March 2022 - Help give Charlbury children some wildlife memories
Published in Charlbury Chronicle March 2022
What do you remember about the natural world from your own childhood? People like me growing up in the first decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign experienced a world full of birds, bees, butterflies and wild flowers. Little did we know these would decline so dramatically.
But . . . as the RHS points out, there are 27 million gardeners in the UK and we can make a huge difference to the wildlife in our towns and villages, see www.rhs.org.uk/wildlife/in-the-garden. There’s lots of scope and the most obvious thing we can do is choose flowers that provide pollen and nectar for the myriad insects that we could attract to our gardens – there are 22,400 species, but how many can we recognise? I photographed all the insects I saw last summer and then tried to find out what they were – the first step to understanding their life cycle, where they live the rest of the year and how they survive the winter. I was amazed how varied this was even for insects within the same family, but then we all find our own niche don’t we. Think of blue tits, they are lighter than great tits so can search for food on the delicate twigs at the ends of branches which great tits can’t reach – their own niche.
Our gardens are like a natural woodland edge habitat, a mixture of trees and shrubs next to more open areas with flowers, grass, and often water – this all provides the maximum potential for wildlife. You can help visiting insects by selecting plants with single flowers rather than double. You could also do a lot less work in your garden - look at your own lawn or verge and see how many different sorts of leaves there are besides the grass. If you find some, then try letting these flower and you might be surprised and rewarded by a flowering tapestry of delight – for you and the insects. Damper areas might have the early flowering lady’s smock – another name for this is cuckoo flower because it coincides with the arrival of the cuckoo in April. Early flowers include blue speedwells, bugle, self heal, and yellow buttercups, followed by hawkbits, cat’s ear, bird’s foot trefoil, hoary plantains, ox-eye daisies, all such lovely names. You might even have pyramidal and bee orchids – last year saw a bumper number of these turn up. Later on you might find marjoram, yarrow, knapweeds, and scabious. Mow pathways through the grass to show off the flowers and also alongside existing paths so the grass doesn’t flop over the path after rain. Mowing grass in April reduces that first flush of strongly growing grass and stops competition with the flowering plants which can then grow up and flower. You could then mow again in July before the later flowers grow up and bloom. Timing all depends on what flowers you find in your sward - some parts of Charlbury have remnants of ancient limestone flora where houses have been built in old orchards or alongside old roadways – so you might well find interesting flowers.
Flowers are important but it is also vitally important to provide shelter for insects through the rest of the year to complete their life cycles. Many butterflies like the browns and the small skipper lay eggs on grasses for the hatched caterpillars to eat and grow and then pupate before the next generation of adults emerges. Sadly though, they will all be destroyed if the grass is cut and removed too early, so the question is which bits to leave and for how long. It is very difficult to say where the tiny insects are hiding, so the best idea is to leave say one third of the vegetation uncut until the spring. Insects overwinter in crevices, in hollow dead stems, under leaves, at the base of grasses, so it is good to leave the garden tidy-up until the spring, this will give the garden more structure in the winter, more places for the birds to perch and find hidden food, and more wonderful photographs if we get a hoar frost! In autumn, leave those damaging leaf blowers in the shed and simply sweep the leaves directly onto your flower beds to rot down and make a good rich soil helped by the tiny creatures living there.
The more trees and shrubs you have in your garden the more natural feeding opportunities there will be for birds and insects. A pond is also a great opportunity to bring more wildlife directly into your garden – the southern hawker dragonfly will quickly find it and start breeding. Newts will also turn up as long as you don’t have fish and always make sure there’s a shallow edge so birds and hedgehogs can drink safely. Sit back and watch the birds bathing in the shallow water to keep their feathers in good condition - a lovely sight all year round. Last but not least, remember to make some gaps in your boundary walls and fences so your garden isn’t isolated but becomes instead a vital part of Charlbury’s green network providing a welcome home for hedgehogs and all the other terrestrial creatures travelling around the town.
What do you remember from your own first decade? Please send your wildlife memories to firstname.lastname@example.org and also any photos of what you see in your garden this year.
Charlbury Green Hub