Tag Archives: wildlife habitat

That’s one way to gauge insect numbers

As I write, the male blackbird is sitting under a big lavender bush, where it has been since I looked out at first light. It is singing quietly to itself, a melodic sub-song, rich, fluting and varied, lovely to hear. This has been happening for a few weeks now, the blackbird spending several hours a day under that lavender. If I open the door it stares at me, but does not move, and seems content with its spot. Maybe the proximity of the hedgehog box with the dish of crushed suet balls is an attraction, it seems likely.The female blackbird also likes the hedgehog box and spent a lot of time in there over the summer

In the woods, where we’re now spending more time, I like to observe the developing ecosystem and see what wildlife has taken up residence amongst the trees. Since reading just over a year ago about the alarming decline in insect biomass, it was something which has been on my mind and I had wondered about the insect numbers in that woodland. On Monday, I had an unplanned glimpse of the insects living there. The back story is that a friend expressed great interest in some photographs I showed her of a project by two photographers, Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, who photographed seniors adorned with scavenged organic materials such as twigs, grass and seaweed. Some of the headdresses were quite dramatic and my friend said she wanted to try the idea out for herself, leading to me offering to gather any suitable materials I came across in the woods.

That day, tall dried flowering stems of dock stood out and I imagined a striking bonnet made of them, with the stems pointing outward like a rolled-up hedgehog. A bundle was cut and put into the car, along with some distorted ash whips and strings of ivy. I should have taken them out of the car when we got home, but it was raining at the time so I didn’t and then I forgot and they were left in there for several hours. That evening, Karl went out to bring our boots in and the interior car lights revealed curtains of cobwebs hanging within, tiny spiders at the centre of each, threads attached to every surface. He did his best to remove as many of the spiders and their webs as he could.

The next morning, setting off to work, we saw that despite the previous night’s efforts, the inside of the car was again festooned with cobwebs. Tiny spiders were everywhere, crawling on the windscreen, the ceiling, the seats, the dashboard, you name it. We managed to get another 30 or so out using a *soft brush and hoped for the best before setting off but, as the journey progressed, it became clear we had actually missed the majority of the wildlife that had taken up residence. On the drive, small things crawled and dangled in our peripheral vision, as the warming car brought them out of their refuges. Oh, how we laughed. Once at the woods, we did manage to repatriate most of those still in the car and I wondered if they’d find more dock stems to climb up.

How to react to finding the car full of small flying and crawling creatures? You can be annoyed or take the opportunity to see what’s there. The spiders were mostly too small to identify, but there were a good number of types, from orb spiders to wolf and jumping spiders, plus others I have no doubt missed. The spiders were young ones and must have been waiting for the right breeze so they could balloon off to new habitats. Then there were the insects. There were many small flies and gnats, a number of small brown moths, ladybirds, three hawthorn shield bugs (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale), two common green shield bugs (Palomena prasina), a few bright Harlequin bugs (Lygaeus equestris) and a cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). This last one was tangled in my hair and could have been there for a while, so I’m not sure if it came with the dock stems or from elsewhere.

A cardinal beetle, but not the one that was in my hair. I picked it out of my hair and dropped it on the table, then noticed the legs

The result of my forgetfulness has been eye-opening, for I now have a better idea of what lives in the autumnal stems of flowering docks, but it is not a lesson I’m keen to repeat. There are still spiders in the car.

* A bee brush, used for gently brushing bees out of harm’s way so they aren’t injured by the beekeeper’s actions. These brushes mimic animal hair and I’ve found them excellent for picking up spiders/bees/wasps that have come indoors – whatever it is clings to the hairs and can be removed without harm. The one I use is reserved for this use as we now have softer brushes for the bees.

A bee brush

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


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.


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 

The ‘fierce green fire’ of the land

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view‘ Thinking Like a Mountain – Aldo Leopold

On the first visit of the year to a customer’s garden I started, as usual, with a walk around to assess how the garden had fared over the winter. It looked much the same as the last time I saw it in December, except for signs that deer had been in. Stem tips on shrubs had been nibbled – Escallonia, Euonymus fortunei and Photinia seem to be favourites, along with the bulb foliage of bluebells and tulips. All had been deer-pruned. There were also fresh droppings on the lawn and some hoof marks on the flower beds. A bit of a nuisance, but nothing unexpected for a rural garden in winter.

bluebell_foliageDeer-pruned foliage on bluebells

This was in the main garden; there is also a smaller, simpler garden on an adjoining plot. This area is mainly laid to lawn with some mature shrubs around the edges and this is where I had a nasty surprise. There was something on the lawn. From a distance it could have been a large wood pigeon lying on its back. Not too bad, I’ve come across dead pigeons before. Edging closer, it was clearly not a pigeon and what I’d taken for wings turned out to be ears. It was an upside down deer’s head, covered in slimy fur. The skull was empty and it looked like it had been there for some time. I speculated that it had been picked up by a large bird of prey, either a buzzard or a red kite, which had taken it there from more open ground in order to have a more private dining experience.

I reached out with a stick to turn it over and was hit by a revolting stench of decay. ‘No, not today’, I said to myself and letting it drop to the ground again I returned to the main garden. On leaving, I pencilled a note to owner to let her know of my find, admitting that I couldn’t face dealing with a rotting deer’s head that day. It stayed in my mind, though, the sight and smell of it and the thought that it would very likely still be there on my return.

As one does, I had nurtured a glimmer of hope that the owner’s son, a healthy man of similar age to my own, might have kindly removed it, but the rotting deer’s head was still there on the lawn, reeking and slimy, still to be dealt with. Standing there looking at it, a sinking feeling settled in me as I visualised what needed to be done and that I would be the one to do it. I truly didn’t want to have to deal with that rotting deer’s head. At that point the owner appeared – she said she’d got my note and that her son had gone out to look, but ‘couldn’t see’ the deer’s head in the middle of the lawn and that’s why it was still there. She herself couldn’t be expected to deal with it; she’s over 90 and isn’t up to digging holes. As I talked to the owner I found myself becoming slightly hysterical and kept bursting out laughing, maybe at the thought of the grossness to follow.

As she was about to have lunch, I suggested that she step away while I dealt with it. I dug a hole, took a deep breath, scooped up the deer’s head on a fork (the slime had made it stick to the lawn) and, trying not to look at it, plopped it in the hole and covered it over as fast as possible. I marked the spot with a couple of canes to remind me not to plant anything there for a good while and then looked at my fork. The tines were covered in hair and slime.

Working outside, often alone, gives you time to reflect and while I was dealing with the job above I reflected on a few things. How can someone honestly say they can’t see a deer’s head in the middle of the lawn? Not even a young deer, but an adult. Not only that, but it’s on the property where they live and it’s quite close to the house; they know it’s there and yet do nothing about it. Why? I know people want to go and see their friends and that everyone is so very, very busy, but there’s a rotting deer’s head on the lawn. It stinks, it’s covered in slime, your mother can see it. It could have been dealt with at the weekend, but the wretched thing is still there.

No one wants to pick up a rotting deer’s head. I certainly didn’t, there were countless activities I’d have preferred. The thing is, something like that won’t go away on its own, at least not for a good long while, and while it’s there it will stink and the grass underneath will start to die. You’ll need to make a point of avoiding it, either by looking the other way or just not going to that part of the garden. Try not to breath too deeply when you do have go anywhere near it, either, or you might be driven to actually do something about it.

It occurred to me that the rotting deer’s head was symbolic and simply ignoring it and waiting for someone else to deal with it is characteristic of the world we live in. The rotting deer’s head on the lawn is pollution, increasing resource scarcity, lack of clean water, soil depletion, homelessness, all that is wrong with the world around us, and the popular solution is to look away and wait for someone else to sort it out. Somebody else’s problem.

Why does it have to be somebody else’s problem, though? Why is it that people don’t care about something so close to them? The road to an answer may partly lie in a quote from the American author and ecologist (amongst other things), Aldo Leopold who said in A Sand County Almanac, ‘We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect’.

Leopold wanted us to consider ourselves not as masters of the earth, but as part of its community. This is a way of perceiving the world that I have gradually come to myself and now hold close to my heart. Given enough time alone outside, working with plants and wildlife, I like to think that many people would come to see the world in the same way. As it is, most people spend their time indoors and think little of the outside world beyond looking at it through a pane of glass. From a distance, they might see bright little flowers blooming in a lawn and think nothing of eradicating them to restore the ‘green tarmac’ look, disregarding how many species are making use of those flowers for sustenance, or that flowers in a lawn don’t look so dreadful and, that when viewed with a non-dominating eye, they are extremely beautiful.

The sad conclusion I’ve come to is that unless humanity somehow persuades itself to spend more time outside than indoors then, collectively, we will never ‘see land as a community to which we belong’ and if the time should come that we do, then it will probably be too late to do anything about it. The symbolic deer’s head will lie rotting and stinking on almost every lawn, in every country, the world over.

Realising that there is a mass failure to recognise that we truly are part of a ‘land community’, I sometimes feel both rage and despair and my work seems futile, but I can no longer turn back. I recognise that community very clearly and feel that I am a steward of it, that the central part of humanity’s role should be as stewards, that we should care for our land as our community and not as a slave. One day the community we belong to might be acknowledged, but that time seems far away. Until then I can only continue what I have begun, to care as best as I can for the community of which I am part and preserve the ‘fierce green fire’ of the land.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise‘ The Land Ethic – Aldo Leopold


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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!

Frogs and newts are both using the pond this spring, so what will happen to the frog spawn?

After a cold end to March, it feels like spring is finally here – the weather has warmed, plants are growing again, birds are singing and amphibians like frogs, toads and newts are making their way to ponds for mating and egg laying.


On April 1, in the tiny pond at home, there was an overnight appearance of frog spawn, a big clump of it right in the middle of the pond. I didn’t see any frogs (Rana temporaria ), in the pond but movement under the water made the spawn wobble so something was down there. Maybe it was the frog who laid the spawn staying to protect the eggs for a while.

Continue reading Frogs and newts are both using the pond this spring, so what will happen to the frog spawn?