Wildlife blog

June 2021: Ask not just what your bees do for you…but what you can do for your bees!


There’s a lot of talk about pollinators nowadays, so what do bees do for us?

Bees and other insects are attracted to flowers, they eat nectar and collect pollen on their bodies, then drop the pollen on another flower and fertilisation occurs… this is the classic sexual reproduction story – not quite “the birds and the bees” but “the bees and the flowers”. Without pollinators and their habits, evolved over millennia, much of plant life as we know it would simply end with that unvisited flower, never to make a seed.

In this country the pollinators are also butterflies, moths, wasps, hoverflies… the list is long. The bees are most important, they are the most diligent and hardworking, and the solitary bees are the best at the job, mostly because they are the messiest! They don’t bother with the little ‘baskets’ on their legs, they just get covered in pollen and scatter it far and wide as they fly off. There are 250 species of solitary bee versus the single honeybee species which we all know so well, simply because humans have a sweet tooth.

From the human perspective, without pollinators loads of our crops would fail, in fact one third of all our food and all the cotton we wear relies on those unpaid insect workers. The reality of failed crops is big money lost – which seems to be the only language we understand these days, hence why we are hearing the word ‘pollinator’ so much.

Humans with their clever brains and dextrous fingers have worked out how to grow food in vast abundance. We’ve made amazing machines to open up the land, invented chemical compounds to kill insects, more chemicals to kill unwanted plants and further chemicals to make the ones we like grow much bigger and faster! I think you can guess where the humble bee fits into this picture…  Bees are keystone species in big trouble, take the keystone out, and the whole lot tumbles down.

Perhaps policy makers will step in, I hope so, since a sea change in agriculture is desperately needed. But in the meantime:

 Ask not what your bees do for you, ask what you can do for your bees!

  • Grow flowers – avoiding overbred varieties (doubles) that bees cannot enter. This directly helps pollinators, particularly bees
  • Grow natives –The larval stages of many insects often need specific native plants to eat. Would you leave the kids hungry at your picnic?
  • Allow homes – make a bee hotel, or simply leave some areas of your garden wild and untidy.

For more info: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/savingbees

To get involved directly, join us at The Nectar Garden on Brewery Field Fridays: https://friendsofduxfordgreenspaces.org/
Or volunteer at the organic food growing programme at CoFarm Cambridge where food and flowers are grown alongside each other for people, for pollinators and for wellbeing: https://www.cofarm.co/cambridge


May 2021: Rewilding for gardens?

Recently I’ve heard several people talking about “rewilding their garden” – as a wildlife lover this is music to my ears, but do they really know what they are talking about? If a garden is truly wild, how can it also be a garden? Apart from anything else, the ideas around rewilding aren’t really fully agreed upon yet.

So what actually is Rewilding?

The safe definition is something like: “letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes” (from rewildingeurope.com).

Animals are usually part of the rewilding picture, and this is where it gets tricky. We are trying to recreate patterns of disturbance and dispersal of seeds that were present in the ecosystem before humans hunted down all those animals. And this bringing back animals that used to be here is where the main disagreements crop up – notably around the beaver, a recent reintroduction to Britain. Maybe the actions of beavers can restore the land and reduce flooding – but perhaps bringing them back is just more human meddling, and will result in more problems?

I am going to bypass the debate for now, by returning to the smaller scale I work on… When it comes to ‘rewilding’ your garden, most experts would say: how can a piece of land the size of a garden, even a large one, accommodate the complex interactions and processes that will restore wild systems? This is a very good point, but I would say: “with the help of a gardener!”

Perhaps an informed gardener can act as a missing link. A gardener can browse like a deer with secateurs, graze like a horse with a lawnmower, root like a boar with a fork (with the robin joining in) or turn over the turf like a herd of cattle.

If we really want to help wild our gardens, because they are small and the only animals remaining do too much of the same thing (nibble everything like a rabbit), we need to do more than just leave them alone. For me, the thought of the animals that may have lived here long ago, and the part they would have played in the ecosystem, helps me in my pursuit to help make places more wild. I was trained by the Royal Horticultural Society how to cultivate pretty gardens, but I am finding it increasingly interesting considering this different role I could play, informed by the actions of animals.

a gardener can do the job of trampling and dispersing

April 2021: A Rooter and a Robin

If you ask a gardener what is their favourite bird, I’ll bet you 9 times out of 10 they’ll say the robin. And the reason for this might be because of its pretty russet breast, its cute rounded body set on the finest little legs – in short, its general irresistible charm.  

But the main reason may be more about its behaviour when you are gardening. It comes so close sometimes you catch your breath to see it there, and how honored

you feel that something so delicate and lovely might want to be near you, might even trust you! It comes still closer and you see the exquisite feathers….that beady little eye… and such bold eye contact, cocking it’s head to one side, the skipping and hopping about and finally perching on your garden fork as if posing for a photo then saying, “good morning how are you today?” with wistful but perky chirps. You can actually have a little conversation with a robin, I’ve seen many a burly gardener do it, I swear it’s not just me.

This human interaction is almost non-existent in other wild birds and I have often wondered why they should be so different? Turns out there are a few reason for this, one being that we Brits don’t have a tradition of trapping and eating small birds which kind of helps (apart from maybe Roald Dahl’s Mr and Mrs Twit). But the main and most interesting reason I think is connected to the evolution of these little birds.

Many 1000’s of years ago, when much of the land was far more wooded, and wild boar and deer roamed about in great numbers, the inquisitive nature of the robin would have been evolving. They were following these large animals, especially the boars, as they rooted in the earth, watching for those delicious worms. Robins aren’t great at pulling out worms like the blackbird, are useless at cracking a snail like a thrush, and they are only just learning how to hang onto a bird feeder like a tit- I feel sorry for them when they try! But they do like to use their charm or, rather, inquisitive adaptability and succeed in letting someone else do the work. I expect they were very close friends with the boar. And here we are, many 1000’s of years later, and lo and behold they are with us too– a taller, more upright ‘swine’. It’s not much of a leap and we are of course equipped with that very useful garden fork!

March 2021: Kings and Queens of our Little Kingdoms

Many of us may feel we have little sense of control over our own lives …politicians… big business… (not to mention the Corona virus)“…but in the garden or allotment we are king or queen! It is our piece of outdoors that lays a real stake to the planet.” Monty Don.

If you care to embrace this metaphor we can look at our little garden kingdom and choose how to rule it: choose what we plant or build in it and what we take away from it. We can choose to be an orderly ruler keeping everything in its place, working with a firm consistent hand – this usually works from a human perspective: we end up with a lawn, flower beds, and a place to sit. Alternatively you may be rather laissez faire, letting the garden ramble off on its own. While this approach has its merits, particularly for wildlife, it is no longer really a garden, more a rewilding experiment, and without some intervention it would not suit human needs.

There are plenty of gardening rules to follow – it makes sense to use them, but don’t forget to use your humanity. As king or queen you can choose to consider all the living things on your land (not just the plants) as your beloved subjects. You could be a great ruler; hospitable and nurturing, but also tough and decisive when you know what needs to be done for the greater good. You could allow your subjects a place to shelter and a place to forage. During hard times you might even lay out food and water for them.

In the olden days gardens were places of sanctuary from the wild beasts over the hedge, now there are barely any wilds, instead mostly human development: houses, roads or agriculture. How we decide to rule our gardens does matter; gardens make up a huge area of Britain, and together we could make such a difference to our dwindling British wildlife.

FEBRUARY 2021: The Sap is Rising

I hear a lot of people holding out for spring at the moment. All these lockdown restrictions, post-Christmas blues and fears of what the future holds, I totally get it – we need something good to look forward to. But let’s not miss out on life in the meantime, because I’m going to let you into a hidden secret that is happening right now: The sap is rising! (Well, if not now, very soon)

This February, whatever you do, however restricted you may be, I urge you to get out for your allowance of exercise as much as possible. February isn’t quite spring, but it isn’t just about daffodils either – it’s a mover and a shaker of a month! With the warming earth it is the time of life quickening, energy is rising, and the trick is to be outside to tap into it. This works especially if you do something physical for a while, do anything: walk; run; rake leaves; sweep the patio; pull some weeds; pick up that litter that’s been annoying you all winter….and of course this principle of “just get out there and do it” breeds positivity at any time of year.

February is the time when it all stirs, the songbirds start singing, courting and making nests – it’s no accident Valentine’s Day is in February, in fact February 14th was known in Sussex as Bird Wedding Day! Rumour has it the first bird seen by a maid on this day indicates the character of her future spouse – well well…

…If that’s true Great Crested Grebes are a good bird to see if you’re looking for a slick mover – they put on such a romantic show you might think you are watching an episode of Strictly! Get down to your local wetland, lake or reservoir, you may well see a Grebe and certainly many other wildfowl – many sporting their finest feathers around now.

Winter aconite, primroses, wood anemones and snowdrops are flowering. Frogs and toads may be seen spawning already, if you have ever witnessed this event you’ll know it is not a sight for the prudish! Butter-yellow Brimstones may flash past at this time, apparently these are the reason butterflies are called as such. Queen buff-tailed and early bumblebees may be seen flying slowly about, seemingly defying the laws of aerodynamics as they dozily crash about. Hazel catkins, rich with pollen hang like little yellow lambs tails – look really closely and you’ll see bright red flowers – the male parts – looking like miniature sea anemones!

After the hardship of winter, a bit of February sunshine is meltingly delicious, relished by all. This is the time you might find an unusual animal basking in a south facing spot, occasionally a deer or a snake may be seen, more likely a dog or a cat, perhaps even granny! Whichever it is you can still enjoy the bliss on their face!

In lockdown, luckily for us, walking and gardening count as exercise and more, we are allowed to do it alongside another. The 2 metre distance is close enough to hear another’s voice; we can help, encourage and support each other. During this time, if you find yourself inspired, research your local gardening or wildlife groups in preparation for when restrictions lift a bit.

If The News makes you despair, move your focus instead to something local, something you can actually affect, even if that is just your garden! And look for opportunities to meet outside, be active and interact with people in your community in a socially distanced way. We’ve got some healing to do and that has to start locally.