Tag Archives: amphibians

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…

Advertisements

British Animal Challenge: February 2015 update

I have to admit that I have spent most of February indoors, so far. So no new animals to tick off my list this year. But I haven’t been idle – I’ve been plotting the rest of the year.

My focus for March will be amphibians and reptiles. I’m not planning any trips away from home, so will search for those that can be seen in Surrey. Luckily that’s most of the British species.

Early spring is a good time to look for amphibians, as their focus is on mating. And reptiles have to spend more time basking in the open, so will hopefully be easier to see than later in the year.

Surrey has some fine reptile habitat, with a mix of woodland and heaths. I’m more familiar with the woods, so this is a good excuse to explore beyond my usual territory.

British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.

Tired as a newt

My legs ache like I’ve just climbed a mountain, and I’m sleep deprived. It’s all the newts’ fault.

Earlier this week I helped out with a newt survey, which was great. But newts, being nocturnal, have to be surveyed after dark, and then very early the next morning, which meant I missed a few crucial hours of beauty sleep. (You didn’t think I look as gorgeous as I normally do without a good 8 hours slumber each night, did you?) And as newts live in ponds, there’s quite a bit of crouching down needed to extract bottle traps and release newts back into the ponds, hence the achey legs.

But they’re so enchanting and strange, I forgive them my aches and doziness.

I joined staff at Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor newts in ponds on one of their reserves. Spring is the best time to monitor newts, as at night they can all be found in ponds where they congregate to breed.

We used 3 approaches to survey the newts. The first, lamping, involves shining a bright torch into ponds to see what you can see. This was remarkably effective, and we saw lots of both smooth and great crested newts. It takes a bit of time to get your eye in, particularly to distinguish between males and females of the same species, but I was amazed how many we saw.

Another surveying method is to set traps made from bottles, Blue Peter style. You set them in the evening, and check them very early on the morning to release anything you’ve caught, before it gets too warm or they run out of air. This also worked well, and I got some wonderful close-up views of both sorts of newts.

Male Great Crested Newt in a bottle trap
Male Great Crested Newt in a bottle trap
A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) - note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.
A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) – note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.

The other approach is to look for newt eggs folded individually into the leaves of pond plants.

Great Crested Newts are rare and protected by law, like dormice and bats, which means you can’t do anything to disturb them (including these survey methods) without the supervision of a licence holder. This, combined with their nocturnal and discreet way of life, and scarcity,  means it’s rare to get a good look at them.

They are very fine looking. In the water they look like marine iguanas, and their bellies are startling bright orange with bold black spots.  Smooth newts are small, neat looking things.

The orange and black underbelly of a sleepy Great Crested Newt
The underbelly of a sleepy Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newt – note the white spots and stripy toes. The crest has flopped over since it’s out of the water.

While it was a bit hard leaving my bed at stupid o’clock, it was definitely worth it – the early morning is my favourite time of day, and it’s lovely in the woods. I did have a secret smugness as I later boarded my train to work, the other commuters having no idea what I’d been up to an hour earlier.

So that’s two out of three types of newts ticked off my British Animal Challenge list, plus common pipistrelle bats that we saw as we waited for it to get dark enough for lamping. A good night’s work…

British Animal Challenge: April Update

April has been a bit of a mixed month for me in terms of the British Animal Challenge. Still no luck with amphibians (apart from a few tadpoles), despite dreams of giant toads.

The reptiles course I attended will hopefully help me spot lizards and snakes. As late April and early May are meant to be the best times to see reptiles, I had hoped to see some along the 35 miles of South West Coast Path I walked last week. But I didn’t spot a single scale. Maybe the steep hills distracted me.

I did, however, manage to tick one new species off my list: the Exmoor pony. Not the hardest to spot – they’re pretty large compared to most of the species on my list, and not too shy either. But they are limited to a fairly small (and scenic) geographical area.  I’ll write a bit more about them in the next week or so.

So, what are my plans for May? Well, reptiles are top of my list,  trying to put my new knowledge to use. I’m also hoping to do some newt surveying, and maybe have another go at looking for otters and water shrews.

British Animal Challenge: Looking for otters

When Dr C Senior showed me a photo of an otter, taken in broad daylight a few miles from his house, I couldn’t resist a visit. From what I’ve read about otters, if you want to see them in daylight your best bet is to head to a Scottish island. But Hampshire is a lot more convenient for me, and apparently a family of otters is regularly seen in a nature reserve next to the noisy A303.

So, I booked a day off work, and headed to the in-laws’. Dr C Senior kindly guided me to the reserve and showed me around, pointing out the fishing pier where otters are regularly seen playing.

It was a cold but dry March morning, and there were few other people around, although apparently the otters aren’t that bothered by the presence of dogs and walkers.

Dr C Senior stuck it out for quite a while, before the lure of lunch became too pressing. I stayed on, buoyed by the possibility of seeing my favourite British animal in the wild for the first time. I also had hopes of seeing a water shrew or some amphibians, or even catch a second glimpse of a water vole. But, aside from a hurrying vole (bank or field, I am not sure which) and a few birds, animals were staying hidden that morning.

A helpful fisherman suggested that I try another nearby nature reserve, that otters and water voles frequent. So I took his advice.

This reserve looked much more promising, being quieter and wilder looking. I found some watercress beds in my initial lap of the reserve, so I was hopeful of seeing a water shrew. I also managed to spot some possible otter and water vole signs.

But luck was not on my side that day. After two hours of patient waiting, seeing nothing more exciting than a squirrel and some blackbirds I was chilled to the bone, and decided to call it a day.

It’s not very surprising that I didn’t see an otter. They have large territories, and you can’t predict which bit of their territory they’ll use on a given day.

I was a bit disappointed not to see water shrews. It looked like ideal habitat for them, based on my limited knowledge.

But it wasn’t an unpleasant way of spending the day. It made a change from the office, and all that we walking was good for me.

So you’ll have to make do with a picture of the only otter I did see that day.

Mr Otter