’s not just the weather that has its good and bad spells, and there have been upsets in the orchard. Unfortunately, someone has thoughtlessly dumped some goldfish in the wildlife pond. Goldfish are non native and voracious predators. I had hoped to report that our large amount of frogspawn had turned into a large amount of tadpoles but, sadly this is not the case. There was just a tiny group left hiding out in the shallows when I looked yesterday. The rest have been goldfish lunch. The fish will also be eating all sorts of other pond wildlife. We are slowly removing the fish to new homes but, as I can attest, this is not easy: however, we will persist.
While we are dealing with bad news, there is a lot of anxiety about top predator the Asian Hornet (see picture above right). Our native European Hornet does also eat other insects but not to such a great degree. The Asian Hornet has now moved west into France where it has devastated colonies of bees, and wiped out whole hives. There is a danger that it has come over to England accidentally in luggage and may be blown over the Channel. As well as honey bees, it also eats bumble bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths.
Authorities are anxious that all sightings are reported, so they can check and hopefully trace the hornets back to their nest. On to more cheerful news. The good weather has brought back the pond skaters. Hopefully they are nippy enough to avoid the goldfish. Spring flowers are getting into their stride with celandines, primroses, daises and red dead nettle all providing food for our pollinators. Even the much maligned (when it gets a grip in the garden) dandelion has lots of insect visitors, and later in the year I have seen goldfinches feeding on the seeds. Brimstone butterflies have made a fleeting appearance along with tortoiseshells and peacocks. The hedgerows are sprouting, and, best of all, the yellow rattle has germinated. We left it last year to drop its seeds without help from us so it’s good to see the little seedlings appear. Spring has worked her magic again.
January 2019 “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”Recent mild weather has allowed the first celandine flowers to appear, daisies are making a brave show on lawns, white dead nettle and dandelions are flowering, and cow parsley and goosegrass are putting forth new leaves. Sparrows are chattering and the robin is singing no doubt to establish nesting territory.
Don’t be fooled. There will be more bad weather to come, a “Beast from the East” or something similar. Plants will be checked but not killed. Other creatures need winter shelter. In the orchard we have built a bug hotel by stacking up old pallets and packing the spaces in between with dried grass, leaves and straw, fir cones, hollow stems and small stones, to provide insulated crevices for a variety of critters to overwinter. We have also created a hibernaculum, a shelter to allow other ground dwellers to have a space for hibernation or semi hibernation. An easier way of doing this is to have a log pile in a sheltered, quiet corner, which we have also done. Any fairly large prunings are stacked up, not too neatly, with other smaller branches and twigs tucked in between. Again this allows space for creatures to find shelter from the worst of winter weather. Keeping the bottom of hedges uncleared of vegetation also helps as does leaving seed heads on all manner of plants.
We all like to hunker down on cold days and wildlife needs sheltered, undisturbed spaces to see it through to spring whatever the weather. So leave a few “untidy” corners in your garden so you can see some old friends return with warmer days.