The Secret Garden
When it comes to wildlife, many of us believe that in order to see the absolute best, we have to take ourselves off to a truly wild area, like the rolling hills or the deep, dark forests. This morning when I took my dogs for a walk, I took my camera, hoping to see some spectacular wildlife. Off I trekked, through the woods and down to the river, carrying my trusty camera and eager to snap anything and everything that moved. Two minutes into my walk and I was delighted when a small herd of roe deer passed silently through the woodland in front of me in a very regimented line. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite quiet enough to take any decent photographs and they had already spied me watching. Also, when I say spied me, I mean they had spied Floyd and Clodagh, my spaniels. So, a couple of deer photographs and we continued, my expectations high. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of the dippers, or be able to snap a sparrow hawk. No such luck. Bar the roe deer and a few obligatory rabbits, the woods seemed desolate.
Arriving home, I was a little disappointed with the poor turnout. Frustrated, I settled for the garden, standing out in the freezing cold, as still as I could. Now, sometimes, when waiting for the animals to come and doing your best scarecrow impression, you find yourself thinking some odd things. At least I do. In fact, my thoughts found themselves swirling around the film Jurassic Park and the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s (what else is there to think about?). My train of thought of course was because I was standing so still (therefore invisible to a T. Rex) and yet my birds were taking their time. How could they be suspicious? I had barely moved! I had bet that had a T. Rex been there, I would have won this stand off and he would have had no idea I was there. Not surprisingly, the birds had me sussed and were very cautious when they began to flock back to the feeders. Of course, if I’m honest, even if it proved a point, I am quite glad that there were no dinosaurs about.
Anyway. Looking around the garden, I realised how much of it can be taken for granted. Why had I bothered to go so far, when I had a small secret haven right at home? Bird cakes, peanuts, sunflower seeds and mealworms were all up for grabs, so all I had to do was wait. And in the end, I didn’t have to wait for long. Blue tits, house sparrows, long-tailed tits, collared doves, goldfinches, chaffinches and great tits were just a sample of the birds who were strutting their stuff at the bird table. But perhaps the best thing about our gardens as little havens, is that they are so easy to create! How? Well, as I am sure you know, simple feeders are great for so many birds. Sprinkle some seed on the ground and you might get a dunnock, or a collared dove. Sprinkle some raisins and your blackbird numbers will sore, or, if you like your corvids, a bit of meat will make them gather in their hordes. Peanuts and fat cakes/balls are great for a plethora of birds and full of the vital fat that they require, especially in winter. Hang a couple out in the garden and you will begin to see a selection of tits and finches beginning to visit. Now, if you want a wide selection of species, it’s best to put a selection of different feeds out. Although ready-made mixed seed bags are valuable, be wary that many birds are picky and will spit out the seeds that they don’t like and this can cause grasses and weeds to sprout around the area of your feeder. Sunflower seeds, peanuts and mealworms are a few good ones to start off with and plenty of species are quite happy with those.
But hang on, no seeds? No feeders? No meat? How about some peanut butter? Rummage through those kitchen cupboards and I am sure most people will find a pot, even if it is a year (or two) out of date. Scrape it on the tree trunks, patio, grass or anywhere you can find and the birds and squirrels will come to grab a bite. However, be aware that with so many little birds available, don’t be surprised if you get one or two hawks circling the area. Sparrowhawks in particular are very likely to visit, but if you can’t quite stomach the thought of that, you can protect your garden visitors with a cage feeder (which also stop squirrels if you don’t want them), or place the feeders near or in dense tree coverage.
So, that’s the birds sorted, what about other animals? After all, the more animals you have in your garden, the greater the biodiversity of your mini haven. Now, remember, having a mouse or two does not mean that they are about to set up house in your kitchen, invade the cupboards and run over your face in the night, it just makes your garden that much more special. Leaving an area of unmown vegetation in your garden, or even planting and leaving seeds and nuts around the edge of your patch could provide the extra coverage that mice love. And let’s not forget, if you have rodents, you may even hear the haunting hoot of a tawny owl or two. And if you really like your mice, you could really push the boat out and make a mouse house out of an old tennis ball, stuffed with moss.
In fact, these unmown areas of vegetation are good for more than just mice. Hedgehogs love a wild garden patch, where fallen leaves and sticks have been left to accumulate. Now, if you like to feed hedgehogs, there are a few things you can leave out for them. In terms of food, chopped nuts, sunflower hearts, sultanas and even cooked potatoes are all acceptable. However, don’t leave out cows milk, as they are lactose intolerant and this can cause a hedgehog to be very unwell. Then what can you leave? Just put out some good old fashioned water! Also, if you are trying to attract hedgehogs but have a pond, be careful. Hedgehogs can fall into ponds and drown, so leave some netting over the top to protect those night time visitors.
And now, the pond itself. When it comes to the pond, it’s a whole different ball game. Contrary to belief, you don’t need a small lake to argue that you have a pond, a little patch of permanent water will do. Our garden pond is years old and we have had some fabulous little creatures in there. At its peak, we had four frogs and a toad. But in our house, along with the amphibians came a springer spaniel with an unhealthy obsession. For hours he lies, staring into the water waiting for them to pop up, however he’s not so interested in the invertebrate life. Water boatmen, pond skaters, great diving beetles, backswimmers and all kinds of larvae are just some of these species you could see. However, come spring last year and our pond was well and truly empty. In fact, it was more like a pit of stagnant water than a pond. So what had gone wrong? Well, there was water, but very old water. Our pond needed a service and there was only one thing for it. Empty the old water out (being very careful to check for any solitary creatures) and clear it all out. This also meant ridding myself of the pesky duckweed that lay on the water surface. By the time I had reached the bottom, the smell that greeted me was enough to knock out an elephant, or indeed a dog, as both of mine retreated quite quickly into the house. Dead black leaves and dead plants littered the bottom of the pond and I knew it was time to get my hands dirty. Pond empty, muddy face, fresh water with a splash of the old and some new water lilies, and eureka! Two weeks later, the pond was restored to its former glory. All our old residents were back and loving their new surroundings, including, much to my irritation, the duckweed. Unfortunately, when it comes to duckweed, it’s more of a maintenance thing. Yep, you just have to keep clearing it!
But what about bugs and beetles? Well, they love a bit of dead and rotting wood (who doesn’t?!). If you have enough space and don’t mind the mess, just leave a small area of deadwood in your garden and create a haven for these little creatures. Or, maybe, if you want to try your luck attracting stag beetles, throw a bit of ginger in there and an upturned plant pot, they love it!
Try all of these things, and you might not have to venture down to the woods to see some truly fabulous wild specimens!
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