Critters in the cottage garden

This is my pathetic picture of a robin in our dog's bowl. I found out yesterday this is a good thing: not to lure birds into a dog's eating area but to provide them with water to drink and bathe in. 

I was invited along to welcome 40 or so dedicated souls from the village of Kew to a workshop called 'Winter Gardening for Wildlife' (you can see who ran the workshop by scanning the logos down the right side).

We found out all kinds of interesting things about making your UK garden attractive to bugs, birds and bats (well actually only very briefly bats). 

Sandra Bell (Wildlife and Phenology Officer, RBG Kew) told us about the Giant Red Click Beetle, only recently discovered in Kew Gardens. It's apparently a secretive beetle favouring Oak trees. Although it's presumably been here for years it was only when an expert visited us recently with a trace of its favourite pheromone that it made itself known.

We have a local Biodiversity Action Plan in Richmond upon Thames covering things like acid grassland, ancient woodland, song thrush and the stag beetle. The Richmond Environment Trust, primary organiser of the workshop have just prepared a Habitat Action Plan for Private Gardens, to feed into these plans and to help conserve the faster moving part of biological diversity. 

Tom Cope (retired grass expert from Kew and author of the wonderful book on native plants in Kew I've cited frequently in my blog) has started to survey local gardens for local plants. Residents of Kew can sign up for Tom to come out and visit now. Although Tom has already started, he describes it as "like a single frame out of a movie". Five gardens were surveyed: some with ponds, one with a bird feeder, and one even with a hedge row. He found 128 species of British natives, established aliens or of interest to wildlife (e.g. Buddleya; Butterfly Bush; which some will consider a weed). Up to 56 species were in one garden alone and only 4% were in all five.

For wildlife Tom suggests patches of uncut grass, bird feeders (encouraged in UK, contrary to Australia), piles of rotting timber, nettles and brambles and thistles. We have it all!

Keith Martin (Ornithologist; Friend of River Crane Environment) told us how to get more birds into the garden, particularly in autumn and winter. He said don't have to be big. In his tiny back yard in Twickenham he recorded 50 species of bird, with 30-35 using it regularly. This is about the same number as he finds in his new larger woodland garden just out of London. 

Importantly, the Twickenham garden was surrounded by large trees (including, a giant ash) and with hedges nearby. Keith says the single most important thing you can do is plant a tree! A tree, says Keith, is a high rise flat for lots of insects and a good place for a bird to see from the air - they flit from tall tree to tall tree. Even an ugly and undesirable tree will do.

Keith told three 'bird stories'. Black Cap - once a summer visitor to UK from the Mediterranean. In the last decade it's become a bird that stays all year, and particularly common in winter. This is probably due to climate warming, and to bird feeding. They fly over from places like Poland and decide they don't need to go to Africa... Red Pole -moving in to gardens and attracted by feeders. The message soon gets out! Song Thrush - if you want them don't use 'molluscicides' (i.e. don't poison slugs and snails).

As I said, bird feeding is encouraged in the UK. Birds are now dependent on this feed and it would actually be cruel to stop. Things to think about are: variety of bird food; feed all year (used to say don't feed all year but birds now reliant); move feeders around; clean feeders; don't forget ground feeders such as song thrush (e.g. on table to avoid local cats); be patient (may take a while before gold finches find Niger seed!)

Keith also suggested leaving out water (see dog bowl above) and having lots of shelter around the garden (e.g. hedges). Look up Garden Bird Watch for  programme gathering lots of detailed information by general community.

Sandra Bell returned briefly to tell us parakeets were sparse in London a few years ago and were quick to expand. This is not the case for some of the more exotic parrots and there is a study going on to understand more about the genetics of our responsive parakeets. They want fresh parakeet feathers if you have them - but not so fresh you should do something nasty to a parakeet I suspect. Oh, and we also heard that Kew provides pine cones to the London Zoo so the Hyacinth Macaws don't get bored.

The final speaker was Joe Pecorelli (Eel expert; Environment Trust for Richmond upon Thames) who wanted us all to have ponds in our garden. According to Joe a few thousand years ago (pre Roman) UK was a mosaic of aquatic habitats, with lots of species all dependent on water.

If you dig a pond, says Joe, you'll get a whole new ecosystem and collection of animals. For starters, there are over 250 species of aquatic beetle in the UK. He strongly recommends Creating Garden Ponds for Wildlife, by Louise Bardsley (a 30 page booklet published by Pond Conservation, and available free from their website).

Joe says there are four things to keep in mind when creating a pond:
  • Aspect (need sunshine; emergent plants will provide some shade)
  • Away from overhanging trees which will add nutrients (leaves)
  • Water source - lots of phosphorus and nitrates in London tap water (good for algae); rain water best.
  • Profile - shallow edges, marshy areas; most life in shallow parts

Life will appear almost spontaneously - e.g. Daphnia, one of Joe's favourites. They have more genes than humans! When things are good, only females are present and they reproduce by parthenogenesis. They produce spikes when fish are introduced into the ponds - maybe this is what they use their extra genes for, adapting to changes in environment.

When planting in and around ponds keep it native and look for diversity of life forms. Be careful of invasives such as azolla (see for list of invasive species).

Like Keith and Sandra, Joe also mentioned a community scheme. It's called Pond Dip and through this community monitoring project, biological observations have been correlated with the type of pond and plants.

As Joe put it, animals hide in plants, make houses out them, eat them, benefit from them removing excess nutrients, and get oxygen from them (particularly in deep areas). In a very cute story he said newts wrap their eggs very carefully in leaves of starwort.

And in winter should you melt a hole in your pond ice with saucepan full of hot water? Sudden frog death not due to the surface being unbroken so don't do it for this reason, but yes some birds will come to drink or eat fish. I'm more worried about the whole concept of ponds getting ice on them in the first place...

The People's Trust for Endangered Species were invited to the workshop but the speaker couldn't make it today. She was going to mention the Hedgehog Street project - connecting up gardens to allow these critters to move around the suburbs. 

All up, a fun couple of hours. Normally I'd say that animals have their uses - e.g. pollinating flowers, spreading seed, and providing nutrients for plants when they die. Today I was more magnanimous and accepted that some people might even like them for things other than helping plants.