I had the pleasure of attending the Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards this afternoon, and winning the ‘Small private gardens’ category. Dawn Fielding, the Surrey Wildlife Trust Community Engagement Officer, gave a short talk explaining the importance of gardens for wildlife, and the pressure wildlife in Surrey is under.
23% of Surrey’s species are extinct or under threat. Gardens are a big opportunity to help our wildlife. They make up 12% of the land area of the county – more than nature reserves, so have the potential to make an impact.
The awards recognised school gardens, community gardens, business grounds and private gardens that are havens for wildlife. This year there were 145 entries, with around half achieving gold award level, so I’m thrilled our garden has come top in its category (for the second time!).
It was very interesting to hear and see pictures of what others are doing in their gardens, and fascinating to look around the Therapy Garden (which won the Community Garden Category).
Neither Dr C nor I are particularly green-fingered, nor do we have massive amounts of time to spend gardening, but we do like the occasional Womble project (see the ‘How to‘ section for some examples). I like to think that if we can do it in our little garden, anyone can.
Nice as the award is, the real reward for wildlife gardening is watching the wildlife make use of the habitat, shelter and food we provide.
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.
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.
One of my wildlife garden priorities this year was to make the garden more insect friendly by providing more food sources. This means more flowers, blooming for a larger proportion of the year. Our garden is small, so squeezing more flowers in requires some innovation.
There’s a strip of my garden that had no value for wildlife. A narrow passage 3-4m long, it runs between the fence and the wall of our extension. It’s almost completely in the shade, and is mostly decked, with an even narrower strip of gravel. How could I make this more wildlife friendly, short of knocking down the extension and landscaping it?
While most flowers need some direct sunshine to thrive, there are some that are used to deep shade – mostly flowers you’d find in woodland. A planter full of shade loving plants was the answer.
Identifying which flowers to go for took some time. I decided that I wanted shade-dwelling wildflowers that are native to Britain, good for pollinators, and between them bloomed for a large proportion of the year. I also wanted a variety of colours and flower shapes, as different pollinators are attracted to different flowers. They also needed to be quite compact, as I didn’t have much space.
I worked my way through the list suggested in the Surrey Wildlife Trust Wildlife Gardening Guide I got as part of my prize. I compiled a shortlist that fulfilled my criteria (and that I could buy seeds or plugs from a reputable wildflower supplier). From that, I picked 5 species that would hopefully ensure nectar between February and October once the bed was established, and placed my order. The species I chose were:
Common dog violet
To hold the plants, I chose a micro manger from Harrod Horticultural, as it fitted the space, and I have been pleased with the quality of the raised bed we bought from them years ago. It was quite straightforward to put together, with the aid of Dr C and an electric screwdriver.
The primroses and snowdrops I ordered as plants; plugs in the case of primroses, as their seeds need the cold of winter to germinate, and I am impatient, and snowdrops in the green, as they don’t do well if moved once their leaves have died off. The rest I ordered as seeds, which I will plant once I have built my new mini greenhouse.
The plants turned up early last week, so I have planted the snowdrops in the planter (and in the lawn and the meadow – there were lots of them!) and potted the primrose plugs into small pots to grow on a bit. The snowdrops have already flowered for the year before they arrived, so I won’t get to see the results until next year.
At the moment the planter is pretty empty (although not as empty as in the photo of it above!). Tempting as it was to fill it with snowdrops, I had to leave space for the other flowers that will hopefully germinate in a month or two. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully by next year it will turn a dark, neglected corner of the garden into a useful pitstop for insects, as well as brightening the place up.
I have an award-winning garden! I never thought I’d end up saying that, and anyone who could see it now would be equally surprised. But it’s true – the garden been awarded a Gold Award in the inaugral Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards. Not only that: it came top in the small private garden category. I officially have the best small private wildlife garden in Surrey!
Suffice to say, the award is not for the decorative appeal of the borders, or the precision neatness of the lawn. Nor is it for the volume of fruit and veg I get from the garden (which is just as well, as the wildlife seems to munch most of that before I can get hold of it). To look at, my garden’s nothing special; small and scruffy. But it does have quite a lot of wildlife-friendly features, which in turn means there’s also quite a lot of wildlife.
Today I got an early Christmas present, as Dawn Fielding from Surrey Wildlife Trust dropped round my prize – a signed book on a Surrey garden’s natural history, a wildlife gardening information pack, some notecards and a calendar. I’m looking forward to reading/using it all – the wildlife gardening information pack looks like it’s got some good new ideas to try out, and the book looks inspiring.
Of course, to me the most exciting prize from having a wildlife-friendly garden is seeing the wildlife enjoy it. It was so satisfying when we found the first frog in our pond, just weeks after we created it. And one of my most memorable wildlife experiences of this year was when we were sitting out in the garden, and a hedgehog walked right past our toes, unaware or unconcerned by our presence. Having hoglets born in the hedgehog house we made was fantastic – thinking that our efforts could help these creatures really gives me a buzz.
I think the purpose of the awards was to encourage people to think about how they can make their gardens more wildlife-friendly. Hopefully our garden shows that you don’t need a big garden to make a difference, and you certainly don’t need green fingers, or to put in lots of time each week.
It also spurs me on to think about next year – what can we do to make the garden even more wildlife friendly? Well, I have a few ideas, and my prize will help me identify a few more. I feel a new challenge coming on… I’m secretly very competitive, so intend to give holding onto my crown my best shot. Why not take me on, if you live in Surrey? The awards process will open in April next year, so there’s plenty of time for a few wildlife-friendly gardening projects before then… The Wild About Gardens website has lots of ideas.
Water vole numbers have plummeted in recent decades. The decline has been one the steepest of any British mammal (an unenviable position). They’re now absent from 94% of their former sites. Here in Surrey, the last reported sighting of a water vole was six years ago. But have they disappeared from Surrey completely?
A sighting from a decade or two ago indicated that there had been water voles along the stretch of the River Mole that I survey for Riversearch. Yesterday I set out, with Alex from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to see if there were any traces of water voles remaining.
I have to admit that I was skeptical. While my stretch of the River Mole has escaped some of the modifcations that drive water voles away (concrete banks impossible to climb or make burrows in), it’s still not promising water vole habitat. There’s not a huge amount of vegetation in the river, and the Mole isn’t renowned for its water quality. (There’s a sewage works just upstream from my patch, and it starts life at Gatwick airport, which is hardly auspicious).
The survey involved one of us (Alex, since she possessed some very leaky waders) getting into the river, and walking along a stretch looking closely at one bank for any signs of water voles (burrows, pawprints, droppings, feeding lawns). Meanwhile, I followed along the top of the bank, drawing a map of key features.
The 100m stretch we surveyed had steep earth banks, and was lined with trees. The river was mostly fairly shallow at this point (0.5m). Sadly there was no sign of any water voles. And, even worse, there were lots of signs of mink. The rise of mink (an invasive non-native species) has been another key contributing factor to the decline of the water vole, as mink are excellent hunters and small enough to fit in a water vole’s burrow, leaving them no safe place to hide.
Apart from the mink signs we also found some juvenile rat prints, some heron prints and saw a kingfisher.
While it was disappointing result, this sort of evidence is needed to work out how best to help water voles recover in Surrey. So far 40 surveys, like the one I carried out, have been done on sites where old records of water voles exist. There’s about 200 sites in total that Surrey Wildlife Trust want to check, before proceeding to the next stage. As well as actively surveying sites, they’re also asking members of the public to submit any water vole sightings in the county. They have a useful vole ID guide on their website.
To find out more about the project, visit the Vole Patrol page of the Surrey Wildlife Trust website.
I’m not the world’s best or keenest gardener. My attempts at vegetable growing this year have largely failed (thwarted once again by slugs and lack of time). And weeds have rather taken over the border. So the bit of encouragement that came my via Surrey Wildlife Trust‘s Wildlife Garden Awards was most welcome.
Surrey Wildlife Trust are trying to encourage more people to provide shelter, food and drink for our wild neighbours in their gardens. Gardens have the potential to become havens for wildlife, if they’re managed the right way, no matter how small they are. So the Trust have set up a Wildlife Garden Award scheme for gardeners in Surrey.
Having previously lived in a flat without a garden, I was excited by the opportunities having a (tiny) garden offered when we moved here. For the first year or two we did quite a lot of work to try to make our garden more wildlife friendly. But having made those changes, and not had any major wildlife garden improvement projects on the go for a while, I’d lost a bit of perspective on how we were doing. So filling in the self-assessment form was a revelation – we’re not doing badly at all! I don’t find out the results until the end of September / beginning of October, but I was pleased by the number of boxes I was able to tick:
Bird feeding station
Nectar rich flowers
Fruit trees or berry bearing shrubs
Perennials left un-cut until spring
Vegetable patch / container
Dead wood / log pile
Some lawn left to grow long
Mini wild flower meadow
Hedgehog and bird boxes
Wildlife pond – no fish!
No use of pesticide & slug pellets
Avoid chemical weed killers
Compost heap & wormery
Use peat free compost
Some of the boxes I wasn’t able to tick were ones that I’d never be able to tick for my garden – it’s not near a stream or on boggy ground, and is too small for a native hedge. But being reminded that I am doing a reasonable job is reassuring, and it’s inspiring me to think about what else I could do to make my garden even more wildlife friendly. Longer term, I’d love to turn our flat roof into a green roof, although that will take a bit of planning and expense.
I guess it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to me, given the number of wild visitors our garden attracts (mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and birds). But we all need a bit of encouragement every now and then. So thanks, Surrey Wildlife Trust, for providing it.
If you’d like a bit of inspiration for how to make your garden or balcony super attractive to wildlife, visit:
Wild About Gardens (a wildlife gardening website from the Wildlife Trusts and Royal Horticultural Society)
Last year I had quite a few bat adventures. I (eventually) managed to see five different species of bats, but frequently struggled with not being able to distinguish the calls captured by my bat detector. I could tell it was a species that I didn’t have ticked off my list, but not which one. So this year, I decided I needed to learn more about bats to help me in my quest.
This week I attended a Bat Ecology course, hosted by Surrey Wildlife Trust and taught by a member of Surrey Bat Group.The course was fascinating. A particular highlight was getting to see some bats up close, as there were a few captive bats present (who can’t be released back to the wild as they can’t fly properly). I learnt a lot about the different species of bats, and how to distinguish between them if I get a good view of them (when they’re not flying about in the dark). I was also reassured to learn that it’s not just me being rubbish at interpreting the sounds from my bat detector – even experts can’t tell distinguish between the Myotis bat species (Daubenton’s, Bandt’s, Whiskered, Alcathoe, Natterer’s, and Bechstein’s) using just a basic detector like mine.
So, having been reassured that it’s not (just) my incompetence that’s stopped me being able to identify some of the bats I’ve come across, I need to come up with a new way of seeing those species that I haven’t yet ticked off my list. I think I may need to start volunteering on some bat surveys.
But that’s not going to stop me walking around at night waving my bat detector in the air. Surrey’s a great place to see bats, as most of the 17-18 (it’s complicated!) British bat species are resident here. And using a detector to eavesdrop their hunting is a good way of getting a glimpse into their night time audio world, so different from our own.
In all the excitement of Christmas, I haven’t had a chance yet to tell you about my latest Riversearch. For those of you who are new to this blog, Riversearch is a scheme run by Surrey Wildlife Trust, where voluntary River Wardens regularly survey their stretch of river. We look out for (and report) pollution, non-native invasive species, and more positively, signs of river wildlife like otters and water voles.
I did my most recent survey just before Christmas. It was quite a contrast to the same stretch a year ago. On Christmas Eve 2013 the River Mole flooded, hitting the national news. When I surveyed it in early January (once the water levels had receded enough to get near it), the meadows along it were like lakes.
Christmas 2014 was different. In fact, the remarkable thing was there was nothing remarkable to see, for the first time. No storm-felled trees. No burst banks. No dumped rubbish. No invasive species. No kingfishers. No deer prints. No people paddling. No intriguing cache of fruit. Nothing. Just the river at a normal level, doing what rivers do best.
Still, even this rather dull data is useful, I’m assured.
Fearless as ever, I spent an afternoon last week searching for one of Britain’s few venomous animals. No, it wasn’t the adder I was after – it was that other beast that strikes fear into the heart of many: the water shrew.
Water shrews are quite remarkable animals. They are the only British insectivore that willingly spends its life in or by water. Like other shrews they have a fast metabolism, so need to eat pretty much constantly. In the water (I’m told) they look like quicksilver.
As part of my British Animal Challenge I’ve visited a few places that are ideal habitat for water shrews (they like similar unpolluted water to water voles). But I hadn’t yet seen one. They seem to like water with lots of vegetation, making them difficult to spot. In fact, I know people who have spent years working on sites that are home to water shrews, but have never seen one.
During my newt surveying with Surrey Wildlife Trust I learnt that water shrews live by a smallish pond on one of their reserves that isn’t open to the public. They kindly agreed to let me spend some time watching for water shrews, so I booked some flexi-leave.
A last minute work phone call meant I was running late, so I skipped lunch and headed straight to the reserve. It was a warm afternoon, alternating between baking sunshine and threatening clouds. One of the Wildlife Trust staff showed me where the shrews had been seen, so I set up my camera to get a good view, and started to watch.
The pond was crystal clear, and filled with insects. Waterboatmen and shiny round bugs glided near the surface. Dozens of damselflies and dragonflies darted about above the water, occasionally resting on a leaf to lay eggs, or fighting with a sound like angry paper planes.
Have you ever spent quality time just watching a pond? It’s surprisingly engrossing. There was always something going on. An hour passed quickly, then the next half hour. Then I started to notice my missed meal.
For a while a particularly fine dragonfly, the size of a light aircraft, engrossed my attention. It would dart and hover tantalisingly in front of my lens, but never long enough for me to get it in frame and focus. After a while of being tormented like that, it became my dearest wish not just to see a water shrew, but to witness one eat that particular dragonfly. I got one half decent shot (below) – any idea what sort he is?
After three hours of watching, and no sign of a water shrew, the sky clouded over and I decided to call it a day. As I drove away the rain started, leaving me that particularly smug feeling of just beating the weather.
Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that I’ve set myself the challenge of seeing every species of British animal in the wild. One group that are proving particularly tricky at the moment are bats. There are 16 species of bat resident in the UK, 14 of which live in my home county of Surrey, so it really shouldn’t be that hard. I have a bat detector, an identification chart and an app on my phone that lets me hear recordings of different bats, as played through a heterodyne bat detector. But despite all this, I’m still not making much progress. Lots of bats sound very similar to each other, and live in similar habitats, making distinguishing them hard.
In an effort to deal with this, I thought I’d get some expert help. So Dr C and I went along to a Surrey Wildlife Trust bat walk on Nutfield Marsh, led by someone who knows their bats. It was a beautiful summers day, and the clear skies meant it didn’t get dark til late. A group of around 30 people (including lots of kids) gathered in the car park, watching flocks of ring-necked parakeets. Nutfield Marsh is a nature reserve on the site of former sand pits (not the sort kids play in). It’s now been transformed into a wonderful mix of ponds, lakes, grasslands and woods. Ideal bat habitat, and home to 5 different sorts of bats (Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, Daubenton’s, Serotine and Noctules).
Armed with bat detectors we wandered round the reserve, and as the dusk deepened we picked up our first bats – common pipistrelles. Common pipistrelles, as their name suggests, are the most widespread and numerous of Britain’s bats. They’re also one of the smallest, weighing the same as a 2p coin.
While it’s always good to see and hear bats, I had already crossed them off my list in May, so I was really hoping to see some new species.
We headed to the largest of the lakes, and waited as the last hint of light faded, hoping to see Daubenton’s bats feeding on the insects that flitted just above the surface of the water. We did see a few more bats, but the detectors revealed them to be common pipistrelles. Eventually, the call of bed could no longer be ignored, and we headed back to the cars.
It was a little disappointing not to see some new bats, but it was very pleasant to take a stroll round Nutfield Marsh in the cool of the evening. It’s inspiring to see how an industrial landscape can be transformed into a haven for wildlife.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 15 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk