The ac­ci­den­tal na­ture re­serve

Have you ever wanted to create a na­ture re­serve on your small­hold­ing? Susie Kear­ley talks to a man who did just that

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

Have you ever wanted to create a gar­den par­adise on your small­hold­ing, but have been un­sure where to start? In 2004 Roy Miller cre­ated a nine-acre na­ture re­serve on the site of a for­mer cab­bage field in Lin­colnshire. It was a huge un­der­tak­ing, and some­what un­planned, but to­day it has ma­tured into a beau­ti­ful land­scape, abun­dant with wild flow­ers, lakes, wood­land, dif­fer­ent habi­tats and di­verse crea­tures, from birds and wild­fowl, to deer, foxes and bad­gers. There are wood­land trails, lakes, ponds and a large kitchen gar­den where Roy grows a vari­able col­lec­tion of fruits and veg­eta­bles. Frogs bounce around among the tall grasses and the whole place is brim­ming with wildlife.

“I have birds of prey liv­ing in the trees and nest boxes, in­clud­ing kestrels and barn owls, as well as smaller birds, in­clud­ing chaff chaff, reed war­blers and wil­low war­blers,” ex­plains Roy. “Wild­fowl visit the lake and breed. The re­serve is also a re­lease site for the lo­cal hedge­hog hos­pi­tal.”

Beyond Roy’s na­ture re­serve, the sur­round­ing coun­try­side is in­ten­sively farmed for veg­eta­bles. In its midst, his land seems such an oa­sis for birds and an­i­mals. There is nat­u­ral beauty at every turn and a cool, fresh feel in the morn­ings when the land­scape comes alive with bird song and sparkling dew glis­tens in the early dawn sun.

The di­lap­i­dated cot­tage

Roy’s ad­ven­ture be­gan when he pur­chased a di­lap­i­dated cot­tage next to the cab­bage field in 2000. He had big ideas for the house, started restor­ing it and drew up plans for an ex­ten­sion, but then quickly re­alised that he need more land.

“The farmer who owned the ad­ja­cent field told me I could have the whole field, but

he wasn’t pre­pared to split it up and sell a smaller plot,” says Roy. So af­ter much soul search­ing, he bought the whole field.

“As my ideas for the ex­ten­sion took shape, I re­alised my plans were struc­turally in­com­pat­i­ble with the ex­ist­ing build­ing, with ceil­ings at dif­fer­ent lev­els and plan­ning is­sues. I couldn’t get per­mis­sion for the big ex­ten­sion that I wanted. The ar­chi­tect said I’d be bet­ter off start­ing again. Reluc­tantly, I de­cided he was right.

“So I got plan­ning per­mis­sion to build a new house. It was the right thing to do. It’s a lot big­ger and much more en­ergy ef­fi­cient than the old one. The cost of fuel is about half what I was spend­ing on heat­ing the cot­tage. The other one had to be knocked down, though, which was heart-break­ing as I’d spent a for­tune restor­ing it.”

Dig­ging the lake

Once the house was com­plete, Roy turned his at­ten­tions to the land and what to do with the rest of this nine-acre plot. As a lover of trees, plant­ing some wood­land ar­eas seemed an ob­vi­ous first step, so Roy planted 7,500 bushes to create hedgerows and 1,500 wood­land trees, cre­at­ing habi­tats, hid­ing places and shel­tered ar­eas for a wide va­ri­ety of species. Then he de­cided to dig a lake, in­spired by one he had seen near Skeg­ness. He ob­tained plan­ning per­mis­sion for a con­ser­va­tion lake and in­structed some­one with a dig­ger to create it, but there was a risk that it wouldn’t hold water and he would be left with a big empty hole.

“The field was like mo­tor­way works,” he says. “The dig­ger came and there was a moun­tain of soil. The driver said: ‘There’s clay lower down, so I think it’s go­ing to be OK. It should fill with water.’ The sur­plus soil was then used else­where to raise the banks of the lake, so more water flowed in af­ter it had rained, and parts of the re­serve were lev­elled.

“There are now two lakes, of­fer­ing a range of habi­tats for wildlife, as well as wood­lands, open ar­eas and flower mead­ows. I have boggy ar­eas and a shal­low pond too.

“I in­tro­duced call ducks on the pond once it was es­tab­lished and they’re breed­ing,” says Roy. “But the duck­lings haven’t al­ways fared well in the past, so I now put them into open-topped pens on the island be­cause oth­er­wise they come un­der at­tack from rats. The mother duck can fly out of the pen, but it gives the duck­lings a bet­ter chance of sur­vival. Some­times the mother ducks aban­don their young. I’ve seen them all go onto the water and within 24 hours they’ve all dis­ap­peared. In the pen, they have a pad­dling pool and food, but, im­por­tantly, they stay safe and sur­vive. Af­ter three weeks they’re old enough to be let out and they do well on their own af­ter that.”

Roy con­tin­ues: “I’ve planted a lot of el­ders in the re­serve be­cause I like to make el­der­berry cor­dials; it’s good for the im­mune sys­tem. Plant­ing new trees can be a bit of a chal­lenge, how­ever, be­cause the munt­jac deer at­tack the young trees. I have to put guards around the trees to pro­tect them. I do like the deer, though, and I saw a mother and fawn once from the house. I want both the plants and the wildlife to thrive. There are squir­rels who eat the hazel­nuts be­fore I can get to them and vast num­bers of but­ter­flies, as well as frogs and birds. It’s a real wildlife haven.”

The guinea fowl

Every morn­ing Roy gets up and feeds his guinea fowl. They come run­ning to the feeding trough by the house, squawk­ing nois­ily. He gets enor­mous plea­sure from watch­ing them go about their business around his re­serve.

“I started keep­ing guinea fowl in 2006,” he ex­plains. “I’ve be­come very at­tached to them, but they don’t show much at­tach­ment to me. They orig­i­nally ap­pealed to me be­cause they could be wild birds, but they look af­ter them­selves. Guinea fowl are like meerkats with a look­out. They go around in

I was just try­ing to build an ex­ten­sion, ac­quired some ex­tra land and then thought a pond would be nice. It all es­ca­lated from there

a flock and they all sleep in a tree un­til the fol­low­ing morn­ing. The prob­lem is find­ing where they’re lay­ing eggs, which isn’t easy in rough wood­land. But I have found some and in­cu­bated them, which has been very suc­cess­ful.

“The flock does di­min­ish, so you need to keep bringing in fresh blood. I bred some my­self and some came from other breed­ers. Last year I only had two fe­males and I never found where they were sit­ting on eggs un­til it was too late. If I don’t get the young as soon as they hatch, they die be­cause it’s too cold. They’re also vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors, like crows and mag­pies.

“The guinea fowl have never suc­ceeded in rais­ing young them­selves. I keep the chicks in a brooder, a glazed wooden cabi­net with a heated plate to keep them warm. When they’re young they go un­der­neath the plate and when they’re big­ger they go on top so their legs and back­sides get nice and warm. They stay there for three weeks and then go into the pen out­side for four weeks. When they’re fully feath­ered and can fly, I let them out with the big boys.”

Roy finds the guinea fowl amus­ing. “They come in the morn­ing for food, but you can’t get any­where near them. I’ve had a good run with eggs though — when I can find them. I eat some and they’re re­ally tasty. They make fan­tas­tic scones. Even though guinea fowl meat is con­sid­ered to be a culi­nary del­i­cacy, I don’t eat the birds.

“When I col­lect the eggs, I take maybe 12 from the nest while they’re eat­ing from my feeding trough and put back five, so that they don’t no­tice. Then they go on to lay more. I went to col­lect them yes­ter­day, though, and scared her off, so I don’t know where they’re lay­ing now.”

Roy ad­mits that he did try to bring the birds into the car-port one cold Jan­uary. “I felt the cold couldn’t be good for their health,” he says. “They went into the shel­ter for food, but re­fused to stay there overnight, al­ways re­treat­ing to their favourite tree as dusk fell.”

The best bits

Roy’s great­est plea­sure is see­ing so many of his trees reach a con­sid­er­able height. “I’ve been amazed by how quickly the wood­land has be­come es­tab­lished. I get a lot of plea­sure from the an­i­mals, too, but the trees are my pas­sion. I have a back­ground work­ing in the tim­ber in­dus­try and I think the trees are so lovely. Wood is such a tremen­dous ma­te­rial.”

Roy’s favourite spot is the path at the back of the re­serve, where it is in­cred­i­bly quiet. He sits here and lis­tens to the birds, find­ing it in­cred­i­bly re­lax­ing.

“It’s funny be­cause the na­ture re­serve came about by ac­ci­dent,” he smiles. “I was just try­ing to build an ex­ten­sion, ac­quired some ex­tra land and then thought a pond would be nice. It all es­ca­lated from there. There was no big plan or land­scape de­signer in­volved, but I did ask lots of ques­tions about things like dig­ging the lake. It’s been an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney, but it’s also been very hard work.”

Lo­cal peo­ple are free to walk around the na­ture re­serve, but it is not of­fi­cially open to the pub­lic. Roy says: “The kids club comes round every year to en­joy an evening at the re­serve. The lo­cal baby sit­ting club en­joys com­ing here too some­times. There are also oc­ca­sions when I in­vite peo­ple I know to camp on the re­serve, plus my nephew camps here with his friends.”

Rab­bits can be found on Roy Miller’s nine-acre na­ture re­serve

A fox on the na­ture re­serve

Roy cre­ated wood­land trails

Roy’s new house

Sur­plus soil was used to raise the lake’s banks

Swal­lows find the area a haven

Roy keeps young guinea fowl in a brooder

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