Creating a micro-oasis — small-scale wildlife gardening.

In Nature, Norfolk
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As the RSPB has noted, wildlife populations cannot thrive if confined to nature reserves alone. The Wildlife Trusts highlight the essential role of Britain’s 430,000 hectares of garden space in promoting a ‘Nature Recovery Network‘. After we arrived in our new home in December 2018, providing a selection of feeds quickly stimulated regular visits by a variety of bird species. However, I wanted to take up the challenge of shifting the balance between artificial and natural attractiveness of the garden to wildlife, as I discussed in a previous post.

I aim to create a tiny, self-contained ecosystem of plants, insects, birds and, perhaps, amphibians. Mammals (hedgehogs) would be more challenging. The garden’s high fences and gates effectively exclude cats, allowing birds to move around on the ground unmolested and excluding the possibility of damage to plants through feline toilet habits. I haven’t entirely dismissed the idea of creating a hedgehog hole, but I’d need to find a way of doing so without compromising the integrity of the space in keeping unwanted visitors out.

As I write, most plants are yet to mature and flower, and the pond is in an early phase of colonisation. This a work in progress and I’ll update the blog over time.

Construction and planting

The obvious first steps seemed to be to increase the variety of habitats and food sources. The creation of a permanent water source is an easy win — a drinking and bathing facility for birds, potential home for amphibians, dragonflies and damselflies, and an environment for flowering water plants.

The plan was to create a pond with several shelves for marginals, with a deeper central section for cooler water and submerged plants. The shape of the excavation meant that the liner (a synthetic rubber product that is kinder to the environment than the traditional butyl formula) came up slightly short at the ‘beach’ end, limiting the depth of the marginal areas. Although this was disappointing, I’d inadvertently created large shallow bird baths (see below) at each end, which are in intensive use throughout the day.

I contacted the friendly, helpful and knowledgeable owners of Puddleplants, who kindly suggested a customised planting scheme of native perennials for the pond, with a desire to create something as close as possible to a natural pool. We decided upon water forget-me-not, soft rush, marsh woundwort, water mint, marsh marigold, lesser spearwort, watercress, yellow and purple loosestrife, gypsywort, sweet flag, water starwort, willow moss, marsh cinquefoil and a small, red Frobelii water lily. The lily and starworts are contained in pots in deeper water, with all the other plants transplanted into ‘socks’ filled with aquatic compost.

I created a bog garden using a long, thin off-cut of plastic pond liner from a local garden centre, the spoil from the pond excavation and some shingle to allow limited drainage via holes pierced in the liner. The bog is home to primroses, cowslip, water avens, hemp agrimony, devil’s bit scabious, cuckoo flower, meadow sweet and snake’s head fritillary, all also supplied by Puddleplants. In addition, I used a small piece of trimmed liner to create another much smaller, poorly-drained boggy area near our shed for a water figwort plant.

View across the beach into the pond in May 2019.
The developing pond, with the starwort and water lily having reached surface and all the marginals growing strongly.
The marsh marigold has flowered already and the watercress (far right) is producing tiny white blooms.
The ‘beach’ and bog garden (back left).
Bog garden primroses in early spring.
Snake’s head fritillary.

With little knowledge of what had been planted around the garden’s beds by the previous owners, it was a case of seeing what emerges as the season progresses. To ensure greater concentration and diversity of pollen and nectar sources, we went shopping at the wonderful Natural Surroundings wildflower centre in nearby Glandford, where Anne Harrop expertly sorted us out with a selection of insect-magnet perennials for distribution around the garden. These include lavender, Nobel (ornamental red) clover, Verbena, rose campion, dusky cranesbill, hybrid anemone, giant yellow knapweed, catmint, Echinacea, large selfheal and foxglove.

Birds

At present, the number of bird species seen in or from the garden stands at 32. The local starlings are convincing oystercatcher, mallard and buzzard impersonators, but those species have been legitimately recorded as flyovers. Obviously, our gardening efforts are aimed at the commoner woodland and scrub species that frequent gardens, rather than passing red kites and pink-footed geese, exciting though those are. The BBC offers sensible general advice on bird-specific wildlife gardening, and my bird feeding blog post discusses its merits in detail.

Female blackbird gathering nesting material in the bog area.

Given the species’ huge decline nationally, we feel privileged to have inherited a colony of house sparrows, which occupy the bushes in the garden.

Birds often pause to examine their reflections.
A recent fledgling, which followed its parents to the pond.
A slightly older bird approaches the water’s edge.
Small birds can often appear seriously angry, thereby inspiring multi-billion pound entertainment franchises. I think male house sparrows are stunning.
Goldfinches have been one of the main beneficiaries of the UK’s bird feeding habits.

I took these photos sitting on a canvas chair, covered with camouflage netting. One very wet starling left the pond and landed on my head. It grabbed a tuft of my protruding hair and pulled furiously. When this failed, it flapped hard and continued its attempt to liberate the prime nesting material. After a few minutes of frustration it went on its way.

Insects.

I have to admit to native, or at least useful, plant extremism. I’m working through a process of replacement of any purely ornamental non-native varieties with insect-friendly substitutes. This isn’t just because there cannot be too many bees and butterflies in my world, but also to load up the garden with overwintering invertebrates as natural bird food. The thing about non-natives isn’t a form of Brexit-inspired botanical xenophobia but, rather, based on the zoological reality that native insects have evolved to utilise native plants, and vice versa. I fully accept that they can also benefit from suitable cultivated varieties — indeed, they were included in our plant purchases — but with intense competition for space in our small plot, a proportion of the daffodils and tulips, for example, will be surreptitiously culled when the better half isn’t looking.

I am slightly obsessed with bees.

The hairy-footed flower bee (HFFB) is a star visitor — the top three images show a stunning sand-coloured male, and immediately above is his black female counterpart.

Buff-tailed bumblebee, I think. While some guides are adamant that buff-tailed and white-tailed workers can be separated in the field, other authorities hold that it’s impossible to reliably identify them from sightings and images alone.
Like the HFFB, this common carder bee votes for this non-native yellow flower, so it gets to stay.
Tree bumbebee, unknown in the UK before 2001 but now common and widespread.

The following images are of solitary mining bees of the genus Andrena. The smaller individuals are males, the larger ones females. There are several species depicted, some of which can only be identified under a microscope. I’m not desperate enough for a positive identification to want to kill them.

Tim Strudwick, the Norfolk county recorder for solitary bees, believes that the black-faced males are Andrena bicolor, Gwynne’s mining bee, and the others A. scotica, the chocolate mining bee. He suggests that the females are A. helvola, the coppice mining bee, or A. fucata, the painted mining bee, most likely the former. The coppice mining bee is very sparsely recorded, but I do wonder whether that’s partly a function of a) the low number of observers (particularly relative to birders), and b) the identification challenges?

Male Gwynne’s mining bee, probably.
Mining bee (species?) on garlic mustard, a subtle but striking wildflower (growing in tall stands) that self-seeded in the garden.
Mining bee burrow in the beach area.
Female red mining bee, Andrena fulva. Pretty sure about this one, which is a beginner level species!

The three images above show a queen median wasp, easily confused with the worker European hornet but with a distinctive ‘Nike swoosh’ on the thorax. Is nowhere safe from mass consumerism?

Female Epistrophe sp. hoverfly.
Female Eupeodes sp. hoverfly.
Female Syrphus sp. hoverfly.
Female holly blue on cotoneaster. Along with many of the bees, this ungrateful creature is ignoring my lovingly provided nectar factories in favour of this season’s surprise runaway leader in insect magnetism, the Norwich City Football Club of flowering shrubs.
14-spot ladybird, one of three yellow UK species.

I’ll add to this post below as things develop and, hopefully, the number and diversity of creatures increases. I’m hoping that the pond will eventually host amphibians, although they may encounter the same issue as hedgehogs with access. I may need to investigate legal means of introducing them from elsewhere, if such a thing exists.

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