#WildGarden2016: Persevering with wildflowers

One of my WildGarden aims for this year was to increase the numbers of wildflower species in the garden. I set up a new planter in a shady spot, and planned out a selection of wildflowers that will attract insects over a large portion of the year. I got snowdrops in the green, and primroses as plug plants, as well as seeds for other species.

I’ve not had great success with the seeds – they took ages to germinate, and, once they had, the slugs eat them all while they were hardening off in the greenhouse. My second batch (including foxgloves, white clover and wood forget-me-not) are now in the greenhouse, and I am trying a couple of approaches to keeping the slugs away:

  1. Standing the pots in a tray of wool pellets, which are meant to put slugs off
  2. Or standing them in a tray of gravel.
  3. Sticking a plastic bag over a few of the pots until the seedlings get too big
Wildflower seedlings
Wildflower seedlings

We’ll see if any of these approaches works.

Update: last night I caught a snail in one of the pots in the tray of gravel…


Dormouse box check September 2016: lifting Sophie’s curse

I was very excited about this month’s dormouse box check, after the promising signs last month, finding a pregnant dormouse and a young family. I was expecting to find boxes of bouncy young dormice, ready to explode out like jack-in-the-boxes as soon as the lid was removed. But I had forgotten that Sophie, one of the volunteers joining me this month, seems to be cursed, with dormice hiding away from boxes whenever she visits a site, no matter how many dormice are usually found there…

I was reminded of Sophie’s curse early on in the check, when the nest that held the pregnant female last month turned out to be empty, and none of the surrounding boxes had any sign of dormice. Hopefully that means she’s made a natural nest somewhere to have her babies, and we may see them turn up in our boxes next month. But it doesn’t help Sophie get the experience of handling young dormice that she needs to get her license. Still, we knew that one of the last boxes of the check had a family in last month, so we continued with some (slightly diminished) optimism.

The woods are starting to feel autumnal, with the leaves just starting to turn yellow, and fungi everywhere you look.


Luckily we didn’t have to wait until the end of the check to find dormice. A new nest had appeared in a box about halfway through our check route, so we got it off the tree, and had a proper look in. There seemed to be three or four young (eyes open) dormice in the nest. So Sophie started bagging them up for weighing. But it didn’t stop at four. They just kept coming. Five… six… seven. No sign of an adult, but seven healthy, lively youngsters. I’ve no idea how they all fitted in the nest.

Dormice generally have litters of about four, so seven is a big, but not unheard of, number. Most of them were around 8-10g, although one was an impressive 14g (he was also quite feisty, biting Sophie – quite unusual for a dormouse, but perhaps his feisty attitude is how he got so much bigger than his siblings). We used coloured twisty tags to help us keep track of which was which.

We were able to sex a few of them – mostly males, but my personal favourite was a very pretty female with a white tip to her tail. Hopefully, with that distinguishing feature we’ll be able to spot her again next month, and see how she’s doing putting on weight for hibernation.

Young dormouse
Young dormouse

With seven dormice to go around, we all got a chance to handle a few while putting them back in the box. They were very cooperative, with none trying to escape the nest while we posted their siblings back in. Just as well, as we could have been there all day otherwise…

A few boxes later we found an adult male (who also bit Sophie). By that time we were wondering if she smelt of hazelnut…

A shrew has taken over one of the old bees nests, which they’d taken over from a dormouse nest… It’s funny how some boxes seem to be attractive to several different species, while other nearby boxes are empty.

Our last box of the day also revealed good news – a lactating female, with tiny pinkies (the official term for dormice babies before they develop fur – these were less than 15mm long). We didn’t get them out of the box, and processed mum as quickly as we could (although not before she had bitten me, through the bag!).

With 9 dormice plus pinkies we have well and truly lifted Sophie’s curse. Let’s hope they have a good month feeding, putting on enough weight to see them through the winter… (now there’s an idea!)


Leafcutter bees

I’ve discovered a new pleasure this summer: sitting in my garden with a cold drink, watching leafcutter bees.

I’d heard of leafcutter bees before this year, but never actually seen one. Now, thanks to our new insect home, I can watch them work.

Leafcutter bee busy with the insect house
Leafcutter bee busy with the insect house

Leafcutter bees are solitary bees that use small holes to lay their eggs in. They use circles of leaf to create chambers for their larvae to develop in, and stock these chambers up with a supply of pollen before sealing them up. It looks like a lot of work, but is fascinating to watch.

I was surprised how quickly they can cut a neat circle in a leaf. Some of our plants look like they’ve been visited by the very hungry caterpillar. These holes make them unpopular with gardeners who aim for perfection, but I think it adds interest.

Leaves used by leafcutter bees
Leaves used by leafcutter bees

It’s satisfying that the insect house we installed earlier this year is giving them somewhere to nest. I’m looking forward to watching the new bees emerge next year, and make even more holes in our leaves. We might have to install some more insect houses for them!

Fascinating wildlife fact #22: there’s an intestinal parasite that makes rodents unafraid of cats

Mice who have the Toxoplasma parasite in their intestines are less afraid of cats – the parasite can manipulate their host’s psychology and immune response. Humans with toxoplasma are more likely to have car accidents, and it makes women more assertive.

Vole patrol part 2

Surrey Wildlife Trust’s quest to find out if water voles are functionally extinct in the county continues. Which means I spent some of my bank holiday wading through a brook, looking for burrows, feeding signs, droppings and pawprints.

It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful site to survey. A small brook running through farmland, with earth cliff banks covered in brambles dripping with ripe blackberries. The stream itself didn’t have any vegetation in it, but the water was clear, the banks easily burrowable, and there was plenty of vegetation along the banks. So not entirely unlikely habitat for a water vole. In fact, we know there used to be voles here, hence we were surveying this site.

Tanners Brook
Tanners Brook

Charlotte (a fellow volunteer and my partner in crime for this survey) and I donned our waders, buoyancy aids and set off, stick and clipboard in hand. The survey involves one person wading in the river, looking for water vole signs (or mink, rat or otter for that matter), while the other keeps pace along the bank, drawing a map as she goes. We took it in turns to do the fun bit (the heat of the day made the cool water appealing, even though my waders were slightly leaky).

Disappointingly (but not surprisingly), we didn’t find any signs of water voles. There were a few holes too small for a water vole, and a few much to big. But not pringle tube sized holes, no vole droppings, no feeding lawns… I guess the good news is that we didn’t find any mink pawprints or droppings either.

Water vole populations have disappeared from 94% of their previous sites, the fastest decline of any British species. The last confirmed sighting of a water vole in Surrey was eight years ago. Surrey Wildlife Trust aim to survey around 200 sites where water voles have previously been reported. They’re also asking members of the public to report any water voles they spot in Surrey. There’s a handy ID guide on their website (which is useful as it’s easy to mistake a swimming rat for a water vole – in fact, the wonderful Ratty from The Wind in the Willows is actually a water vole).

The intrepid vole patrollers have so far surveyed 84 sites. But we haven’t found a single water vole sign. Plenty of mink. And rats. But no water voles.

The information from all these surveys will help Surrey Wildlife Trust work out how best to help water voles in the county. This may include predator (mink) control and possibly re-introductions, if there’s still enough  suitable habitat in our crowded county. Our neighbours, Hampshire, still have water voles. I hope one day we can see them in Surrey again.