Turning your wildlife sightings into valuable data for science!

In these strange times many of us who are lucky to have gardens and green spaces have probably spent more time in them than usual over the past few months since the Covid19 outbreak in March, and by doing so you may have noticed the varied wildlife on your doorstep a little more – from the butterflies visiting the flowers to the bats foraging above you at dusk. Jennifer Owen, author of Wildlife of a Garden, conducted a 30 year study of her own garden and recorded over 2,700 species – so you’d be surprised what you might find when you start looking.

The Big Butterfly Count is on until the 9th August 2020.

Observing the life in your garden is rewarding as it is but making a record and submitting this to the relevant recording scheme is a really simple way you can turn your evenings in the garden sipping elderflower champagne into valuable science. Scientists can use these records in research to understand the changing world around us. Questions such as ‘how species are affected by climate change’ or ‘which species are in decline or at risk’ can be investigated more successfully when we all chip in to the data collection – the bigger the data, the more accurate the research can be. Citizen science projects such as the Big Butterfly Count to the Longhorn Beetle Recording Scheme, give scientists access to a much larger (and therefore more reliable) dataset than they would be able to gather solely on their own and their research has given us important insight into the way populations are changing, which in turn enables us to direct conservation and policy changes to where it is needed.

If you are a bit more versed in species identification and want to make your own list rather than or as well as a particular recording project, you can get help with identification in various Facebook groups such as ‘Wildflowers and Plants of Norfolk and Suffolk’ (cheeky plug for my group!) or the many specific invertebrate groups. Once you have a positive identification, you can submit your records to your local county recorder or recording scheme. To find a list of different recording projects head over to the National Biodiversity Network here.

British Mammals are incredibly under recorded. The European hedgehog is in decline and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is running a recording scheme to get a better picture which can be found here.

You can also find information on local recording events to meet up with other enthusiast (when allowed) to improve your identification skills. Additionally, records can also be submitted to using iNaturalist which I believe has a great online community to help with identification, or iRecord, which is my personal preferred method. The handy app is really easy to use, and you can upload photos along with the record, which gets verified by an expert at the other end.

Penological data on emerging spring species such as the hairy footed flower bee, or the blooming of primroses, can give scientists an insight into how species are responding to climate change.

Either way, dipping your toes into the world of recording can be incredibly exciting. Not only will you find out what’s living on your doorstep, you are making a valuable contribution to the world of ecological and conservation science – and who knows, you may even find a new species!

Hawthorn

I love hawthorn or Crataegus monogyna. (Of course there is also midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata). A member of the rose family, hawthorn is equally prickly, but it’s a wonderful all rounder and a must for any wildlife garden, hedgerow or woodland creating project – and what’s even better is it’s easy to grow.

When I was younger when my Dad would take me for walks through our local woodlands, he would call it ‘bread and cheese’ and we would pick off and eat the young shoots. They don’t particularly taste of anything, let alone bread and cheese, but have also been called ‘poor man’s bread and butter’. Over at Plant-Lore.com the different accounts back up the old thoughts that hawthorn is often believed to be unlucky, especially if you bring it into the house but to even cut one down. It is also believed to be associated with fairies.

Recent leaf burst. Jan 2020.

One thing for sure, hawthorn is a brilliant plant for wildlife. It will benefit pollinators with it’s pollen rich flowers which traditionally bloom in May (although don’t be surprised if you see them earlier now), whilst in autumn the berries – or haws – are an essential food source for birds and small mammals. When in a hedgerow hawthorn provides a nesting site for birds, and winter shelter for invertebrates, and in a woodland hawthorn brings structural diversity to the canopy, being a lower-growing shrub.

Bees love hawthorn

You can take cuttings from hawthorn too. I have found the best method is to take green cuttings in spring, cutting just below a leaf node. I use rooting powder to give it a helping hand and then pop into well draining soil and water. I then add a stick taller than the cutting, cover with a plastic sandwich bag and leave in a tray which can be watered when needed. When I have done this the success rate isn’t perfect but around 70%. This method has also worked for other hedging species.

Despite the folklore tales, hawthorn benefits from a prune and can survive coppicing too, extending the life of the individual plants. If your hedge gets a bit leggy, or too big, cutting down to the base will encourage lots of new shoots, resulting in a bushier thicker shrub. Hawthorn can even be laid to create a wonderful stock-proof fence.

Whether you want to encourage birds to your garden, create a wildlife friendly boundary or add structure to a woodland planting scheme – hawthorn is the plant for you!

Hedgerows

Hedgerows

No matter the size of your greenspace there is likely room for a native hedgerow. British hedgerows have been in decline since the 1700s and continue to suffer losses through neglect, poor cutting, spraying, overstocking and even removal. Yet our hedgerows are important for many species of British wildlife.

Hawthorne Crataegus monogyna

130 BAP (biodiversity action plan) species are associated with hedges, as are over 1500 insects including many important pollinators. Bats use hedgerows for commuting and foraging, stag beetle larvae can live in the dead wood, dormice spend most of their time following spring emergence in the bushy branches and great crested newts take refuge at the base.

If you don’t have a hedgerow, or the one you have is a bit gappy, there’s still time to get planting as the planting season runs from Oct-March. There are many options on which species you can plant, and the Woodland Trust offers packages of hedging whips of local provenance (and so reducing the biosecurity risk of importing plants) including free packages for schools and community projects. Hazel (Corylus avellana), hawthorn Cratagus monogyna), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), oak (Quercus robur), sweet chestnut (Castanaea sativa), field maple (Acer campestre), elder (Sambucus nigra), holly (Ilex aquifolia), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) all make great hedging shrubs. I like to add in dogrose (Rosa canina), guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), and spindle (Eunonymous europaeus) for colour.

Spindle Eunonymous europaeus

It’s recommended to plant hedgerows in two rows with plants approximately 30cm apart (or 6 per metre) with the plants zig-zagging to keep the gaps smaller. By doing this you will create a nice dense hedgerow which could later be laid making it an ideal stock-proof boundary, and if managed well, will probably outlive you!

Once you have your hedgerow it is important to care for it. Hedgerows benefit from being cut, by doing so you encourage new growth and extend the life of the plants and the size of the hedge will determine the way you do this. I love hand pruning smaller hedgerows finding it therapeutic, especially on a bright winter’s day when the birds have started singing again. If your hedges are meters long or are field boundaries, you can still hand prune the hedge however this may not always be practical.

Instead you could use a flail which is the most common method for longer hedgerows, although they may damage stems greater than 2.5cm, weakening the hedgerow. Using a tractor mounted circular saw can avoid this. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to consider the shape you’re cutting to – the ideal is an A-shape of around 2m high and 1.5m wide at the base. You can top this if you wish, but not doing so allows some tree species to grow tall.

Red campion Silene diocia

Cutting should be carried out on a rotation of approximately 2-3 years (though cutting season has finished now to allow birds to nest). Many invertebrate species such as the skippers overwinter in hedgerows as eggs, cocoons or in dead stems and cutting on rotation allows these species to survive.

Other ways you can help wildlife include leaving dead wood in situ, maintaining hedge banks and ditches, and enhancing the ground flora. Emorsgate have some wonderful hedgerow seed mixes for wildflowers and grasses suited to semi-shade and the you can buy quantities appropriate for your hedge, whether just a couple of meters or entire field margins! I’ve used them many times with great success.

Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica

Originally written for The Harrowing Times (Norfolk smallholders training group).

Attracting bats to your garden

This weekend (29th – 30th August 2015) is International Bat Weekend and the perfect time to talk about attracting bats to your garden.

Bats are one of the mammals which visit our garden, usually around dusk. In the UK bats account for around a third of all the mammal species and can be found in many different habitats – including gardens. Whilst this may sound like a lot, bat populations are still at risk from a range of problems including habitat loss and building work so encouraging bats into your garden can help.

There are a few different things you can do to encourage bats to visit your garden here are just a few.

Providing food

UK bats eat insects and hunt at night using echolocation so by creating areas in the garden which attract insects, you will be proving food for the bats. You can do this by planting a range of shrubs and nectar rich flowers which support different insects; a good list of which can be found on the Bat Conservation Trust’s website here. Native plants can sometimes support more insects so it is definitely worth incorporating some of these. If you are lucky, you might find some already in your gaden – especially if it is rented and has been slightly neglected over the years as many ‘weeds’ are very beneficial to wildlife!

You can also plant night-scented flowers such as evening primrose Oenothera sp. Night-scented catchfly Silene noctiflora, and Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum which will attract night flying insects such as moths.

The poached egg plant is easy to grow, attracts insects and is on BCTs list - but the slugs seem to love it to so beware!

The poached egg plant is easy to grow, attracts insects and is on BCTs list – but the slugs seem to love it to so beware!

Evening primrose in our front garden

Evening primrose in our front garden

Another fantastic way to provide food is to have a wet area in your garden. This could be anything from a large pond, to an upturned washing up bowl dug into the ground. By having a pond you are creating a habitat for the larvae of many flying insects such as midges, beetles and hoverflies, all of which bats will happily eat. Last year after we restored our pond we had bats flying over our garden and feeding on the emerging midges within just two months. Other habitats for insects you could create include insect hotels, compost heaps and log piles.

A recent photo of the pond with the purple loosestife - Lythrum salicaria in flower at the back

A recent photo of the pond with the purple loosestife – Lythrum salicaria in flower at the back

Providing shelter

Putting up a bat box in your garden is a great way to attract bats to roost, but be patient as it can take some time for the bats to find the new box. There are many different designs available, some which can easily be made at home such as my favourite – the Kent bat box. Ideally if you can, put up more than one box as high as possible, all facing different directions, but avoid areas near lights as these can have a detrimental effect on bats.

You could provide a range of styles of bat box too, just remember to use untreated wood if you are making them yourself. Once up, the boxes can not be opened without a licence as all UK bats are protected. To tell if your boxes are occupied look for dropping stains on the box, or wait until dusk as see if any bats emerge!

Unfortunately you won't attract the gorgeous long-eared bat with a bat box as they do not use them.

Unfortunately you won’t attract the gorgeous long-eared bat with a bat box as they do not use them.

One problem bats face are cats. If you have a cat at home (we have three!) you can help the bats out by keeping your feline friends at home indoors an hour or so before and after dusk when the bats are emerging from their roosts and are easy pickings for cats which have spotted them.

Scarlet and Humphrey are kept in every night

Scarlet and Humphrey are kept in every night

If you would like more information on bats, head over to the Bat Conservation Trust’s website or even better, become a member and help support their amazing work!

This weekend why not head to London and join BCT in the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum for their annual Bat Festival and find out more about these magnificent mammals.

Batfest at the Natural History Museum in 2014

Batfest at the Natural History Museum in 2014