Category Archives: How to

How to make an insulated bird bath

Birds need water to drink all year round. Our mini pond and bird bath do the trick most of the year, but during really cold spells they can get frozen solid, leaving the birdies thirsty. To tackle this, I decided to raid the garage for bits and pieces to make an insulated watering hole for birds.

What I used

Materials needed for the insulated bird bath
Materials needed for the insulated bird bath

 

Tools needed to make insulated bird bath: glue gun, scissors, knife
Tools needed to make insulated bird bath
  • A polystyrene box (we used to use it to keep milk cool)
  • A strong black bin bag
  • A glue gun and sticky tape
  • A cold-proof bowl

How I made it

  1. I cut a hole in the lid of the polystyrene box, so the birds can get at the water without the water lising too much heat. I had forgotten how much mess cutting polystyrene makes – I was covered in white flecks which static made difficult to get rid of.
  2. Polystyrene isn’t waterproof or easy to wipe clean, so I covered the outside of the box and lid with black plastic from an opened out, heavy duty bin bag (making sure to leave the hole free). In addition to waterproofing and making the box easier to clean, the black colour will hopefully mean it warms up quicker when there is a bit of sunshine. I used a glue gun to attach the plastic to the polystyrene (until the glue ran out and I had to resort to tape).

    Covering the polystyrene box and lid with black plastic
    Covering the polystyrene box and lid with black plastic
  3. I put the cold-proof bowl in the box, to test how it fitted. I wanted it to come right up to the lid, so the birds could easily reach the water. I ended up having to create a small hollow in the bottom of the box so that lid could fit on when the bowl was in place. This made even more mess, turning me into a snowman. I then filled the gap round the edge of the bowl and the box with more polystyrene.
    Creating a nest for the bowl
    Creating a nest for the bowl

    Insulated bird bath with bowl in situ
    Insulated bird bath with bowl in situ
  4. I put the box in place (somewhere where it’ll get the sun, not too close to where cats could hide) and filled the bowl with water.

    The insulated bird bath in place
    The insulated bird bath in place

Did it work?

Well, on frosty mornings when the birdbath was frozen solid, and there were inches of ice on the pond, there was only a sliver of ice on the insulated bird bath that could be easily broken or removed.

The insulated bird bath on a frosty morning
The insulated bird bath on a frosty morning
A thin layer of ice had formed over night, but this was easily broken, unlike the inches of ice in the pond
A thin layer of ice had formed over night, but this was easily broken, unlike the inches of ice in the pond

I set up my trail camera for a couple of days to see if anything used it. While a song thrush and wren came tantalisingly close, the only animals that I actually saw drinking from it were cats. But lots of cats, lots of times. I have successfully created an insulated cat bowl. Not quite what I was aiming for, but maybe the birds will get used to it.

Next door's cat drinking from the insulated bird bath
Next door’s cat drinking from the insulated bird bath

Modifications

One essential modification is to secure the lid in some way, to stop it being blown off. The stone I used wasn’t up to high winds, so I think tying it on with string would be better.

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Reviving the wormery

My August Wild Garden challenge was to revive the wormery. Worms are excellent recyclers, turning dead plant material into wonderful compost and liquid fertiliser.  I set up a three-tiered wormery in my garden years ago, for fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen. But it fell into neglect after the council started a food waste collection, as it was easier to put all the food waste in one place, rather than separating out acidic and fishy/meaty waste from the worm-tasty other stuff.

The wormery
The wormery

Having had to buy lots of compost this year, it’s struck me that it just doesn’t make sense for me to send away good worm food for the council to compost, and then pay for and transport commercial compost. It was time to get the wormery going again.

I was trepidatious about what I would find when I lifted the lid from the long-neglected wormery. But what I found was a pleasant surprise. The bottom layer had beautiful, fine textured, non-smelly compost ready to go on the garden.

The compost from the wormery
The compost from the wormery

My first task was to get the few remaining worms in that layer out of that compost, and into the less digested layer. I did that by leaving the lid off for a while, then, once the worms had dug down a bit to escape the light, scooping of the top bit of compost, and repeating the process until the tray was empty, the worms rehomed, and the herbs and flowers given a compost treat.

As there were few worms left, to really get the wormery producing quickly I decided to add some reinforcements. There are various companies online that will send you worms via an unsuspecting delivery driver. I bought mine along with a block of coir as bedding, some worm treats and some lime pellets, to keep the compost at a worm-friendly neutral or slightly alkaline ph.

The worms in their new home
The worms in their new home

Once the coir block had been soaked, I added it and the worms to an empty wormery tray, together with some worm treats. I will add food waste gradually, until they get into their swing.

For the tray of almost ready compost, which has the remainder of the original worms (well, their descendents), I added some lime pellets and worm treats. Once they’ve finished work in that layer they can join the newbies in the tray above.

Hopefully this time I can keep the wormery going well. This will reduce the carbon cost of transporting some of my food waste to the council composting facility, and reduce my compost and fertiliser bill. I will give it my best shot.

How to create a bog garden

Boggy areas are excellent for encouraging more wildlife into your garden. They’re particularly good for amphibians and insects. But if your garden isn’t on the edge of a stream, how can you create such an area? The answer involves rather a lot of digging.  Dr C and I like a bank holiday project, so that’s what we set out to do at the beginning of May.

You will need:

  • Somewhere to create it
  • A spade
  • A tarpaulin to put the soil on
  • Pond liner or other sturdy waterproof membrane big enough to line the pond (this is a useful calculator to help you work out how much you will need)
  • Water (preferably rain water from a water butt)
  • Perennial plants suitable for boggy or moist areas (see below for how to pick them)
  • Some logs or stones to edge the bed, hiding the pond liner

1. Pick your site

In the wild, these sorts of habitats often occur next to streams or ponds, so we chose to create ours next to our barrel pond. If your pond is level with where you want to create your bog garden, you can create a beautiful uninterrupted effect. That wasn’t an option for us, but being next to the pond will make life easier for the frogs and insects.

A pond isn’t a prerequisite for a bog garden (and if you can’t have a pond, a bog garden is a good alternative). But ponds are brilliant for all sorts of wildlife, even if they are tiny, like ours, so do consider creating one – it’s another very satisfying weekend project.

2. Mark out your bog area

You can use pegs and string to mark it out, or, like us, mark the edges with spade cuts. We went for a curved shape to match the shape of the pond.

3. Start digging

Once you’re happy with the shape and size of the bed, start digging. This is the time consuming bit. You’re aiming for a straight sided hole 50-60cm deep. Dr C did most of the hard work (as usual), but I did enough digging to ache all over for the next few days.

First we took off the turf, using it to thatch the hedgehog house. Then the serious digging starts. How hard this stage is depends on the type of ground you’re digging. In our case, it was pretty tough, as the ground under our lawn seems to be 60% building rubble. We dug up bricks, paving slabs, carpet and even a buried pipe (not connected to anything, thankfully), as well as a load of stones, and plenty of earthworms. It felt like we were on a Time Team excavation, digging up the inevitable small wall.

The bog garden hole
The bog garden hole
The soil and rubble from the hole (note the pipes and paving slabs)
The soil and rubble from the hole (note the pipes and paving slabs)

4. Line your hole

After trying to get rid of any sharp stones on the edge and bottom of the hole, we put a layer of sand on the bottom, to try to prevent anything piercing the lining. We then put the pond liner in place, pushing it into the corners of the hole, then trimming generously. We then stabbed a couple of small holes in the bottom, to allow water to drain away slowly. From what I have read, the general recommendation is a garden fork’s worth of holes per square metre. Our hole was about half that, so we went with 2 holes. The more holes you make, the faster it will drain and the less boggy, but you will need some drainage.

We added a layer of sand to the bottom of the hole to protect the pond liner
We added a layer of sand to the bottom of the hole to protect the pond liner

5. Fill in the hole

Time to undo all that hard work. First add a layer of smoothish stones, to prevent the holes becoming blocked by soil.  Then chuck all the soil back in your hole. We also added some compost, but you could also add some manure.

Filling the lined hole back in
Filling the lined hole back in

6. Water

We watered the new bog garden bed with a couple of cans of water, then let the soil level settle overnight, before topping up with soil then watering and letting it settle for a few more hours.

Leave the filled hole to settle
Leave the filled hole to settle

7. Trim and edge

Trim the pond liner more neatly, and tuck it away. We used a mix of logs and stones to edge the bog garden. These make it neater, hiding the pond liner, and provide some good hiding places for small creatures.

8. Choose your plants

I chose a mix of native plants that like boggy or moist ground. My selection includes a variety of flower shapes, colours and flowering times, to try to provide food for as many difference insects as possible. I also chose a mix of heights.  The plants I went for are:

  • Devils bit scabious
  • Water avens
  • Loosestrife
  • Marsh marigold (otherwise known as kingcup)
  • Meadowsweet
  • Marsh cinquefoil
  • An iris (a relative of the native yellow flag iris, but smaller and blue)
The edged and planted bog garden
The edged and planted bog garden

If you’re in the UK, here are a couple of nurseries that specialise in pond plants and have a good selection of native species (and do mail order):

How it’s going so far

The plants seem to be settling in well – we’ve had flowers from the meadowsweet and marsh marigold already. An insects seem to enjoy it. Next door’s kittens also seem to enjoy walking along the logs at the edge, so I hope amphibians will avoid it until the plants provide more secure cover…

Another year in the Wild South

Today is the 2nd birthday of this blog, so to celebrate I’ve been back over my posts from the last year, and picked a couple of my favourites from each month. I quite enjoyed looking back – brought back lots of memories!

September 2014

Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
  • Photo Special: Isles of Scilly – I had to choose this one, really, as not only do I quite like some of these photos, but, as it happens, I’m actually in the Isles of Scilly at the moment. It’s a beautiful place with excellent wildlife watching opportunities.
  • Hedgehog pawprints – I just love hedgehogs really.

October 2014

Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
  • Scrumping badgers? – it’s so exciting seeing badgers (even if I didn’t get any photos)!
  • Moles: perfectly adapted – I’ve still never seen a mole in the wild (alive, at least), but you can’t help admire how suited they are to their subterranean lifestyle.

November 2014

Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
  • Looking for Harvest Mice at an airport – this day of surveying for harvest mice at Gatwick airport was really memorable, even if we didn’t find any in the end. It’s fascinating to see what wildlife can exist even in the most unlikely places.
  • How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts – some close-up photos of nuts nibbled by dormice and other mice, with guidance on how to distinguish between the two.

December 2014

New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
  • Dormouse licence! – It took a long time to get enough experience with handling dormice to obtain my licence, so this was quite a significant milestone for me. This year I’ve enjoyed having my own site to survey.
  • On the trail of wild beavers – I’ve really enjoyed following the story of England’s first beavers in the wild for hundreds of years, and it was amazing to see signs of them when we were visiting the River Otter.

January 2015Grey squirrel

February 2015Skeletal hydrangea flower

March 2015

What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide
What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide

April 2015

Supporters of Christian charities call for action on climate change
Supporters of Christian aid agencies (and others) call for action on climate change
  • British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015 – a summary of my progress on seeing every species of British Animal
  • Church speaks and acts on climate change – While the new government seems to be implementing as many policies as possible to increase climate change (fracking, cutting subsidies to renewable energy, imposing the climate change levy on green electricity, the list goes on), it’s encouraging to see the church take a strong stance on this issue

May 2015

Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
  • Election summary – I spent a couple of months during the election campaign trying to find out where the main British parties stood on various issues relating to nature, the environment and wildlife. I must say, I didn’t enjoy the process much – it was quite dispiriting. But this post summarised all that work.
  • In which I learn I need a new approach to seeing bats – another batty adventure.

June 2015

Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June
Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June

July 2015

Work in progress: my barn owl cross stitch
Can you tell what it is yet?
  • Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife during a heatwave) – I think the rather dull summer we’ve had might be my fault – I wrote this post during a hot period, and since then heat has not been a problem. But still, it’s good advice for if we do get another heat wave.
  • My barn owl project – this is a little different from the projects I usually write about on this blog, but I’m enjoying it, and making good progress.

August 2015

How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years
How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years

Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife in a heatwave)

Firstly, an apology for my non-UK readers: this is a post about the weather, specifically, me moaning because it's a temperature that for many of you is perfectly normal. I can't help it, I'm English.

It’s too darn hot. I commute to London four days a week. It’s really not been fun lately – our train isn’t air conditioned, and there seems to be no air at all coming in through the windows. Everyone is sweaty – clothes cling, and everybody politely ignores the visible damp patches on shirts, as we’re all in the same position. But I get off lightly – I don’t have to enter the depths of hell that is the underground network at this time of year, nor wedge myself into a mobile greenhouse (otherwise known as a bus).

And night is little better. Yesterday evening it was 27 degrees C when I wanted to go to bed. I’m not made for extremes of heat or cold – give me 21 degrees C and sunshine, and I’m happy. Anything too far either side of that and I’m miserable.

But I am very lucky – I can carry a bottle of water with me, and my food supply is as easily accessible as ever. Spare a thought  for our wildlife, who aren’t as lucky. Here’s some easy things you can do to help your wild neighbours during a heatwave:

  • Keep a bird bath topped up with clean water
  • Don’t forget about creatures who can’t fly – if you don’t have an accessible pond with shallow sloping sides, put out a dish of fresh water on the ground each day and night
  • If you don’t have a pond, why not create one – it’s one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden. It needn’t be big – our mini pond gets used by lots of wildlife
  • Don’t forget to feed the birds and hedgehogs – it can be particularly hard for hedgehogs and blackbirds to find food when it’s been hot and dry for a long while, so leave out some cat food or mealworms for them
  • Water your garden plants when it’s cool (preferably with water from a water butt) to keep your garden a green oasis for wildlife
  • Build a log pile – this will provide damp shady places for insects, amphibians and mammals to keep cool during the day
  • Plant a tree or two in your garden to create some shade, if you don’t have some already (although a heatwave isn’t a great time to start planting trees – you might want to wait until the autumn / winter for this one)

You can find loads of useful wildlife gardening advice and practical instructions from the RSPB Make a Home for Wildlife site.

Do you have any other tips for helping wildlife through a heatwave?

How to turn a pallet into a vertical flower planter

When a delivery left us with a wooden pallet, in battered but solid condition, my Womble instinct took over. There had to be a garden wildlife project we could use it for. A quick search for inspiration came up with the idea of turning it into a vertical planter. It’s perfect for making more space for flowers in a small garden like ours. Planted with flowers of a variety of colours and shapes it will be a good additional food source for insects. It took Dr C and I an afternoon to build and plant up. Here’s how we did it.

What we used:

  • A wooden pallet (you can probably find one for free – some garden centres etc. give them away)
  • Heavy duty landscaping fabric
    Heavy duty landscaping fabric

    Heavy-duty landscape fabric (you can get this from a garden centre / DIY store – either buy a roll, or by the metre – we used 3m)

  • Staple gun and lots of staples
  • Peat-free compost (we used four 50l bags  which cost £4 each)
  • Our irrigation system: overflow pipe with lots of little holes in it, joined by elbow joints
    Our irrigation system: overflow pipe with lots of little holes in it, joined by elbow joints

    Pipe to make an irrigation system (we used overflow pipe from a DIY store, which cost 86p for 1.5 metres – we used 3 metres worth, plus two elbow joints which cost 60p for two). A length of hosepipe would also work well, but seemed to cost quite a bit more

  • Hammer and nail to make small holes along the irrigation pipe
  • Screws and rawl plugs (and a drill and small screwdriver) to secure the pallet to the wall to stop it falling over)
  • A cheap plastic funnel
  • Plants and compost ready to fill the planter
    Plants and compost ready to fill the planter

    Lots of small plants (you can buy trays of bedding plants from a garden centre, or grow your own from seed in small pots)

Constructing the vertical planter

  1. Our pallet was a bit mucky, so we gave it a bit of a wash down and let it dry. I suppose you could paint yours with paint suitable for exterior woodwork if you wanted to, but we decided to stick with its battered look. Hopefully the plants will grow to cover it soon anyway.
  2. Work out where to position your pallet
    Work out where to position your pallet

    Work out where to position it. You’ll need a sturdy wall to attach it to, as otherwise it’s likely to fall over, and when filled with compost it will be heavy. We chose a small garden wall just opposite the window of my study. When choosing your site, pay attention to how much sun it gets, as that will affect which plants will thrive there.

  3. Drill holes through the back of your pallet to help secure it to the wall
    Drill holes through the back of your pallet to help secure it to the wall

    Once you’ve worked out where you want it, drill a couple of holes through the pallet, and use a pencil to mark where this comes on the wall. Then drill a couple of holes into the wall, and insert a rawl plug. Don’t screw it in yet – you need to do some work on the planter first.

  4. Cover the back of your pallet with landscape fabric, and staple it well into place at the bottom and back
    Cover the back of your pallet with landscape fabric, and staple it well into place at the bottom and back, leaving the sides loose for now

    Cover the back and underneath of pallet with the landscaping fabric. Make sure there’s enough to cover the sides as well. Using the staple gun, attach the fabric to the pallet underneath and at the back. I used so many staples my hand muscles ached for days afterwards! You may want to use a double layer of landscape fabric for extra strength. Fold the cut ends in underneath before stapling, to give a neat finish and a bit more strength. Don’t staple the fabric in place at the sides yet, as you’ll need to be able to get to these to screw the pallet to the wall.

  5. Make lots of holes all along your irrigation pipe, in all different directions
    Make lots of holes all along your irrigation pipe, in all different directions – we used a hammer and nail to do this

    Using a hammer and nail, make lots of small holes randomly along the length of your irrigation pipe, so the water will reach all parts of your planter.

    Testing our irrigation system before installing it
    Testing our irrigation system before installing it

    The photo shows how we arranged ours – a big v that went from the middle of the bottom to the sides of the top, and a smaller v that went from halfway down to the top.

  6. You can just see the irrigation system in place inside the pallet
    You can just see the irrigation system in place inside the pallet

    Position your irrigation system in the pallet, making sure the tops of the pipes come out of the top of your planter so you can water it.

  7. Move your pallet into position, and screw it to the wall
    Move your pallet into position, and screw it to the wall

    Move your pallet into place, and screw it into the wall (a Swiss Army knife screwdriver was handy for this, as most other screwdrivers would be too long to fit in the gap).

  8. Staple the landscape fabric securely to the sides of your pallet (again tucking in the edge so you get a neat and strong finish).
  9. Fill your planter with compost, watering well as you go along
    Fill your planter with compost, watering well as you go along

    Holding your irrigation pipes in place, fill your planter with compost, giving it a good water every so often as you go, so not just the top compost gets wet. Make sure you firm the compost down a reasonable amount, otherwise the level will sink quite a bit later.

  10. Now it’s time for the fun bit – planting up your planter!

What plants to use

I’m definitely not an expert gardener, so can’t give you much advice on this, but here are a few points to consider:

  • If you think there’s a chance your pallet may have been treated with chemical preservatives its probably best not to grow plants for you to eat in it. Go for stuff that looks pretty instead.
  • Different sorts of insects prefer different shapes and colours of flowers, so try to pick a variety that will flower over a long period.
  • Trailing plants will look good cascading down the vertical planter – I chose a mix of trailing lobelia, petunias and other non-trailing flowers.
  • Go for single rather than double varieties, as these are easier for insects to get pollen from.
  • When choosing flowers, think about the conditions they’ll have where your planter is sited – do they like full sun, part shade or full shade?
  • If you’re not good at remembering to water plants every day you may want to pick varieties that don’t mind being a bit thirsty every now and then.
  • Pick ones that smell nice as well as look nice – this will help attract insects.
  • Growing from seed will be much cheaper than buying bedding plants from a garden centre, but requires greater organisation. We don’t have a greenhouse at the moment, which makes looking after young plants hard, so we went for the lazy option. I’m looking forward to being a bit more adventurous next year, and hope to choose some native wildflower species instead.

Planting it up

This is the fun bit. Make sure your compost is nice and damp (try out your irrigation system for the first time!), and water your plants well before starting. I started at the bottom row and used a wooden dibber to make a hole in the compost before poking the plant through. I planted it up quite densely (much closer than it said on the plant labels) to create the visual effect I wanted, but if you’re more patient than me then you could probably use fewer plants. I alternated different types of flowers, to try to keep it interesting visually.

The finished planter, all planted up
The finished planter, all planted up
The planted planter
The planted planter
Violas in the planter
Violas in the planter
Using the irrigation system
Using the irrigation system

For the first few days it’ll need plenty of water and TLC. Your funnel will help get the water into your irrigation system. Some of my lobelia have suffered as their roots aren’t well enough established yet, so I use a small watering can to make sure they get enough water. But others are doing well with the irrigation system. We’ll see how it does longer term… A few bumblebees have already started taking an interest.

How to use a mammal footprint tunnel

It may only be March, but the hedgehogs are already out and about in my garden. So I thought it was time to dust off the mammal footprint tunnel again. These are simple plastic tunnels that contain some tempting food, inkpads and paper, so when a mammal comes to investigate the food, they leave inky footprints behind. Here’s how to set one up.

What you need:

What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide
What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide
  1. A plastic footprint tunnel, big enough for your target animal to fit through
  2. A tracking plate (a simple sheet of stiff plastic that you put the bait, ink and paper on, and insert in the tunnel)
  3. Something tasty (see below for some ideas)
  4. Wide masking tape
  5. Black poster paint powder
  6. Vegetable oil
  7. Two sheets of A4 paper
  8. 8 paper clips
  9. Tent pegs to keep the tunnel in place
  10. Footprint guide

Assemble your tunnel

Insert the tabs into the slots
Insert the tabs into the slots

If you use a flatpack tunnel of the design recommended by the Mammal Society, all you need to do is fold it out, and insert the tabs into the slot – easy.

Get your tracking plate ready

This involves several stages:

  • Paper clip a sheet of A4 paper at each end of the tracking plate.
Put two strips of masking tape on your tracking plate
Put two strips of masking tape on your tracking plate
  • Put two strips of masking tape across the tracking plate, each the distance of just over the length of an A4 sheet of paper from one of the ends of the tracking plate
  • Mix one part black poster paint powder with two parts vegetable oil (I used sunflower oil), so if forms a smooth black ink. This is safe for mammals to lick off their paws, and stays damp for several nights. 1 teaspoon of powder and 2 of oil will be enough for your tunnel for several nights. If you make up more than that, keep the excess in a sealed jar until you need it
  • Apply a layer of ‘ink’ to the two strips of masking tape
Apply your 'ink' to the masking tape strips
Apply your ‘ink’ to the masking tape strips

Site your tunnel

Now pick a good spot to place your tunnel. Next to / under hedges is a good spot (hedgehogs live up to their names), or along a fence or shed, or on the edge of grassland or woodland. I put mine next to a small garden hedge.

Edges of habitat are a good place to site the tunnel. Here's it's between a small hedge and grass.
Edges of habitat are a good place to site the tunnel. Here’s it’s between a small hedge and grass.

Make sure the tunnel is flat on the ground, and use the tent pegs to keep it in place (you’ll need to pierce a hole in the floor of the tunnel for this, but that’s easily done with a pen knife).

Pick your bait

Previously I’ve had good results with dried mealworms that have been soaked in water to rehydrate them. This time I’ve tried experimenting with berry suet pellets (that are sold as bird food), more mealworms, and dried cat food soaked in water. The hedgehogs have hoovered up everything I’ve put out, so I can’t make any recommendations as to which they prefer, but any of those seem to work. You could also try peanuts (of the sort sold as bird food) (I have a nut allergy, so steer clear of these), bits of hotdog sausage, seeds or bits of fruit.

Last year when I was using the tunnel I put the bait directly onto the tracking plate (in the middle, between the two ink pads). The disadvantage of this is that bits of food end up in the ink, which is messy. So this year I’ve taken to putting it in a little ramekin (of the sort posh puddings come in), which has kept things cleaner. The ramekin does tend to get dragged about in the tunnel, but at least I don’t have to pick bits of mealworm from my ink pads.

Insert your tracking plate into the tunnel

Insert your tracking plate into the tunnel
Insert your tracking plate into the tunnel

Insert your tracking plate (complete with bait) into the tunnel, and you’re all set for the night.

The next morning

Check your tunnel by removing the tracking plate. Hopefully anything that’s been eating your bait will have left inky pawprints on the paper. All you need to do then is work out what sort of pawprints they are. This can be tricky with some species, but hedgehog prints are fairly distinctive.

If you do get any mammal pawprints, please do report these data to the National Mammal Atlas Project or use the Mammal Tracker smartphone app.

Don’t be too disheartened if you don’t get hedgehog prints after the first night – they tend to travel about quite a lot each night, and may not visit a particular garden every night.

The next evening

Replace the paper with fresh sheets, put more bait out, and check that there is still plenty of ink (topping up if needed).

What I’ve found

Previously I have had hedgehogs, mice and slugs visiting the tunnel. So far this spring the tunnel has only be used by hedgehogs. Here’s a sample of prints I’ve had this week.

 

Hedgehog pawprints
Hedgehog pawprints

Where to get hold of a mammal tunnel

Wildcare sell an easy-to-use mammal tunnel kit that contains the tunnel, tracking plate, a small amount of black poster paint powder, some pegs and a pawprint guide.

You’ll need to provide your own vegetable oil, paper, paper clips, bait and masking tape.

Alternatively, it would be fairly easy to make your own tunnel, if you happen to have suitable materials lying around.

Top posts from 2014

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good chance to look back over what’s happened. I’ve been going through the stats to see which posts have had the most views (per month) in 2014. Here are the top 10:

10) 10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts: It seems lots of people are looking for inspiration for Christmas presents. I just hope Dr C is among them!

9) Looking for harvest mice at an airport: my (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to see micromys minutus in the unusual setting of Gatwick Airport.

8) Fascinating wildlife fact #11: sharks don’t have bones: a short but interesting glimpse into the anatomy of sharks.

7) On the trail of wild beavers: an account of an expedition to find traces of the first beavers living wild in the UK for hundred of years, and the campaign to keep them that way.

6) Hope for the River Otter beavers: An update on the saga of whether the beavers who were discovered living wild on the River Otter will be allowed to stay free, or rehomed to a zoo. No doubt there will be more posts about this topic next year, as there’s still no definite plans.

5) Kingfishers: Another post from the River Otter (3 in the top 10!). This time it’s some of my better attempts at photographing kingfishers. Still room for improvement, but I’m getting better at it!

4) How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts: This post outlines how to tell the difference between a nut nibbled by a squirrel, woodmouse, bank vole or dormouse. It contains close up photos to help with identification.

3) Dormouse license! I’ve finally received my dormouse license. This post reflects on what this means, and  the journey to get this far…

2) 5 more recent posts that have made me think: This post links to 5 posts by other bloggers that have made me think. It includes reintroduction of large carnivores in the UK, the hunting act, hedgehogs, flooding, and Christian’s relationship with nature.

1) Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB: Like the River Otter beavers, the badger cull has been a saga with many twists and turns. This post discusses the recent announcement that the timing of the culls next year will be moved forward to when cubs are first emerging from the sets.

 

How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts

Hazel nuts are popular with many small mammals (our native dormouse, muscardinus avellenarius, is called the hazel dormouse for a reason). And the way a nut is opened can tell you who’s eaten it. This is particularly handy for telling if dormice are present, as you’re very unlikely to see one.

So, starting with the easy one. It takes strong jaws and teeth to split a hazel nut. So if you find a discarded nut shell split in two, or shattered, the nut has probably been eaten by a squirrel.

Bank voles also have big, strong teeth, so can bite rather than nibble through to the kernel. Quite often they will leave an irregular, roundish hole in the shell. They tend not to leave lots of teeth marks on the shell near the hole, unlike mice.

Now we get to the tricky part: distinguishing between nuts eaten by apodemus mice (woodmice and yellow-necked mice) and dormice. Both sorts of mice nibble neat round holes in the shell, so you need to look closely. A hand lens or magnifying glass helps.

Hazel nut that has been nibbled by a woodmouse or yellow-necked mouse: note the toothmarks on the inner slope of the hole, and scratch marks around the outside of the hole
Hazel nut that has been nibbled by a woodmouse or yellow-necked mouse: note the toothmarks on the inner slope of the hole, and scratch marks around the outside of the hole

A hole nibbled by an apodemus mouse will have teeth marks going down the edge of the hole (vertically). They leave more scratches on the outside of the shell than bank voles. Hopefully you can see both those features in this picture.

Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.

The inner edge of a hole made by a dormouse will be much smoother, as they gnaw around the hole, rather than down. But they do leave lots of scratches around the outside of the hole.

Another clue to help you tell the difference between apodemus and dormouse nibbled nuts is where you find them. If you find a cache of nibbled nuts, it’s likely to be apodemus. Dormice generally tend to eat and then drop nuts where they find them, so their nuts are often more spread out.

If you find a nut with a really tiny hole (maybe 1-2mm across), this has probably been eaten by an insect.

Nut A: who's eaten it?
Nut A: who’s eaten it?
Nut B: who's eaten this one?
Nut B: who’s eaten this one?

Here are a couple more close-up photos of nibbled nuts. Can you tell what’s eaten them? I will put the answer in the comments to this post. Let me know how you get on.

I’m starting to put together a page of photos of mammal signs. This will develop as I delve into my archive, and take more photos. I hope this will eventually become a useful reference (particularly as many books have line drawings rather than photos of these sorts of things, which can be rather hard to interpret). I’ll let you know when it goes up.

10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts

Go into any shop these days and you’ll see that Christmas is sneaking up on us. Last year I posted my Top 10 Christmas Present Ideas for Wildlife Enthusiasts. Since I’m sure you went out and bought all of my suggestions, here’s a few more ideas for this year (hint, hint, Dr C!), ranging from £3 to as much as you want to spend.

  1. Extension tubes for macro photography: Some of our most fascinating, beautiful and weird-looking wildlife is pretty small. The best way to photograph it is with a macro lens, but these cost hundreds of pounds. Extension tubes are a cheaper way of taking macro photographs, ranging in price from around £30-150. You fit them between your camera and your lens. I’ve never used them, so can’t provide advice on which ones to go for, but they’re on my Christmas list.
  2. Bat detector: I’ve had lots of fun this year trying out my bat detector. It opens up a whole new sonic world. I also have to admit I’ve had a bit of frustration as well, not being able to distinguish between some bat species. A basic heterodyne model like mine will set you back around £60, but you can get fancy ones with software that will help you tell which bats you’ve found if you’re willing to spend a bit more.
  3. Wildlife courses: I love learning more about wildlife, so a place on a course run by the Mammal Society, local wildlife trusts, Field Studies Council etc. would be a great present. There are so many to choose from. I quite fancy one of the Field Studies Council courses on Bushcraft. I could also benefit from learning a bit more about identifying bats (see previous suggestion).
  4. Go Pro Hero camera: Go Pro cameras have a reputation for robustness and portability. They make waterproof, dustproof cameras that can be mounted on headbands, helmets, harnesses or bikes. I’m hoping to go snorkelling with seals next year, so would love to be able to take some better quality photos than with the disposable waterproof camera I used last time. The Hero is their basic model, and you can get it from around £100.
  5. Field guides: The Field Studies Council produce an excellent range of laminated guides to help you identify different types of animals and plants. These can be carried easily (unlike a book), and you don’t need to worry about getting them wet. Most of them cost around £3, and there’s a huge range to choose from.
  6. Wildlife art: a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Why not buy your loved one a piece of art featuring their favourite wildlife? It needn’t cost a fortune – if you’re a photographer, enlargements can be very reasonable, and if you mount it yourself the end result can look good at little cost. If you’ve got a bit more budget, there’s a huge amount of choice. I’m very pleased with the barn owl sculpture we recently bought. The National Trust gift shops have some beautiful bronze otters and hares – I’ve been dropping hints about the otters for several years. Jean Haines’ watercolours are stuningly beautiful as well.
  7. Books: as an otter fan, Otters of the World is on my Christmas list. I am also intrigued by The Hunt for the Golden Mole. The Bird Atlas is pricey, but could make a keen ornithologist’s Christmas. And Wildlife Photographer of the Year have published a 50th anniversary book.
  8. Whale-watching cruise: if you feel like pushing the boat out, why not treat your loved one to a mini dolphin and whale spotting cruise round the Bay of Biscay?
  9. Birdy plates & glasses: I’m rather a fan of these birdy plates, mugs, glasses and other homeware. I think they brighten up breakfast on a dull winter’s morning.
  10. Binoculars: a good pair of binoculars really helps with wildlife watching. Compact pairs can be surprisingly good, and easier to carry around.