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
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