Category Archives: Wildlife habitat

I’m trying not to hate slugs

The recent rainy weather has brought out a lot of slugs and I’ve been spotting them everywhere. In the early morning, they’ll be crawling across wet lawns – while paving slabs, the outside of sheds and even windows show the slimy route of their night-time travels. The often damp environment of late summer and early autumn is a good time to get out and look at them.

Slug love (photograph: John Gunter)

Slugs are not generally seen as attractive creatures; they are slimy and disliked for their role in destroying plants by eating through their stems and leaves, rasping through plant matter with their file-like radula.

And they have more than one voyeur  (photograph: John Gunter)

There are many disappointments in the growing year connected with gastropods, but I try to find something positive in them lest I feel tempted to destroy them all. Slugs and snails aren’t intent on causing trouble to humans, they’re just trying to make a living. At the same time as causing damage to our prized garden plants, they also serve us in disposing of waste, from fallen leaves to carrion. In recent years I’ve come to put them in the category I refer to as ‘cleaners’ or detritivores. Wasps and woodlice also come under this title. Seeing them in this light allows me to tolerate what might otherwise cause rage at the destruction gastropods can visit upon a garden.

On a quest (photograph: John Gunter)

The thing is, if we swallow any disgust we might feel and look at them close up, slugs can be fascinating. In the last few weeks, Karl’s cousin, John, has been sending me pictures of the slugs he sees (mostly of the genus Arion) on those evenings when he steps outside to take the air. These pictures show slugs in almost cartoon-like poses and my inner child sees them not intent on destruction, but on some journey or quest.

(photograph: John Gunter)

Another picture I took several years ago shows the same type of slug alongside a woodlouse. The woodlouse has one leg raised towards the slug and you can almost imagine them in conversation. In reality, the woodlouse might simply have been trying to protect itself from being flattened or eaten, but I find it useful to view images that don’t show these creatures merely as things to be reviled.

Companions

I’m not alone in my attempts to adjust my thinking – a blog from the site Microscopy, ‘Snail’s Teeth, Spicules, and Other Bizarre Delights: Or Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder‘, looks at the finer details of gastropods in which the writer examines ‘their rows and rows of beautifully coloured teeth‘. Researchers at Bristol University, meanwhile, have been looking at mollusc evolution and have found an early ancestor of the slug in a 480-million-year-old slug-like fossil. This tells us quite plainly that having been here for 480 million years, slugs aren’t going anywhere so we’d better just get used to them.

Slug cousin

New bees in town

‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly‘ – mid 17th century bee-keepers’ saying, meaning that the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom.

The first swarm to arrive

May is the start of bee swarming season and we saw a good deal of it without even needing to leave home. Late on Monday afternoon, I heard a familiar sound. There was a loud buzzing coming from the garden and I looked out to see bees swirling around the top of the Magnolia tree. Sure enough, just like last year, they settled on a branch near the top of the tree. We could have left them there and they’d have moved on after a short time, but we know of a bee keeper who is on the look out for extra colonies, so we caught it and put it in a temporary hive. Swarming bees want nothing but a new home and to protect their queen and they settled into the box right away. They are healthy looking bees, dark in colour and lots of them.

We thought that might be it, but the weather was warm and calm, ideal for swarming. So it turned out, for late afternoon on Wednesday another swarm arrived and that too settled in the Magnolia. This one was too high for us to reach without great difficulty and since catching a swarm often means cutting branches we decided to leave them alone. They moved on the next morning.

Wednesday’s swarm was heart-shaped

The warm weather continued, encouraging bees to move house and on Friday afternoon yet another swarm arrived, once again settling in the Magnolia. Again it was too high to reach and, as on Wednesday, it moved on after a short time.

Friday’s swarm

By now the week was starting to feel slightly surreal. A swarm every other day. What next? We had a feeling that another swarm was going to turn up and if things happened as they had been doing, it would probably arrive on Sunday. The number of bees passing through means that they would have left pheromones on the tree, which would attract other bees. We didn’t want to cut any more out of the tree and wanted to come up with a plan.

We’d already found out about swarm boxes – wooden boxes put into trees that the bees find and, hopefully, move into on their own. Once settled they can then be transferred to a permanent hive, easing the stress of having to shake them into a hive off a branch. Attracting them in this way also means that the colony is quickly housed and less likely to cause upset if it moves on and doesn’t find somewhere to settle. We quickly made a swarm box out of various pieces of old wood (plans here). It was fixed into the tree, held in place on a hanging basket hook and kept from blowing about with rope.

The swarm box in position 

Within hours, scout bees were investigating and, par for the course, within a couple of days they had moved in and taken up hive activities.

Here they are fanning pheromones at the doorway to let the rest of the colony know where they are.

There you have it. If you’re after a colony of bees to give a home to and take care of, this could be worth a try.

Oxfordshire Art Weeks 2017 at the Whispering Knights woodland

The woodland is open again this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks, which runs from Saturday May 6th until Monday May 29th 2017. We’ve already had lots of enthusiastic visitors who have enjoyed browsing around the new structures. They’ve given us some great feedback too, which is very encouraging and welcome!

You can check out the latest updates here – there are new videos and a look at how the woodland ecosystem is developing.

We look forward to seeing you!

Directions and details

 

Autumn: mellow fruitfulness – and clouds of biting midges

In the Cotswold woodland that we visit, the scene has changed and is suddenly autumnal. Now that the cover of the undergrowth is starting to collapse and die back, far more can be seen of what goes on beneath. With the dampness of autumn, fungi have popped up over night, making meals for various types of wildlife. Mammals eat fungi and clumps can be found which have been partially consumed, only the stems remaining. Why did they not eat all of it, one wonders.

chewed-mushrooms

Slugs are also partial to fungi and I found this one making a quiet meal on its own. You can find out more about slugs here.

slug-mushroom

It’s a very good year for puffballs, but they don’t appear to be attractive to wildlife and none I’ve come across have the marks of being sampled.

puff-ball

Elsewhere, badgers show their presence in the form of the pathways they’ve made in the grass. Their routes never seem to vary, even if a log is laid across them, and the paths are well trodden. Another sign of badgers is the shallow latrines they dig at particular points along their territory boundaries. Badgers are cleanly creatures, but these are a rather unpleasant thing to come across, generally being full of sloppy droppings which are coloured according to what has been eaten.

badger-latrine

The presence of an active badger sett can also be seen when the badgers air their bedding, pulling it out of the sett and spreading it around. The bedding I was lucky enough to come across was primarily made up of dried grass and animal hair, which would make quite a soft and comfortable bed. I’ve yet to see a badger gathering bedding for myself but have seen video showing them dragging balls of grass backwards towards the sett, much as a dog would do with bedding. I found it almost as frustrating to watch and recalled how our dog Toby would scuff up the rug in his bed, changing it from being neatly spread out to a lumpy heap.

badger-bedding

At home, the robin still visits us several times a day, alighting on logs in the open fronted wood shed and then making short hops from one perch to another before flying into the garage for its treat of mealworms. The two blackbirds which had also been visiting disappeared suddenly and we suspected they had not been predated, but had gone off to the hedgerows to feast on the abundance of berries available there. They returned today and have gone straight back to their usual routine of speed-eating as many mealworms as possible. The robin, in comparison, is positively genteel, taking only a few worms at one sitting and allowing a few moments between each one.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ it may have been to the poet John Keats, but I suspect he didn’t do much gardening. Autumn is certainly beautiful, but to me it also means the emergence of biting midges and once more resorting to insect repellent. This autumn has been especially midgy and working under shrubs has found me tormented by these wretched creatures and itching for days. How they get through my hair is a mystery. I searched out the repellent I’d mislaid after summer, Stupidly Simple Midge Repel. It contains pine tar and has a faint smoky odour, but it works and I’ve never been happier to smell like an old bonfire.

midge-repel

A walk on the wild side

A friend is selling up her acre plot and moving into town and, for this last year, she’s decided to give herself a break and let part of the garden go wild. It’s a good idea, in my opinion – she is well into creaking joints territory and has over 30 year’s worth of belongings to sort out, and caring for an acre is no small undertaking at the best of times. It will also be good to see what wildlife is attracted. The area of garden allowed to go wild has had some four months of vigorous growth, fueled by warm days and plentiful rain, so I am curious to see what’s going on there.

nettles-grassSome of the nettles

The first thing I notice is an abundance of nettles (Urtica dioica) – there are thickets of them almost as tall as I am, some festooned with cleavers (Gallium aparine). According to the aesthetics of appearance that most are familiar with, this sight is no thing of beauty, but the nettles are humming with life. Where growing most thickly, the leaves and stems are smothered with aphids and it’s interesting to note that a large number of the aphids appear to have been parasitised by wasps. I’ve never seen so many parasitised aphids before and wonder if they have been parasitised by one of the tiny wasps of the sub order Aphidiinae. There are none to see, so my guess remains just that. A healthy population of parasitic wasps means the rest of the garden may stand a chance against other insect pests.

fliesFlies and a parasitised aphid

Amongst the aphids countless small flies buzz around or walk to and fro over the nettle leaves and I wonder if they are after the sugary excrement of the aphids, who have been busy siphoning off the sap of the nettles. From a distance, I feel a natural revulsion to so many flies – to a part of my brain they imply putrefaction – but there is no foul smell of decay and, close up, the flies reveal bodies of iridescent green and gold and are really quite beautiful.

I walk around the stands of nettles, careful to avoid touching their stinging hairs. Some nettles have a harsher sting than others and I’ve found that those growing elsewhere in this garden pack quite a punch. Leaning in, a flash of blue catches my eye. It is a male common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a leaf and my attentions disturb it, so it flies to another part of the thicket.

damselfly

I wander, bending and straightening, peering along stems and under leaves. Here is a ladybird larva busily foraging for aphids and over there is the fat caterpillar of a red admiral butterfly moving slowly amongst the leaves. Soon it will pupate, attach itself to a leaf and ready itself to become a butterfly.

red-admiral-caterpillarA red admiral butterfly caterpillar

Over there, several clusters of Peacock butterfly caterpillars. Another good reason to leave this patch alone. Nearby a harvestman spider, not a true spider but an arachnoid, stands very still on a leaf and I wonder if it is waiting for prey or just resting.

peacock-caterpillarsPeacock butterfly caterpillars

Tall grasses waft around the edges of the wild area and comfrey finds a space for itself where it can and light up the greenness with purple flowers. Bumblebees travel slowly from one pendulous flower to another. If I were to stay here for many hours, and perhaps over night, I’m sure there would be birds, amphibians and small mammals coming to take advantage of the shelter and sustenance of this wild area. There is plenty here for all.

bumblebee-comfreyBumblebee on comfrey 

Charting the course of autumn wildlife

Now that this long autumn has begun its move towards winter, the activity of wildlife has changed from one of raising young to securing a territory and surviving the coming months of cold. Robins need little reason to fight amongst themselves and their battles become more frequent as the year ages and they strive to acquire and hold the territory that will feed them until spring. Finches and tits group together to form chattering flocks, hedgehogs, dormice and bats prepare for hibernation and amphibians burrow into soil, compost heaps or under log piles.

1021-1

In this old house, autumn is heralded by the arrival of wood lice, which suddenly increase in numbers and crawl about the edges of rooms or find their way into the bath. As temperatures drop, they are joined by, and appear to be eaten by, spiders and their numbers drop again. We find the dessicated bodies in clusters under cobwebs, tucked away behind the fridge or under the washing machine. Many people don’t like insects in their homes, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, unless they bite or a light has been left on in an open-windowed room and it fills with dancing craneflies (Tipulidae).

In the great outdoors, it is interesting to stand amongst autumn trees and see the changes. In the woods, the deer have moved back into the dense central growth, where they make beds by scraping away the grass and leaves to reveal the bare earth they seem to prefer resting on. They are donning their winter coats, turning from a rich brown to a dull fawn, which blends perfectly with the muted colours of approaching winter.

deer-scrapeA deer has scraped away the grass and moss to make a bed of soil

All around us, insects are seeking shelter, tucking themselves against seed pods or the curls of fallen leaves.

nov-2015Ladybird seeking shelter

Slugs are fattening up on the last of the fungi, that not eaten by mammals, and will themselves become meals for hedgehogs, thrushes or toads.

slug-mushroom

In the Cotswold woodland I frequent, a small team is working to collect the brash from tree thinnings and build it into loosely woven mounds. Work started late last year and finished in spring and now that it is due to begin again, I’ve visited the woodland to observe wildlife activity around these mounds and it is gratifying to see.

shelterA small mammal has made a shelter in this thick mass of pine needles

Spiders are weaving their webs in the woven brash and many small birds move in and out of the twined stems. As I walk along the pathways or through the trees, birds flit from one brash mound to another. Sheltering so many insects, the mounds have become larders for them, as well as both habitat and hunting ground for small mammals and amphibians.

1021-3The birds spend a great deal of time investigating the woven brash

When it sometimes seems that all species except humans are sensibly tucking themselves away from the cold, I hear the soft sub-song of robins and blackbirds under shrubs, then suddenly the voices of dozens of birds. I look up to see a large flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) has landed on a lime tree, and are calling ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. I can make life easier for these wakeful birds, so the seed feeders will be filled over and again and the songsters will continue to enliven the relative quiet of winter.

 

Time to clean out the nesting boxes. Or should we?

The British Trust for Ornithology states that Bird Protection Law permits the cleaning out of nesting boxes between 1 August and 31 January and as there are seven nesting boxes in Ruth’s large garden and she doesn’t like going up ladders, at the end of September she asked me to help her clean them out. Armed with gloves, a nest collecting bucket, a stiff brush and a ladder we set off, eager to see how many had been used and what the nests looked like.

birdbox-4A very private residence

Some were easier to get at than others; one was high up and almost entirely hidden by ivy, with only the entrance hole to be seen, whilst another was attached to a mature yew tree surrounded by a dense thicket of Symphoricarpos.

All the boxes were made by Ruth’s husband, a skilled carpenter, and were easily accessible at the base, which swivelled out to allow cleaning. The entrance holes were surrounded by a metal plate to prevent woodpeckers enlarging the hole and reaching in to take young birds.

nesting-box-3Made with care and attention by Ruth’s husband, Fred

As we made our way around the garden, opening boxes, removing the contents, giving the inside a quick scrub, the old nests piled up in the bucket. In the end, we found that five of the boxes had been used and were fascinated to see their variety.

five-nestsA wide variety of nests

All had a base of moss topped by a mixture of wool and other material, but one nest, with shell fragments showing it was used by a Great tit (Parus major), had a particularly deep and luxuriant foundation of moss, topped by a thick layer of wool. It looked so cosy – imagine being born surrounded by that softness.

luxury-nestThis mix of moss and wool was our favourite

In contrast another nest, whilst clearly used, had a fairly thin foundation of moss and very little wool. Yet another had been finished with downy feathers and a single unhatched egg showed it had been used by a blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus).

bluetit-eggUnhatched blue tit egg

All this cleaning activity begs the question, why clean out nesting boxes? A piece in The Telegraph suggests that it doesn’t really matter and that birds don’t really mind. It’s a thought provoking article, but unfortunately the studies mentioned are not named or linked to, so it isn’t possible to read them. Over on the RSPB website, the cleaning of nesting boxes is recommended: ‘The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. We recommend that old nests be removed in the autumn, from August onwards once the birds have stopped using the box’. Take your pick, but if Ruth wants to clean out the nesting boxes that’s fine with me. We didn’t destroy the nests, incidentally, we tucked them under hedges around the garden so that other creatures can make use of the materials. That or they will gently compost into the earth.

 

The Tawny Owl – Stotfold, Thurnscoe, 1942

After reading of my adventure with checking out the owl’s nest, my friend John Davison sent me this poem which tells of an adventure from his boyhood in 1942, when he was around 13 years old. John and his friends would spend many hours in the fields and woods around Thurnscoe, Hickleton and Hooten Pagnel, out all day long  exploring together in a way that youngsters rarely experience now.

 

JOHN 1954

The Tawny Owl – Stotfold, Thurnscoe, 1942.

So typical of old ash trees, its crown was torn away,
But why and what had caused it, I really could not say,
Very likely putrefaction, or lightning on the prowl,
All I know, there was a hole, wherein dwelt a Tawny Owl.
Scores of pellets, regurgitated, were littered everywhere,
Confirming, absolutely, an owl was nesting there,
Wait here, I ordered Judy, at that moment somewhat rash,
And immediately began to climb that ancient rugged ash.
Staring down on that owl’s nest, I could not believe my eyes,
Five curious chicks glared back at me, all of a different size,
Then suddenly the larger one lunged vengefully at my face,
And I was fortunate to escape in that confined space,
[Quickly I remembered that photographer* and a Tawny Owl,
Which assailed him as to blind him in an incident so foul]
So when the owl attacked me I raised a hand to shield,
And felt the bird brush by me to glide smoothly to the field.
I saw it floating to the ground then quickly thought of Judy,
Who usually was a gentle dog but could be somewhat moody.
If I did not get down in time she could kill that helpless bird,
That in mind I rushed down that tree as if by the devil spurred.
Oh, how dreadfully wrong I was, how misguided was my fear,
My Judy was the victim, the owl seized her by the ear!
She squealed so loud and pitiful, her blood in copious flow,
Speed was then essential to make the needle claws let go.
I placed the owl beneath a bush, as if in a nightmare dream,
Tenderly soothed that bloody ear in fresh water from a stream,
That trauma ended our meanders, no further would we roam,
And I with Judy, and the owl, made our weary way back home.
I kept that Tawny Owl for months until it could strongly fly,
Then returned the bird to Stotfold and waved a fond goodbye !

*Eric Hosking

John Davison 2015

owl pelletA tawny owl’s pellet

 

 

 

 

 

There is a growing community of species living in the woods

I spent part of a day in the woods by the Rollright Stones simply walking and looking – indulging in the pleasure of quietly observing, identifying, analysing and categorising what I saw. It is all too easy to pass by without actually seeing what is around us and many signs are missed, but look closer, pay attention, and you can see that this young woodland has a growing community of species that call it home.

 

in the woods

The following are just a few of the mammal and bird species we’ve seen so far. There have been many birds, some heard rather than seen, glimpses of deer, mice and voles, a weasel, signs that  badgers are about . In some cases, you don’t see the creature itself but  the tell tale signs of activity and then you can try to figure out what has happened.

Continue reading There is a growing community of species living in the woods

I do not like ironing

Karl’s mum gave us her old iron in 1987 when we first moved in together. It’s a ‘Rowenta Vapo Parat’ and I’ve seen it listed as ‘vintage’. I think it must be at least 35 years old. We did use it to begin with – I think because we thought that social convention required it, but I’m not a great one for ironing and, in recent years, it’s spent more time in the cupboard than out of it.

iron-5This is what the ‘Rowenta Vapo Parat’ is supposed to look like

I don’t really like ironing and would rather spend the time reading or looking out of the window. In this house, clothes are washed, given a good shake and then hung on the washing line where the creases flatten out in the breeze. After that, they are put on hangers or carefully folded and put away and they generally look okay, if not as crisp as they might do.

iron-4This is what our ‘Rowenta Vapo Parat’ looked like when it came out of the cupboard

It has to be admitted that some items don’t get put away as crease-free as others and when that happens I just avoid wearing them. Clothes can last a long time that way. Sometimes, though, a time will come when a particular shirt would be just the ticket and then the iron comes out. The cupboard it lives in isn’t a very nice place – there’s a hot water tank in there and a large collection of dusters on sticks, carrier bags and spare light bulbs. We put our work gloves in there when they get wet; often the work gloves are dirty so the cupboard is pretty dusty. Also, this old house has a lot of woodlice crawling about in it and because the windows are open for much of the time, there is a good population of spiders. Very few flies, though!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we were going to see family and I decided that it was time to iron a shirt. There was a pause while I thought about where we keep it and then I remembered the cupboard and went to look. There it was, on the floor, under some carrier bags. I pulled it out and frowned, trying to recall when it had last been used. A year ago? Two? Three? I couldn’t remember. It was covered in dust and old grey cobwebs.

iron-3

Most impressively, there was a ball of something hanging from a thread attached to the ‘steam on’ knob. What could it be?

iron-1

What is that thing?

It looked a bit like a spider’s egg sac and there were several dead woodlice caught up in it, as well as what looked like a mixture of hairs and bits of wool. Compared to the ball, the thread looked clean and fairly new. What could it be? Was there something living in it? Not wanting to cause disturbance if there was something living in it, I put it in the greenhouse and have been checking to see if anything has happened but, as yet,  nothing has.

Even if it is just a ball of random crud, the good news is that the iron cleaned up okay and still works as well as ever – and it’s vintage!