Monday, 25 June 2012


I was very lucky today to be able to tag along with Tom from Kentish Stour Countryside Project and Jan, a bird ringer with over 30 years experience, and another lady, to watch local barn owls being ringed for record purposes.

We set off at 9.30 with Godmersham as our first port of call. We parked up by an old Sweet Chestnut tree and were rewarded with the sight of two barn owls flying off out of the tree as we approached. A search of a couple of potential nesting holes revealed that the owls had not nested there so we moved on to the next stop a few fields away, where a nest box had been sited in a tree in a field of very inquisitive sheep.

Jan went off ahead of us with a strange device called a dolly - basically a long pole with a piece of stuffed material on the end which she used to block the nest hole to prevent any owls inside from flying out.

The rest of us were then able to come closer. A ladder was put up against the tree and Jan climbed up and opened the hatch at the front of the nest to see if any owls were in there - unfortunately not. Just an old rook nest full of wool and twigs. Tom was tasked with the job of clearing this out and sprinkling in fresh sawdust for any future owl occupants to make themselves at home. We then went off to a second next box next to the river only to find that this, too, had been used by rooks and Tom had to clear it out again! Whilst we were there a rather extraordinary sight met our eyes - there was a lot of squawking and commotion going on further up the river and as we walked a bit closer to see what was happening a heron shot past shrieking, closely followed by a kestrel - never seen anything like it!

We then got back in the land rover and off to Bilting to a couple more nest boxes on sturdy poles. Again the procedure with the dolly was followed and when Jan opened the hatch it was discovered there were three barn owls in there! I was so excited, I can tell you! Each owl was taken out and carefully placed in a cloth bag and handed down to be placed on a rug on the grass.They then had to be weighed and this was recorded in a book. Once on the grass they were carefully unwrapped and the process of ringing them began. The owls were very sleepy (as you will see in the photos below!) and very well behaved - in fact, Jan said she hadn't seen such well-behaved owls! Two were females and there was one male (female barn owls are slightly darker than males). The females have speckles under their wings. Their wing measurements revealed their ages as approx 55, 58 and 59 days old. Whilst Tom was clearing out the box he found a freshly killed vole (their dinner tonight!) and, sadly, a decomposed owl. The following pictures I think, speak for themselves! After ringing they were then very carefully put back in the bags, taken up the ladder into their newly cleaned nest, courtesy of Tom. Ringing records help to monitor bran owl prevalence and where they travel and nest. One of these may well be found next year nesting a in a box further along the river or may well turn up elsewhere and its records can be looked up via the ring number. Barn owls are declining in numbers and it is so important for farmers to put up nest boxes and to create the right habitat for the voles and mice that they eat. Bad winters have a severe impact on barn owl numbers - they cannot hunt properly when it rains or snows and some end up starving to death. The cold weather can also affect the number of voles and mice available, which can also lead to starvation. Many owls (an estimated 3000 - 5000) are kiled every year by cars as they fly low alongside road verges looking for prey. If you would like to help barn owls there are many charities devoted to helping them which you can find in your local area or nationally via a Google search.

We did go to three more next boxes, one which involved rather a long walk wading through shoulder-high wheat! However, all 3 had broken hatches and were no owls had obviously nested in them.

All in all a very enjoyable morning!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012


Our garden is surrounded by fields of oats at the moment. A native hedge separates the fields from our garden. Some of this was planted three years ago, the part at the front much further in the past. We have a good selection of Rowan, Crab Apple, Hornbeam, Hawthorn, Spindle, Privet and Elder - all excellent for a variety of creatures. Fruits for the mice, voles and birds, flowers for the bees, butterflies and moths and places for the birds to nest and shelter. The front part of the hedge is entwined with Wild Rose, White Bryony and Wild Clematis. If you have Privet i your hedge, try and leave it to flower rather than trimming it - you will be amazed at the butterflies and bees you will get on the flowers!

Not only is a hedge is marvellous habitat for wildlife. The wildflowers in front of it are also just as marvellous. Red Campion adds a splash of pink and there are always bees on the flowers. Comfrey is another plant that like the semi-shade conditions provided by a hedge - and is another plant beloved of bees. As is Hedge Woundwort with its spires of purple-red flowers and its downy, nettle-like leaves.

The hedgerow in the field next door also has Bladder Campion and Blackberries growing alongside it, with the odd Teasel which has self-seeded next to it.

We also have two ponds next to each other. The first, smaller one was dug a year before the second. This has become rather overgrown with Cotton Grass, Yellow Flag Iris and other pond grasses. Willowherb has also taken a liking to it. When there hasn't been much rain this area becomes more of a bog now than a pond but it still has plenty of wildlife value. Purple Loosestrife grows beside its edges and when in flower is full of butterflies and bees. The main pond next to it is full of native oxygenators, a couple of Lilies, Bogbean, Water Forget-me-not, water snails, water boatmen and,at this time of year, dragonflies and damselflies. The colour of these creatures is vibrant and breathtaking.The two photos below show the pond two years ago when first dug and how it is now.

Leading up to the pond is our meadow area - every year this is different. The first year we sowed cornfield annuals and left it to set seed. We also planted a number of perennial wildflowers. The following two years we left it and just added extra plants, scattered a few seeds and then waited to see what would appear. This year we have Lesser Knapweed, Oxeye Daisy, Catmint, White Campion, Sorrel, Elecampane, Purple Loosestrife, Ragged Robin, Marshmallow - to name but a few and there are still more to come. As I write it is mainly white but this will soon change with the addition of pinks, blues and reds. The area is buzzing with bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and other flying creatures. I saw a slow worm there yesterday and a few weeks ago a couple of ducks flew in and spent the day floating about on the water or sitting by the pond. We have mown some paths to gain access to the pond and the whole meadow area is loosely enclosed with widely-spaced trees and shrubs. An rusted archway is the entrance to the area and this is slowly getting covered with honeysuckle, climbing roses and hops.

The front of the meadow area is just rough grass but, despite that, clovers and Wild Carrot have sown themselves there and soon that area will be a splash of white with the Wild Carrot flowerheads.

We made a wildlife stack (see blog earlier in the year)in February out of logs, old pots, hay etc and planted the top with wildflowers. We built it close to the far side of the pond next to a "grove" of Silver Birch trees. This area is now smothered in wispy tall grasses but the stack can be seen through them and I should imagine many creatures have made a home in it.

Also amongst the meadow area are two piles of logs acting as wildlife refuges, initially for frogs but we have had no frogs this year. But I would guess it is a pretty popular area for slow worms and maybe the odd grass snake which has been seen amongst the grasses. A patch has also been dug in the grass area for growing Kidney Vetch, a food plant that blue butterflies love. Having seen one or two of them flitting about I am hoping this patch in flower will encourage them to stay! I sowed California Poppies in between the plants as they are good nectar plants, although not native wildflowers to the UK.

To the right of the meadow area is a pergola which we have planted with various Honeysuckles and Clematis to provide eventually a nice sheltered seating area. This too is surrounded by grasses, Ox-eye Daisies, Red Campion and Meadow Clary.

In front of all of this is a very tall, majestic Hornbeam, a micro-habitat in its own right, catering for insects (particularly moths), birds and squirrels. Around 28 species of wildlife are supported by Hornbeam trees. A tawny owl took quite a shine to the tree last autumn and sat in there every night shrieking for about three weeks. I loved listening to it! The area under the tree is awash with Bluebells, Oxlips and Cyclamen in the spring.

This brings us to the front of the house which is mainly laid to lawn but a wildflower patch under the kitchen window adds a splash of colour - this changes every year as I generally leave it to do its own thing.

Part of the back and edge of the house has an older Wisteria climbing up it. When you walk through the leafy archway beside it you are greeted with intense humming coming from a swarm of honeybees that arrived three weeks ago and set up home in a space into the wall that they managed to discover through the Wisteria! However they are doing no harm and I quite like listening to them and watching them at work as I walk by.

At the far end of the front garden is a shady, sheltered area which has Primroses, Red Campion, Bluebells, Snowdrops and Ground Ivy. Definitely at its best in spring but still a good little habitat.

I would urge everyone to give over a little bit of their garden to creating one or two wildlife habitats. It brings immense pleasure to sit amongst it all and watch and listen to the creatures it attracts getting on with their daily lives. Even a sunken bowl of water will bring in new wildlife! When we moved here the garden was very bland. It is now home to many species of bee, butterfly, moth, bird and bat. We are also plagued with rabbits sometimes, which can be annoying when they eat what you have just planted, and the squirrels can be annoying when they eat all the bird food but - I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, 1 June 2012


I was very lucky to be invited along to the reintroduction of this extinct British bumblebee. The bee was last recorded in the UK in 1988 and officially declared extinct in 2000. Its demise is the result of farming, the use of pesticides etc and the destruction of hedgerows to make way for vast fields of crops. Scientists have been working for the last three years on reintroducing this species into the UK and the day finally arrived for the reintroduction on 28 May 2012 at the RSPB Dungeness nature reserve! The project has been a collaberation of Hymettus, Natural England and the RSPB. There has also been a lot of liaison with local farmers on Romney Marsh and the sowing of swathes of marshland with the wildflower species that the bee needs in order to survive.

Dr Nikki Gammans has been key to the whole project and she and colleagues went over to Skane in Sweden earlier this year to collect Short-haired bumblebee queens to release in the UK. Sweden has a large Short-haired bumblebee population and after negotiations with the Swedish scientists etc it was agreed that the team could collect some bees to release in the UK. The bees were caught in nets, placed in vials and housed in fridges at 5 degrees to calm them and they were fed for 5 days on a nectar solution. Once in the UK, strict quarantine was observed for two weeks to make sure no parasites had been brought back with the bees. Some bees sadly died from parasite infestation but 51 survived.

Dungeness (2 photos above) was chosen as the release site as the bee had previously been recorded there and its climatic conditions and native flora were ideal and similar to those in Skane. Dungeness is a fascinating place, a shingle habitat. Shingle habitats are rare worldwide and Dungeness has 40% of the UKs shingle reserve. Dungeness has three distinct habitats - young shingle, lichen heath and wild grassland. This results in a rich biodiversity in the area, with over 500 species of wildlife recorded there. It is a national nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest.

On the release day, the British media did a stirling job in keeping the event in the public eye all day via radio and TV news bulletins. The RSPB centre in Dungeness was a hive of activity with film crews and people invited along to witness the event. After all the media interviews, the process of releasing the bees could then get underway. Nikki went off to her campervan to get the bees out of the fridge and they were handed out in cool bags to four group leaders to be released at four different sites.

The group I was in went off across the shingle to a patch of Yellow Flag Irises and the queens were taken out of the cool bag in their plastic boxes and vials. We had 8 of the 51. As they warmed up they started to get a bit feisty and were keen to be off!
One by one the boxes and vials were opened and the bees started to clamber out. Once they realised freedom was to be had, they were off! Some still needed to warm up a bit so were happy to sit on someone's hands to absorb the heat. It was a splendid moment and one I won't forget, watching them fly off to freedom and a new life, and hopefully to multiply in numbers across the surrounding area.
It was a lovely sight watching the bees fly off into the flowers and we could occasionally spot them as they went from flower to flower. It was quite an idyllic scene - warm weather, clear blue skies, reed warblers singing their hearts out and a couple of cuckoos flying around!

The story doesn't end there. The bee's progress will be closely monitored and more queens are planned for collection and release over the next two or three years. Truly a conservation success so far.