What Nestbox Where?

During the People’s Walk for Wildlife and the rewilding conference in Cambridge last year, I learnt in disbelief about the dramatic declines in insect, bird, mammal and wild plant populations since the 1970s – the decade in which I was born. This year I have resolved to put nature at the heart of our garden in an effort to support the natural world in my small piece of over 400,000 hectares of gardens across the UK – a collective habitat with the potential to make a real difference for wildlife.

We already feed the birds and have nestboxes; we grow plants for pollinating insects and garden organically without peat. So I am beginning to look for more ways to make our garden accessible and welcoming for wild creatures. We are currently adding a range of nestboxes for different species of birds to the small hole boxes we already have, and there are plans to install a barrel pond, create a small wild flower lawn, build hedgehog habitat beneath log piles and monitor the garden birds, amphibians, mammals, mini-beasts and wildflowers throughout the year.

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Building, installing and monitoring nestboxes is a great activity for all the family. My dad made this robin box and the kids helped him put it up

In early March there’s still time to put up nestboxes before the breeding season is in full swing, so this seems like a good place to start. I hope you’ll join me throughout the year, as we encourage as much wildlife into our modest-sized garden as possible.

What nestbox where?

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Blue tits laid in one of our small hole nestboxes last year

When putting up nestboxes, it is important to ensure they do not get overheated during warmer weather. Unless they are sited in good shade, it is best to site them on a wall or tree, facing between north and east, so that they are protected from the sun for much of the day. Unless otherwise stated, it is advisable to fit them at least 1.5 – 2m above the ground. It is also worth remembering to put them out of reach of neighbouring cats.

As a general rule, it is best to avoid the “decorative” nestboxes frequently seen in garden centres and some craft shops; they are often too small and may have the hole too close to the floor of the box (a distance of at least 120mm is recommended).

Small Hole Nestbox

This traditional nestbox is frequently used by Blue Tits and Great Tits, depending on the size of the hole (Great Tits need a hole with a minimum diameter of 28mm, while Blue Tits can fit through a 25mm hole). If you are lucky enough to have Coal Tits in your garden, they will also sometimes use artificial nest sites (again, a 25mm hole is big enough for them).

We’ve had both great and blue tits nesting in the small hole boxes in the garden

House Sparrow Terrace

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House sparrow populations have declined by 50-60% since the 1970s and it’s now a red-list species of high conservation concern

House Sparrows generally nest in small colonies and will readily accept boxes if there are several close together. For this reason, many wildlife product suppliers offer “House Sparrow Terraces”, which usually take the form of a long box with 3 separate compartments. However, the same effect can be achieved by placing three, or more, boxes in close proximity to one another. Being somewhat bigger than Great Tits, House Sparrows need an entrance hole of at least 32mm diameter. Boxes should be at least 2m above the ground and, preferably, somewhere that is not subject to too much human disturbance.

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I saw sparrows with nest material on top of this box last week

Medium Hole Nestbox

Starlings typically nest in holes in trees or under roofing tiles if they can get access. They happily accept nestboxes but need more space than smaller species, so use a slightly larger box with an entrance hole of 45mm. Boxes should be placed at least 2.5m off the ground.

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This nestbox is destined for the side of the house – our neighbours already have starlings nesting under their eaves

Open-Fronted Nestbox

These boxes are aimed primarily at Robins although will sometimes be used by Wrens. Being open-fronted, they are more susceptible to predation than conventional nestboxes and should be placed in a well concealed site such as under overhanging ivy or clematis. Height off the ground is unimportant although, again, it is best to try to keep them out of reach of the local cats.

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My dad constructed this open-fronted box and the kids helped him install it under our winter-flowering clematis

Swifts and House Martins 

Swifts have declined as a breeding species in Britain as many older buildings with access to the eaves have been demolished and new houses do not usually offer any access. Specially designed Swift boxes can be put up under the eaves of your house but it might be necessary to play Swift calls throughout the summer months to attract them to the site. Artificial nests for House Martins are also available and can be fixed under the eaves.

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House martin boxes mimic their natural mud nests, like this one

Other Species

Many species will not nest in boxes. Some that will, but are less likely to be encountered in most gardens are listed below:

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Some birds – like this long-tailed tit – prefer to make their own nests

Nuthatch
Pied Wagtail
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Redstart
Jackdaw
Stock Dove
Tawny Owl

If you live somewhere that has any of these species and would like to try to get them to nest in your garden, I would recommend “The BTO Nestbox Guide” by Chris du Feu, an excellent publication, with details of a wide range of nestboxes. Good quality nestboxes can be bought from the RSPB, CJ Wildlife, Ark Wildlife and other reputable wildlife equipment providers.

What Next?

If you have a nestbox in your garden, why not take part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s “Nestbox Challenge”. They provide guidance on how to monitor nesting birds safely, without causing them to desert their eggs or chicks.

With thanks to bird guru, Alan Garner, aka my generous, talented and fabulous dad! If you’d like to follow our garden rewilding this year, just click below to subscribe. 

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Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Last month I wrote Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside exploring the inextricable links between gardens and the wider landscape  – with all the benefits and responsibilities this entails. As we become increasingly aware of the direct effect of our collective actions on the environment, complex issues such as the use of plastic, energy and peat in gardening are under scrutiny. We are beginning to accept that sustainable energy use and a circular economy are vital if we are to develop a world where our children can grow up to enjoy the pleasures, horticultural or otherwise, that we currently do.

One perennial issue in the garden is the use of peat. The arguments against peat use are much rehearsed and despite repeated undertakings by the government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture, there has been depressingly little progress in the past 20 years. The 2010 target to reduce peat use in composts by 90% was comprehensively missed and the same was true of the 2015 aim for all public procurement to be peat free by 2015. Unfortunately, the most recent target to stop the use of peat by 2020 by amateur gardeners looks set to go the same way.

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Degraded blanket bog

One argument which is often made against peat-free compost is the environmental impact of transporting materials like coir long distances (although much of our peat now comes from Ireland, Canada and the Baltic). Another problem has been quality – I’ve seen this in my own garden with green waste based peat-free compost which often contains a large quantity of woody material, isn’t suitable for either ericaceous plants or seed sowing, and contains fungus gnat eggs which then hatch and fill my house with clouds of irritating sciarid flies.

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Damage caused by peat extraction

To overcome these issues, a few years ago I sourced peat-free seed compost from Dalefoot Composts and was impressed by the results in comparison to other growing mediums. I’ve used their ericaeous, multipurpose, high strength and bulb composts, all with excellent results – some I’ve been sent to trial, but the majority I’ve bought myself over the years. One of the advantages is its relatively local nature (produced on the family-run farm in the Lake District) and the sustainability of the raw materials used – sheep’s wool and bracken – products which would otherwise have little or no value.

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Bracken cutting for compost

In addition, the sheep’s wool (used for the majority of the composts) retains moisture thus reducing the need to water and both materials have naturally high levels of nutrients so no additional feeding is necessary. I grew my tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers in the high strength compost this year and didn’t add any feed throughout the growing season. Yields increased and I noticed no difference in the size and health of plants or fruit.

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The Dalefoot compost range

Recently I read about the peat bog restoration work undertaken by founders of Dalefoot Composts, Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland over the past 20 years and was keen to find out more. Jane is an ecologist and Simon a seventh-generation Cumbrian sheep farmer, so between them they have a 360-degree perspective on the damaging operation of peat extraction that has caused the loss of thousands of hectares of peat bog across the UK. Lowland peat bog in England currently covers only one tenth of its original 38,000 hectares due to agricultural drainage, forestry, landfill and peat extraction and many remaining bogs still have permissions to extract peat in the future which are extremely costly to buy out in order to protect the sites.

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Simon and Jane at work on the peat bog 

In 2002 the Government’s advisory body, English Nature, wrote in Peat Bog Conservation:

Today, one of the greatest threats to our peat bogs is from our continued use of peat in the garden. The gardening hobby that brings many of us a great deal of pleasure is doing so at the expense of our wildlife.

Wildlife is certainly one key issue – we’ve known for decades about the importance of peat bogs as a rich and diverse habitat for specially adapted plants and animals like sphagnum moss, butterwort, sundew, bog myrtle, the large heath butterfly, black darter dragonfly and wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover.

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Golden plover in breeding plumage (Image credit: Alan Garner)

More recently we’ve become increasingly aware of the fundamental role peatland environments play in storing carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes are stored in peatland in the UK), reducing flooding and fires, and providing drinking water (70% of our water comes from peatland river catchments in the UK).¹ The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) also outlines the way ‘peat-dominated landscapes can help to underpin a sustainable rural community as well as providing key benefits to society (eg. water supplies, carbon storage and sequestration) as a whole.’ But they point out that these services can only be provided if ‘peat bog habitat is correctly identified, characterised and thereby managed in an appropriate way’.²

The definition of a bog is a wetland that receives its water exclusively from direct rainfall as opposed to fens where groundwater causes the water-logging. Raised bogs occur in the lowlands where the surface rises over time as a result of peat formation creating a dome shaped bog. In wetter upland conditions peat covers wide areas and is therefore described as blanket bog.

When discussing the restoration work with Jane, I was fascinated by her description of the diversity of peat bog habitat and the huge range of flora (particularly sphagnum moss) which colonize different areas. There are many different types of sphagnum moss – the genus Sphagnum contains around 380 different species – some grow in the water and some on the edge of the bog, but all species hold large quantities of water within their cells (16-26 times their own dry weight). The moss acts as a blanket over the bog which keeps the methane in and, ultimately, becomes peat-forming vegetation.

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Sundew in the sphagnum moss

The UK has disappointingly broad terms for these diverse habitats unlike many peat-rich western nations like Sweden, whose terminology records precisely the individual fen and bog systems. The IUCN states that consequent on this paucity of descriptive language:

most of the UK blanket bog landscape is described only in terms of rather broad vegetation types, which ultimately results in poor understanding of key site features and condition.

There has been much debate recently about the generalisation of terminology for natural landscapes and its effect on our perception of the environment in which we live. In his book on language and the environment, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane discusses the specificity of reference we are losing as whole tranches of vernacular vocabulary for landscape disappear. He suggests:

It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.³

Learning more about peat bogs has revealed a rich vocabulary which I relish – a world of watershed bogs, saddle bogs, spur bogs, saddleside bogs, basin fens, flushes, kettle holes, schwimgmoor raised bogs and blanket mires. One of the strengths of the restoration work which Jane, Simon and their team undertake is their knowledge and understanding of these varied micro-habitats and the different restoration treatments each requires.

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Pristine blanket bog

Peat bog restoration is a complex and time-consuming process primarily because mires (current peat-forming bogs) are ‘one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet due to their limited capacity for self repair.’4  Barker and Bland – Jane and Simon’s company – have developed methods using both specially designed machines whose footprint is less than 2 lbs per square inch (less than half the weight of a human’s) and working by hand, depending on the sensitivity of the site.

The first step is to restore the hydrology of the peat bog which will have been damaged by the drainage systems put in place so that peat extraction could take place. Inspired by techniques used in rice paddy fields, the team creates crescents along the drainline, blocking the drains and ditches with peat dams to raise the water table. The hags (the eroded cut edges of the peat) are then reprofiled to prevent further erosion and sphagnum moss is introduced to recolonise the area.

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Timber sediment traps slow the flow of water downstream and enable re-vegetation

The growth tips of sphagnum moss are sustainably harvested from specially selected donor sites – usually local pristine sites as similar to the ecosystem of the restoration site as possible – and within 36 hours these must be spread across the bog in a re-vegetation layer. Sphagnum moss gets its moisture and nutrients from the air: the shallow root system simply acts as an anchor and dies off forming peat when the plant is established, so unlike other plants, moss can be propagated by spreading the growing tips across the new site. In addition to harvesting moss from donor sites, Barker and Bland have built a sphagnum farm in Cumbria to grow different species of moss for their restoration work.

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Re-vegetated bare peat

Two of the most recent peatland restoration projects undertaken by Barker and Bland include Bolton Fell in Cumbria and large blanket bog areas in the Cairngorms. In 2014 the government bought out William Sinclair Holding PLC’s peat extraction rights at Bolton Fell, a 375 hectare site and one of the largest degraded raised peat bogs still capable of natural regeneration in England. Once restoration work started in 2016 the Fell was restored to a sphagnum moss habitat with the year, although it will be many decades before peat depth becomes substantial again beneath the sphagnum moss.

In July this year, Barker and Bland began restoration work on a 134 hectare upland blanket bog site in the Cairngorms as part of the Scottish government’s project to restore 40% of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030. Over the past five months, six members of the team have been working on re-profiling thousands of metres of hags across the peat bog. This work will continue until Christmas through the first sprinklings of snow.  A further two teams are currently working in the Cairngorms tackling 25,000 metres of peat hags and 1.75 hectares of bare peat. 

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Timber sediment traps across the peat bog

Over the next few years we have difficult decisions to make about how we use our land – either we learn to manage it in sustainable ways or we use up the resources in the short-term and pay for it in the future. Peat bog restoration is only the beginning of a regeneration process that will take many decades to complete, but restoring and managing our peat bogs is a vital step if we want to benefit from the practical services these environments offer and preserve the rich ecosystems which they support.

¹ UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, IUCN
² Peat Bog Ecosystems: Key Definitions, IUCN
³ Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, p. 24
4 Natural England, A review of techniques for monitoring the success of peatland restoration, quoted from (Maltby, 1997)

Image credits: Barker and Bland unless otherwise stated

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Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

in Just-   

spring    when the world is mud-

luscious…                                                                                                                                     

when the world is puddle-wonderful

So wrote the idiosyncratic American poet e.e. cummings in Chansons Innocentes: I, expressing a child’s wide-eyed wonderment and joy upon encountering puddles in early spring. We are all born with this sense of awe but as we grow towards adulthood a lack of exposure to the wonder and intriguing ‘otherness’ of the natural world can blunt this fascination and ultimately extinguish it. 

Nature in the Garden 

Last year, when I asked readers why we love to garden, many of the responses linked gardening with an innate connection to nature and the landscape, often first experienced as a child. Joanne explained that when she was young:

I felt this connection, an enjoyment, a love and nurturing feeling and my passion for plants, flowers and soil was born…

and another gardener, whose love for growing began in 1938 when she first entered ‘the wondrous kingdom of the allotment’, wrote:

[to] sit and watch our own small wildlife going about their daily lives is as good as it gets.

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Kids need access to the natural world in gardens and the countryside. Image credit: Plantlife/Kim Newman

Whether it’s the ability of my tithonia to produce its flaming blooms at the height of my daughter’s head within a year from sowing the claw-shaped seeds or the subterranean mycorrhizal networks connecting the plants in our borders, it’s this fascination with the power and precision of nature that draws many of us into a lifelong relationship with our gardens.

Nature in the Wider Landscape

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So much has changed since I was a kid – the 1970s are my baseline – but the decline in habitat and species began far earlier…

I’ve been captivated by plants, their habitats and the ecosystems which they support, for as long as I can remember, fostered by a childhood spent in red wellies (if the family album is to be believed) helping my dad dig in our vegetable patch, foraging in the Welsh countryside with my grandparents and birdwatching as a member of the Young Ornithologists Club. Since the 1970s and 80s – the decades of my childhood – there has been a dramatic reduction of natural habitat in the UK and an equally rapid decline in populations of a whole range of species, including farmland birds, hedgehogs and insects. In addition, shifting baseline syndrome adjusts our collective memory as each generation believes that their baseline is the original ‘normal’.

Even with the statistics from the 2016 State of Nature Report readily available, with the evidence that in terms of biodiversity we are ‘among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’¹, we continue to sanction the destruction of natural habitat referring to passive ‘losses’ of species like the apple bumblebee, the frosted yellow moth, the Kentish plover and the wryneck, instead of extinctions brought about by human action. As Sir David Attenborough states in the introduction to the State of Nature Report:

Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help
as never before.

For this reason, I joined the People’s Walk for Wildlife last weekend: a peaceful family event attended by around 10,000 people. We walked from Hyde Park to Downing Street to express our shared love of nature and highlight the catastrophic consequences of continuing to destroy our ecosystems and wildlife. Chris Packham and six young conservationists handed A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife to the government. This draft manifesto is a collection of short essays and practical steps written by 18 experts, which if implemented today would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow.

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Ten thousand campaigners walked together through London. The BBC and ITV failed to cover the event. Image credit: Luke Dray/Woodland Trust

A Part of Nature, Not Apart From It

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Poster created by RHS Gold Medal winning landscape architect Adam White

Within our private gardens, enclosed by boundary hedges, fences and walls, it’s easy to believe we exist apart from the surrounding countryside, but in reality each garden is a part of the whole landscape – the way we treat the plants, insects, birds, animals, water and soil in our gardens affects what happens beyond our boundaries, on a local and national level and, conversely, changes in the countryside directly affect our gardens.

On a practical  level, our gardens need access to healthy populations of beneficial insects – bees, butterflies, moths, and even wasps to pollinate flowers, creating seeds for subsequent years and fruits to harvest; we need ladybirds, toads and birds to act as pest control in place of the chemicals that simply exacerbate the ecosystem problems.  At a deeper level, we need nature in our lives to enable us relax, to feel part of a seasonal, more natural rhythm of life, to inspire, give solace and to improve our general mental health. Fortunately, the symbiotic nature of the relationship between our gardens and the wider landscape means that any practical steps we take to improve the natural health of our gardens can have far reaching consequences…

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This waxwing was such an inspirational sight and a wonderful reminder that my garden is part of the local landscape. Image credit: Alan Garner

Practical Steps

With over 400,000 hectares² of garden habitat across the UK, gardeners are in a position to make a real difference. Here are a few ideas arising from A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

1. Rewild Our Gardens

We’re unlikely to be in a position to reintroduce beavers or longhorn cattle as Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, have on the Knepp Estate (as Isabella recounts in her ground-breaking book Wilding), but we can all make a space for the wild in our gardens. We know that introducing ponds, long grass, log piles, trees and hedges, and leaving stems and seedheads over winter in our gardens creates food and habitats for a wide range of animals. Even in a small garden, containers with plants for pollinators (single flowers, rather than doubles) and a bird feeder can bring in wildlife from the local area.

This August, at the Great British Birdfair, I met the Butterfly Brothers. Their award-winning wildlife garden designs focus on attracting butterflies to the garden, but they also spoke passionately about the dragonflies, moths and birds which visit the gardens. Jim and Joel have a YouTube channel with practical ideas for encouraging wildlife into the garden and also more information on British butterflies like the ringlet and the chequered skipper. And even if you live somewhere where ringlets are unlikely to visit your garden (we’ve had whites including green-veined, gatekeeper, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell, but never a ringlet), adding a bird box for tits or house sparrows or a hole at the bottom of the fence to give hedgehogs a passageway, makes every garden a little wilder.

For more information, George Monbiot’s proposals regarding rewilding on a wider scale are available on page 33 of  A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

2. Garden Organically

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, bee expert and author of a number of books, including A Sting in the Tail, has written the proposals addressing pesticide use. Whilst these proposals are primarily aimed at agricultural use, there is still the issue of pesticide use in gardens and by commercial growers.

The RHS advice to its members and to ‘millions of other gardeners’ is ‘to avoid using pesticides’. Organic methods help create a sustainable environment for beneficial wildlife like blue tits and ladybirds, which act as natural pest control. Using physical barriers and biological controls is often extremely effective, and if I have holes in some of my hosta leaves when the slugs breach the copper tape barriers, at least I know my plants are part of a natural cycle and nothing I’ve put on the garden will have harmed the toads, hedgehogs and birds that live alongside us.

The manifesto pesticide proposals can be found on page 22 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

3. Embrace your Growing Space

Garden writer, Kate Bradbury has written the proposals for urban spaces in A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. She begins by discussing the RHS report which found that 24% of front gardens had been lost to paving, concrete or gravel by 2016, as compared to only 8% in 2005. The report suggests that by 2016 more than 4.5 million of Britain’s front gardens were completely paved, and 7.2 million mostly paved. As these spaces disappear, as back gardens are given over to offices, fake grass, decking and low-maintenance paving, and as more gardens become fenced, Kate points out that wild creatures such as amphibians and hedgehogs are excluded from our gardens. Without access through gardens and with the added dangers of roads, it is difficult for many animals to travel through their territories. By making our gardens accessible, we can help to create wildlife corridors and improve the chances of these animals.

If car parking or paving is necessary in front or back gardens it can be kept to a minimum and integrated with planting spaces. The RHS has some excellent advice on how to green your grey front garden to create a practical and wildlife-friendly space. Kate’s other proposals can be found on page 41 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

4. Support Wildlife Charities

Charities like Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts, The RSPB, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Woodland Trust and many more organisations, work tirelessly to conserve our wildlife and the habitats upon which they rely. Supporting their work helps to protect plants and animals which then become an important part of garden life.

I joined Plantlife earlier this year when I read that the RHS (of which I’m also a member) has around 500,000 members whilst Plantlife, a charity working to save threatened flowers, plants and fungi, has only 11,000. I love my garden and believe that growing ornamental and edible plants is one of the great joys of life, but my garden is part of a wider landscape – a landscape I treasure and want to help conserve.

References

¹ Introduction to The State of Nature Report, 2016

² For more on garden statistics, Gardens as a Resource for Wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve is an interesting read.

 

 

I believe that the only way to create a truly balanced garden is to put nature at the heart of it, and then it lives.

Still Life

I went on an early cycle round the Greenway yesterday, with the field margins and hedgerows full of movement and vigour, wildflowers, birds and fruit, whilst the field itself seemed stilled and characterless, until a skylark gave it life. This is the prose-poem I wrote when I returned… 

Silver lifting, undersides of leaves blown back in the dancing hedgerows, flashes of sloe gin, damson jelly and hazelnut brittle. This foragers’ fringe, ablaze with ripening abundance and the verge beneath, a study in vetch and clover, irregularly spiked with pink sainfoin beacons. Finches thrill above me, flocking, dipping, two-dimensional as they turn, absorbed by the air then wheeling, blackening the sky with their profiled presence.

Within all this elasticity, this marginal vigour, an absence: the ploughed void. September movement stilled, the colours muted, diversity subdued, until my eye adjusts to a sharper focus. Then a skylark twitches and, for a moment, dun uniformity is replaced with form and colour. Tawny feathers shake against the fissured landscape and the lark assumes its customary stillness, its pebbled mantle absorbed again by the ploughed earth.