Fascinating wildlife fact #20: wildcats are pound for pound the strongest big cats

Wild cats (felix sylvestris) are, pound for pound, the strongest and most aggressive big cats in the world. They are capable of killing small deer.

grumpy looking wildcat

Finally finished!

After half a year of sewing, I’ve finally finished my barn owl cross stitch. It’s by far the biggest cross stitch project I’ve ever completed, so I’m quite pleased with myself. It’s also the first time I’ve turned one of my photos into a cross stitch.

Completed barn owl cross stitch
Completed barn owl cross stitch

At first it felt like I was making very slow progress. I started with the background, so for ages there was just an absence of barn owl.

Work in progress: my barn owl cross stitch
Can you tell what it is yet?

But, towards the end, things felt like they really sped up, and it got quite addictive.

In total, I used about 124 metres of embroidery thread, and sewed 9,600 cross stitches (if you ignore all the ones I had to redo because of mistakes!)

It’s a bit greener than I was expecting.¬† But I think you can tell what it it is.

Barn owl

My first thought on finishing this project was what the next one could be. I’ve got even more ambitious plans for that, and my new embroidery thread arrived this morning, so I can get cracking.

Eagle owl

February wild garden: preparing the meadow

I have been itching to get to work on the garden since my new year’s resolution. At last, this weekend, we had some dry weather coinciding with me having some spare time, so I lit the chiminea for warmth, and set to work. My priority for this month was improving the wildflower meadow.

Calling it a meadow is perhaps stretching the point. My garden is tiny, so the meadow is only a few metres square. Nevertheless, it does have wildflowers, and the insects seem to love it.

When we decided to turn half our lawn into a wildflower meadow a few years ago, we tried a couple of approaches. In one small area we skimmed off the top layer of turf, and sowed a ready-made mix of wildflower seeds. This patch has done well, with a variety of wildflowers growing and setting seed each year. All it needs is a couple of trims a year, and the bees get a feast.

In another patch of the meadow I planted some plug plants of various wildflowers. These haven’t done so well, but nature seems to have seized advantage of the twice yearly mowing schedule to invade the area with a buttercup-like flower (botany is not my strong point). The patch is ok (a definite step up in terms of biodiversity from the lawn), but not as flowery as the first patch.

The remaining bit of meadow is in the shade, on the north side of the fence. It was taken over by ground elder, so, months ago I covered the area with old carpet, to combat the invasion. The carpet kept the plants down, but I knew the real problem remained – a dense network of roots just below the surface.

Armed with a hand fork and rake, I did battle with the roots. It’s quite addictive (and that comes from me, a very occasional weeder). The trouble is that the roots go beyond the patch I wanted to work on, so it was hard to stop. Still, it was good to be out in the garden, working with the soil, and seeing the signs of spring (even if it was mainly embryonic ground elder leaves). I’m pretty sure that the war against the ground elder isn’t over, but, hopefully I have set it back enough to give a wider variety of wildflowers a chance.

The weeded ground
The weeded ground

Once again, I am comparing a couple of different approaches to sowing wildflowers. The first is a wildflower mat: two layers of biodegradable fabric, with wildflower seeds sown in at appropriate spacing. I have heard that these can work well. You just place the mat on top of your prepared soil, and cover with a thin layer of soil. The other approach was rather less measured and evenly spaced. I mixed up a load of wildflower seeds, a chucked them on the ground, raking in lightly. As it’s a shady area, I used some seeds from wildflowers used to the shade of woodlands: primroses and violets. But because I am also impatient and not always terribly well organised, I also mixed in leftover seeds from commercial wildflower seed mixes that I had lying around in my seed box. I am not sure how well these will do, as they’re probably better fitted to sunnier areas, but nothing ventured…

The new and improved area of meadow, sown with wildflower seeds
The new and improved area of meadow, sown with wildflower seeds

My other concern is that it may be a little early to sow the seeds. I know some wildflowers need a bit of frost before they germinate, and I hope the others will get by, as spring seems to be coming early this year. Time will tell. I am looking forward to seeing what comes up. And anything will be an improvement on layers of old carpet.

The other wildlife garden related achievement from yesterday is that Dr C put up a hedgehog highway sign by the hole in our fence (the neighbours have one for their side as well). The sign is a bit of fun, but also, if we move house before the fence falls down, it will encourage future owners to keep access clear for hedgehogs, and look out for them (particularly if they end up strimming my beautiful meadow – maybe we should never move – I’m not sure I could cope with letting someone else be in charge of my wild garden).

Hedgehog highway sign
Hedgehog highway sign

Unused to such physical exertion, I’ve spent all today groaning each time I stand up or sit down. But the temporary pain is outweighed by the excitement of seeing what germinates, and then what creatures will make use of the new flowers for food or shelter.

Carbon fast for Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. Lent is a period of fasting for Christians, as they prepare for Easter. I feel it’s appropriate that (part of) my way of observing Lent this year is to go further with my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint.

Many people give something up for Lent – often food or drink related. This may be a primarily a spiritual thing – denying oneself something to help one focus on Jesus. It may also have other benefits – a healthier diet and/or saving money (that could then be given to charity). A carbon fast has these benefits, but it also links with the idea of repentance (turning away from sin – in this case the selfish consumerism that damages creation and leaves the poorest to suffer the effects of climate change). There’s also something¬† appropriate in reducing my carbon footprint during the season that starts with ashes.

Burning palm cross and ashes
Burning palm cross and ashes

There are loads of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprints, and it can seem overwhelmingly complicated at times. If you want the quick version, the three most important things we can do, as individuals, to reduce our carbon footprint are:

  1. Switch to 100% renewable electricity (and reduce how much electricity we use)
  2. Fly less
  3. Eat less meat (and dairy, sadly)

Lowering the carbon footprint of my diet was one of my new year’s resolutions, and I’ve been trying hard to stick to it, with moderate success. But I’ve found it surprisingly difficult – food manufacturers don’t display carbon emissions next to calorie counts. I work in central London, and, on my less organised days, buy my lunch from one of the myriad of sandwich shops near my office. But they provide very little information on where their food comes from, and I’ve been shocked by how few non-dairy vegetarian (or vegan) options there are. Still, this Lent, I’m going to try even harder.



Wild Garden 2016: January

I went for a quick win for my January #WildGarden2016 task – installing two new bird feeders that I was given for Christmas. The feeders are in the shape of poppies, with the flowerhead holding the bird food. I’ve put mealworms in one and seeds in the other.

A poppy shaped feeder filled with seeds

The new poppy feeders in situ
The new poppy feeders in situ

As the feeders are only a couple of feet high, I had to be careful to position then away from any cover that a cat could use to creep up on a feeding bird.

They’re on quite slender ‘stems’, so I wasn’t sure they’d stay upright in all the high winds we’ve been having, but they seem to be coping with that without problems. I guess the next test is whether they can cope with a fat woodpigeon or two landing on them!

I expect that they’ll attract a different sort of bird to those that use the hanging feeders. I set them up just over a week ago, and today I saw my first bird using it – a robin. I’m not surprised a robin was the first customer – they’re naturally quite bold birds, love mealworms, and don’t use the hanging feeders.

A robin making use of the new feeder
A robin making use of the new feeder

It’s always encouraging to see wildlife making use of new ‘wildlife-friendly’ features in the garden. I’m looking forward to getting cracking on some of the more ambitious plans I have!


Bird nerd part 13: Big Garden Birdwatch 2016: where were they all?

Last weekend was the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch, where hundreds of thousands of people around the country spend an hour recording the birds that visit their garden or park. Bird nerd that I am, of course I took part. But my sightings this year were far from impressive.

I didn’t get off to a good start. Sunday was a damp, blustery day. The sort of day when I see far fewer birds than normal. And Jazz, our neighbour’s cat, spent the first 20 minutes sitting under the buddleia, getting into the birdwatching spirit. Not helpful. Dr C offered to chase him off, but I demured – the count is not a competition, it’s trying to get reasonably representative snapshot. As Jazz spends quite a bit of time lurking in our garden, I figured his presence was fairly typical.

Still, I was relieved when he disappeared under the fence. No birds were foolish enough to visit the garden with him around (the pigeon feathers on our lawn hint at what happens to foolish birds). And it would just be embarrassing not to see any birds.

The timer sped on, and my concern increased. Finally, I heard a robin. Heard him, but couldn’t see him. Then eventually he showed himself. I could put something down on my list. Sadly he remained the sole avian visitor to our garden that hour – a big contrast with my results in 2014.


We have been seeing far fewer birds than usual for this time of year. I think that might be because of the mild weather we’ve had so far. Those that do visit the garden seem uninterested in the seeds, suet pellets and mealworms we put out, preferring the ivy berries. In recent weeks I’ve been recording around 5 species a day – about half what I usually expect in January.

Hopefully this means that the birds are finding plentiful food elsewhere, rather than a dramatic decline in the bird population. Data from the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch survey (collected every week, rather than once a year) will give us a better idea of the impact of our weird winter weather beyond the boundaries of my garden.