Category Archives: How to

One year in the Wild South

This blog is now a year old, and this is my 100th post. I think that’s a good excuse to have a look back through the last year of posts, and pick out some of the most popular, and some of my personal favourites.

Most popular posts (highest views per month):

The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy
The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy

Lundy Island photo special – it seems I’m not the only person who thinks Lundy is a special place. I’m glad people seem to enjoy my photography.

Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
Pawprints from the mammal tunnel

Whose pawprints are these?  This post shares the results of my mammal tunnel, which allowed me to capture the pawprints of hedgehogs and mice. It also includes some footage of the nocturnal visitors to my garden.

14 05 25_2808_edited-2In which I search for otters and water shrews, and end up finding something even rarer – my account of seeing water voles in Hampshire. They’re lovely creatures…

Inquisitive seal
Inquisitive seal

Snorkelling with seals – an account of snorkelling with seals in the Isles of Scilly. Lots of photos of one of my most memorable wildlife encounters.

Deer print
Fallow(?) deer print

12 ways to find mammals – A short summary of a talk by Professor Pat Morris on how to find mammals. Not for squeamish – some of the methods involved are rather grim, but some helpful tips.

My favourite posts:

BadgerThe badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective: This post explores the case for and against the badger cull, using the principles I apply in my day job working in health research (spoiler alert: the cull is not a good idea).

The mini pond
The mini pond

How to build a mini pond: This post describes how we created a mini pond from a wine barrel. I’ve chosen this one as garden ponds (even tiny ones) are soooo good for wildlife, and ours is continuing to thrive. Hopefully this will inspire you to create one, if you don’t already have a pond.

Harvest mouse on seedheadPhoto special: British wildlife: Some of my favourite photos – hope you enjoy them as well!

Water vole
Water vole

In search of water voles: This describes my first adventure in the British Animal Challenge, and shows some of the signs to look out for with these very rare animals.

House sparrow about to fledgeHouse sparrow chicks have fledged: It’s a pleasure getting to watch nesting birds in the intimacy of their nest boxes, and these were the first chicks to fledge from our camera nest box.

I’ve learnt a lot through both having to research my posts, and from the comments people leave. I’ve really enjoyed working on the blog – thanks to everyone who has read, liked and / or commented on my posts.  I hope you will continue to keep me company on my adventures in the Wild South.

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How to build a hedgehog box

You’ve probably heard that hedgehogs are having a tough time these days. Numbers in Britain have fallen by around a third in the last 10 years. So they need all the help they can get.

If you have a garden, there’s lots you can do to make it hedgehog friendly. Leaving gaps in your fence, having a variety of lengths of grass and good dense undergrowth, and avoiding slug pellets all help. They also need places to sleep in summer, and hibernate in winter.

Open compost heaps and piles of dead wood are good, easy ways to provide hedgehog hotels. When we had to get our fence repaired after the winter storms the fencers found a hedgehog hibernating in our compost heap.

When we found out that we had regular spikey visitors to our garden, we decided to offer them some luxury accommodation, in the form of a hedgehog box, to encourage them to spend even more time eating our garden bugs.

If you’ve spotted hedgehog boxes for sale, you’ll probably have noticed that they are very expensive. A good wooden one could cost you £50. We had some spare wood, so decided to save some cash and build one ourselves.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society have an excellent leaflet on how to build hedgehog boxes. It includes several designs, ranging from a quick and easy ‘council tax band A’ one made from a sturdy cardboard box, to a luxury ‘band H’ one suitable for the David Beckham of hedgehogs.  Living in Surrey, home of most of the Chelsea squad, we had to go for that one.

Besides the wood and screws, it also required a small length of hose for ventilation, and some plastic sheeting to keep the water out (both of which were easily obtained from our local hardware shop – the type of place you could buy four candles from). We also bought some hay from the pet shop for the hogs to use as bedding.

Neither Dr C nor I are DIY experts, but the instructions were clear and it was straightforward to build. We made it in a (not too long) day.

Hedgehog box in situ, before burying
Hedgehog box in situ, before burying

We sited in the shade next to the fence and a small hedge. We then built a little entrance tunnel from leftover bricks, and covered the whole thing in some earth and greenery.

Finished hedgehog box in situ
Finished hedgehog box in situ

We’ve evidence that hedgehogs have used it, although I don’t know how regularly. I plan to install a camera in it to find out what goes on in there.

Creating a mini wildflower meadow

Being British I’m partial to a well kept lawn – I like playing croquet, and while I’ve yet to try bowls, I could see it being my sort of sport in a few years time. But while a lush carpet of green has it’s appeal, an untidy jumble of wildflowers is more my style, and requires a lot less effort than keeping the lawn perfect. Establishing a wildflower meadow is not just an aesthetic winner – having a variety of native flowers can attract lots of insects, while the seeds can attract birds like goldfinches. Having a variety of lengths of grass can provide shelter for a whole host of creatures.

So when thinking about how to make our garden a wildlife haven, creating some kind of wildflower meadow was high up the list of things to do. Our garden is pretty small, with only around 5m by 4m of lawn in the first place. Since Dr C wouldn’t allow me to turn all of that into meadow, we settled on around half.

We had a bit of a head start in creating a wildflower meadow as our lawn was not ‘perfect’ to start with. In summer there were buttercups (or a flower that looks like buttercups) that left to their own devices would happily take over. There were also (far too) many dandelions (although I’m not their biggest fan). So our first step was to let the grass and flowers grow uncut in that section of the garden, and let the buttercups expand.

Wildflowers often prefer poor soils, so grasses don’t out compete them. For a small section of the mini meadow we took off a layer of turf, and sowed a mix of wildflower seeds. You can buy ready-mixed selections from any garden centre, which is what we did. But if you’re up for a bit more research you could investigate which wildflowers are found naturally in your local area, and choose a selection based on that. There are a number of specialist suppliers whose websites provide helpful information about the range of native wildflowers and how to establish a meadow.

Being impatient (or as a kind of experiment, if you choose to put a more charitable interpretation on it), I also ordered a big batch of wildflower plug plants, and planted those in the rest of the meadow area.

Not being an expert in flowers, I’m afraid I don’t know the names of all the flowers we have in the meadow. To my shame, I haven’t even counted how many different sorts. What I can say is there are quite a few different species, which means that as soon as one type stops flowering another takes over. It’s only in the last few weeks that we no longer have any flowers in bloom in the meadow.

Encouragingly, this year we still have a good variety of wildflowers, despite not sowing or planting any new ones this year. Some of them are biennials that have survived from last year, while others seem to have seeded themselves from last year’s plants.

The plants grown from seeds seem to have done better than the plug plants, although some of them are still around. Next year I might try and seed another patch with more different types, for even more variety. But hopefully the meadow will, with minimal maintenance, keep renewing itself each year.

While digging up the turf and sowing / planting took a bit of work, the meadow is quite low maintenance (compared to a lawn). In the first year we had to water the new plants while they established themselves, but this year we haven’t had to do any watering, despite the dry summer. We ‘mow’ it with shears twice a year, and apart from that we leave it to its own devices.

The insects seem to love it, and goldfinches have fed from the seeds of some of the flowers, which is very satisfying. It’s also nice to see the tunnel the hedgehogs have created through it.

So if you’re looking for an excuse to be a lazy wildlife gardener, I would recommend creating a mini meadow.

Maybe next year I’ll try and work out which flowers and creatures live in our mini meadow!

How to build a mini pond

Frog
Frog

As a kid, I loved the pond in my parents’ garden. It was brimming with frogs and newts (and leeches). My brother and I spent many happy hours catching frogs (the tiny, just-got-legs ones were the easiest to catch, and the cutest – poor little froggies being chased by curious kids). So when I finally got a garden of my own, I was determined to build one.

Building a pond is a great way of increasing the value of your garden to wildlife. It attracts invertebrates, amphibians (who eat slugs – horay!), and can be a vital water source for birds and mammals if it’s designed well. As I mentioned in my first post, our garden is rather small, and since Dr C objected to me turning the whole lawn into a pond, I had to content myself with a mini-pond. But even a tiny pond can be really valuable to wildlife.

Living in England’s equivalent to the Champagne region, the obvious container for our pond was half an old wine barrel, obtained from our local vineyard. Old tin baths, belfast sinks and other similar containers can also make good mini-ponds.

To make it easier for hedgehogs and frogs to access, we decided to recess it, so the top was about level with the decking. Dr C valiantly got on with the digging while I tried to clean up the barrel. After several scrub-outs, the water was still turning wine red, so as we didn’t want drunk frogs, we decided to line it with pond liner.

Once the pond was in place, we used old bricks and stones to create different levels within the pond. This is important so frogs and hedgehogs can easily climb out, and birds have a shallow bit to bathe in. When we had the landscaping sorted, we put the pond liner over the top and stapled the edges to the top of the barrel so they didn’t move.

Creating different levels in the pond
Creating different levels in the pond

We added a couple of handfuls of pond compost, and then filled it with water from our water butt (if you’re using tap water, you have to let it rest for 24 hours so all the chlorine can evaporate off, before adding any plants or creatures).

Picking plants for a small pond can be a bit of a challenge, as you need to find something that won’t spread too much. We managed to find a dwarf water lily for surface cover (most water lilies like to be planted quite deep), and then picked a couple of native oxygenating plants plus a small iris for the edge. Waterside Nursery have a good range of wildlife friendly pond plants.

Newly planted pond

Newly planted pond

I’ll save telling you how the pond has fared for another day, but here’s a sneak preview…

The mini pond
The mini pond

If you’re keen to have a go at creating your own pond, the RSPB provide some good guidance. Waterside Nursery’s website also contains lots of useful advice about building a wildlife pond and picking the right plants.