A day in the life of a wildlife garden
It’s a blustery day in early March and the volunteers meet me with shoulders hunched against the wind, bundled up to the point of immobility. A large alder came down in the gales of Storm Doris and smashed through the handrails on the boardwalk; volunteers point and exclaim as I hop out of the truck and into the wind. After the usual greetings, it’s all hands on deck to rake up fallen twigs and debris from Doris. Raking is also a useful way to warm up!
The mildness of the past few weeks has brought out the hellebores, lungwort and wild daffodils, which are just beginning to unfurl their butter-coloured petals. I saw my first bumblebee of the season yesterday, a large, loudly buzzing queen buff-tail, foraging on stinking hellebores - an unfortunately-named but very elegant wild plant of our native woodland. The sweet violets are also shyly peeping purple flowers through the vivid green heartshaped foliage, another good source of nectar for the earliest bees.
The only bumblebees to survive the winter in any colony are the new young queens, who mate with the drones in the autumn, feed up and then hibernate in a sheltered spot, often underground. The rest of the colony will die at the end of the season. Thus, the first bumblebees to be seen every spring are queens, full of eggs, assuaging their hunger and thirst before finding a place to start a new colony. By planting early flowers such as those mentioned above, you will be helping these important
young queens in their journey as progenitors of the next generation.
Our volunteers - the two Mikes - are sent up the bank to put up a new set of beanpoles, recently gathered from the coppice plot in Wolves Wood, near Hadleigh. I catch odds and ends of goodnatured banter and the occasional shout of laughter emanating from them as they bind the straight, strong hazel rods into a row of ‘A’s.
A sudden explosion of alarm calling by all the small birds in trees causes me to search the sky, and sure enough a slate-grey streak flashes across the garden – a male sparrowhawk in full fighterjet mode, swerving between the trees in the hope of surprising a smaller bird to catch in its tiny, lethal, talons. I never tire of seeing these fierce little predators in all their swift aerial agility. I know some people think they are a pest, attacking ‘their’ bluetits, but it’s better to think of them as a sure sign of a fully functioning and healthy ecosystem.
You don’t get predators unless there is enough food for them lower down in the food chain, so seeing a sparrowhawk or indeed any native predator in an ecosystem is a good sign.
Along with the spring weather, there’s a sense of anticipation – the garden opens to the public for the year in April, so the clock is ticking, we must have the garden looking its best before the start of the Easter holidays. Every school holiday we offer children’s activities, which are always designed to engage children with the natural world in a fun and thought-provoking way, and are offered every day of the school holidays. The garden will be open between 10.30am and 4.30pm daily from 1 April, 2017.
Giving nature a home
For the grown-ups, the garden is designed to showcase methods and ideas for gardening for wildlife. In spring, gardeners can sow hardy annuals for nectar and pollen – some good examples beloved of bees of all types (did you know there’s something like 250 varieties in the UK?) are borage, nigella, cosmos and Verbena bonariensis, a short-lived perennial which readily self-seeds. It’s not too late to plant trees or shrubs either, although you’ll need to water them through the summer months. Some of the best options for wildlife are holly (choose a female for the berries), or if you’re limited for space, consider a dwarf guilder rose Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ which should grow to about four feet, and carry bright red berries long into winter, after the vivid autumn foliage has fallen. There are lots of other ideas to steal for your own garden, why not come and take a look? Look us up on www.rspb.org.uk/ flatford
To find out more about the RSPB, visit www.rspb.org.uk For information and advice on ways to give nature a home in your back gardens and communities, visit homes.rspb.org.uk
The first bumblebees to be seen every spring are queens, full of eggs, assuaging their hunger and thirst before finding a place to start a new colony.
A buff-tailed bumblebee
Fun for all the family, building a birdbox at Flatford Wildlife Garden. Pic: Andy Hay.
Holly at Flatford Wildlife Garden. All pictures on this page by Andy Hay.
A flower border at the Flatford Wildlife Garden.
Visitors enjoying a stroll in Flatford Wildlife Garden.