Re-wilding begins at home

Re-wilding is an issue which has recieved quite a bit of attention recently; I’m currently waiting for delivery of Feral – the recent Guardian article suggests it should be a fastinating read.

Much closer to home, I seem to be on something of a quest to populate our garden with native species. This is not intentional, ideological or idealistic, I just keep noticing species in the wild which would look beautiful in the garden and the trend continues! Whether these are shop-bought natives or wild-collected seeds, they seem to be steadily rewilding the garden. There are so many beautiful native species which could stand side-by-side with most ornamentals, especially in a ‘cottage garden’ style planting and there is the added benefit that they are evolved to live in the climatic conditions we have to offer.

Oxeye Daisy - an exuberant beautiful species which provides a nectar source for a range of species, a particular favourite of hoverflies
Oxeye Daisy – an exuberant beautiful species which provides a nectar source for a range of species, a particular favourite of hoverflies

The benefits of planting natives in your garden will be familiar to anybody who has read the literature produced by almost every conservation body you can mention; from the RSPB who (amongst other things) recommend fruit and seed-bearing species for garden birds; Butterfly Conservation who would advise a mix of native flowers and plants (nettles!) to attract butterflies; Bat Conservation Trust taking you into the twilight with night-scented flowers to attract night-flying insects to fall prey to the bats; and the Wildlife Trusts who offer free meadow-mix seeds to try to make the substantial footprint of our gardens a little more familiar to the vast array of wildlife which have developed in a country devoid of peony, choisia and penstamon.

Our garden is a rented house and I think that the landlord might be rather annoyed if we converted the established garden to scrub and meadow, so here are a few good ways to introduce more natives into your garden:

Plant up that tricky spot

Almost every garden has an awkward area, where nothing will grow because it is too shady, or too dry, or too steep. Your garden, however manicured and maintained, fits into a landscape, be it city, village or town – go out and see what grows wild where these conditions are found in the local environment. A particularly dingy area of our garden is now home to sweet woodruff (Galium orodatum), ferns (Dryopteris sp.) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis) which colour the ground green, white and blue through the spring. Now, towards midsummer, the yellow greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is fading and the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are flowering above them with the frilled leaves of monk’s hood (Aconitum napellus) promising deep-blue flowers later in the season. Admittedly not all of these species are common in the immediate surroundings in Lincolnshire but all flourish in the conditions.

We have a dense shrubbery, dominated by a glorious rose which I would never want to see go. But the ground layer below was largely bare. The shrubs are deciduous and it is only spring and early summer where the bare ground is visible and the light reaches through which immediately suggests where to look for inspiration – there are a host of woodland plants which have adapted perfectly to occupy this early flowering season, taking advantage of the period before the canopy leaves shade them out. Here we now have bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), ramsons (Allium ursinum) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) flourishing in the spring with yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) towards the edges. I am particuarly looking forward to the point where the ramsons (or wild garlic) is established enough to begin harvesting!

Sadly not an image of my garden, but an example of the beautiful blue-and-white ground layer of bluebell and stitchword which flourishes in shady places which ornamentals often struggle to fill
Sadly not an image of my garden, but an example of the beautiful blue-and-white ground layer of bluebell and stitchword which flourishes in shady places which ornamentals often struggle to fill

Knowing your local area is a great place to start when looking for natives which will take; see something you like, look it up and see if you can source it. Better still, if you can, take seeds from your surroundings as local stock is most likely to flourish. Fields of sandy soils are often lined with viper’s bugloss (Lycopis arvensis) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) which are beautiful bold plants producing masses of purple and yellow flowers. They would be less likely to thrive in Grantham but would be ideal for anybody wanting to make a Thetford garden a little wilder.

Leave a patch to see what develops

The ‘weeds’ which trouble you will generally be those which find your conditions ideal. I will not pretend I don’t weed the garden, but I always leave a patch where I allow these species to grow unchecked, admittedly with a few additions of my own choosing. Here there is enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), broadleaf willowherb (Epilobium montanum), hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), cleavers (Galium aparine), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), more forget-me-nots, nettle (Urtica dioica), red campion (Silene dioica) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg).

This is also the perfect place for rocks and logs to be piled; you need not worry about the appearance as they will soon be subsumed by the vegetation and will provide perfect shelter for a range of invertebrates, amphibians and other species.

This patch is not designed to be beautiful but it achieves it non-the-less, especially when the red campion is flowering against the dark green foliage. This is the corner where comma’s fly, where the frogs stretch and scramble after slugs, where the hedgehog first forages when leaving the compost pile and striking out on an evenings foray, where the blackbirds pluck blackberries in the autumn.

Resist the urge to perfect your lawn

The expanse of pure grass is quite an unnatural phoenomena and the effort to keep it pristine and free of herbaceous elements and bryophytes will exhaust if it does not defeat you. Why not embrace the floral diversity on offer?

Most people are familiar with the standard lawn species such as daisy (Bellis perennis), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.), broad-leaf plantain (Plantago major) and clover (Trifolium sp.). I personally love the scattering of yellow, white and pink throughout the grass! Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is another which is often less than popular but mowing will result in low, yellow flowers which lighten up the damper patches.

Tiny thyme-leaved speedwell growing in the lawn
Tiny thyme-leaved speedwell grows well in lawns, being so low it can often duck beneath the blades of the mower

Other species which do very well in a lawn, despite mowing, are the beautiful purple self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), the delicate white mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum), the tiny thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia). Other more bold species can easily be incorporated, especially if you plant the towards the edge and hold-off the mowing for a while; the delicate yellow cowslip (Primula veris) and striking purple-chequerboard of snakes-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) would be obvious contenders.

Choose the impressive natives

There are a number of native flowers which really can stand side-by-side with the ornamentals in any bed. There are a wealth of native cultivars which have been bred to be more colourful or impressive such as the yarrows (Achillia millefolium) and geraniums (Geranium sp.) but others are well worth a look.

The impressive floral abundance of viper's bugloss - well suited to sandy soils
The impressive floral abundance of viper’s bugloss – well suited to sandy soils

Native cranesbill species such as the blue-flowered meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and the pink-flowered bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) can contend with the more familiar garden cultivars; native pink’s and catchfly’s such as the cerise night-flowering catchfly (Silene noctiflora) are a match for the ornamental dianthus; the yellow flowering spikes of great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) resemble hollyhocks and any of the gentian family would grace a rockery beside the imported alpines.

Sourcing your natives

There are so many ways to incorporate natives into your garden, regardless of the size or design, and I have outlined just a few, a flick through a wildflower book is bound to give you more ideas.

One issue can be sourcing these species; collecting a small amount of seed from wild species (where they are clearly prolific and where it is appropriate) can be a good way to begin. Wild-collected herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) now grows through one of the borders, remaining almost imperceptible apart from the delicate pink geranium flowers which pop up in amongst the leaves of crocosmia and phlox. The Kew Seed Information Database can be a great resource if you want to know the conditions or treatments that a particular species’ seed needs to germinate.

Unobtrusive herb-Robert flowers brightening up the foliage of a fuschia
Unobtrusive herb-Robert flowers brightening up the foliage of a fuschia

Sometimes collecting seed doesn’t work; despite attempts I have been unable to get greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) – a delicate plant with star-white flowers – to grow from seed. Here is where a range of native nurseries come in to play. If you live in Grantham, or anywhere nearby, I can thoroughly recommend Naturescape in Langar. Not only do they have a wide range of natives from all different habitats, they have some beautiful native-only planting displays which show you just how much can be done using the palette of our native flora (they also do mailorder if you live further away). Many other garden centres also stock a limited supply of natives now and I have found National Trust garden shops (such as Belton House just to the east of Grantham) to be a particularly good source.

Horseshoe bats in Leicestershire? Never say never!

There was a report last month of the first greater horseshoe bat recorded in Ireland*. Ireland is missing a number of species which are common on the mainland; most famously snakes but also woodpeckers and the noctule bat amongst others. Perhaps, like woodpeckers which are increasingly recorded, the greater horseshoe might be about to establish itself but it seems more likely to be an individual who is lost, blown over from the mainland perhaps. This is one of the rarest species of bat in the UK and its range is restricted to the south-west of England and the south of Wales. The reason for this range is largely climatic, partly related to landscape features and perhaps also linked to the availability of suitable roosting sites, particuarly for hibernation*.

This species, surprisingly, turns up in the biological data records around Grantham – the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) has a recording of this bat just beside Melton Mowbray, some 10 miles to the west of Grantham and a good 100 miles from the tip of its normal range. The site of the record was once a mine, now home to bats – principally myotis species such as Natterer’s bats – which gather in mating roosts in the autumn and then hibernate through the winter. The members of the Leicestershire and Rutland Bat Group, who monitor the site, got quite a surprise when they found that, alongside the usual small, crevice roosting myotis bats was a large, free hanging greater horseshoe who had settled beside them for the winter. Most of our UK bat species, contrary to popular depiction, actually roost sideways, face up or face down in holes, cracks or crevices. The only two species who you will always find in the  classic upside-down bat-hang pose are the two members of the Rhinalophus genus, the greater and the lesser horseshoe. The greater horseshoe in this mine therefore stuck out like a sore thumb, hanging by its weak back legs, wings wrapped tight like a cape around a bat the size of a small pear. Where this species spent the remainder of the year is unknown, but for several years it returned to this winter roosting site although it has now been absent for some 20 years.

It could be that this individual was part of a colony within the species’ normal range and made an exceptional commute to cooler winter climes, or even is a member of a hitherto unknown northern colony but it is much more likely that he became lost or separated from his usual range, perhaps due to bad weather or the destruction of a roost, and was simply making the best of his new situation and continuing to lead a horseshoe lifestyle as best he could, admittedly without the company of his kin. Herein lies the long-term problem, without a mate he was never going to establish a new population. This is the difference between the range of a species and the tolerance of individuals; it may well be quite possible for a bat to exist outside of their normal range for a period of time but it is a different matter to expect a population to survive and thrive. Horseshoe bats are relatively long lived for such small mammals; they are known to reach 30 years*. The disappearance of this individual after only a few may be due to old age or migration to a more suitable habitat. But it could be that the winters were a little too cold, the landscape was a little too fragmented, the range of suitable roosting sites was too lacking to suit the year-round changes in conditions.

This is why we must conserve species where thrive, rather than assume they will be fine whilst numbers are still good and concentrate conservation around the edges. Greater horseshoe bats used to be much more abundant within their range in the UK as little as a century ago – a Victorian naturalist suggested they be counted in their roosts by the square yard as the individuals were too numerous and densely packed to count each. I wonder if they would believe tgat now a roost of 20 bats could be considered large. The parallels can be drawn with other species which are common but declining; starlings still seem to be everywhere but there are only 20% the number there were 32 years ago* and a continued decline of this magnitude could soon see them relegated to a rarity alongside the horseshoe bat. Many species of butterfly, including the meadow brown, have undergone similar population drops in recent years.

The great crested newt often receives a bad press for holding up development and the economics-uber-alles mantra of the current government has led them to conclude that we should opt out of the European level protection afforded such species. It is true that, compared to species such as the horseshoe bats, stone curlews, pine martins and the large blue butterfly, the great crested newt is not exceptionally rare in this country. But on an European level, it is, and that is why it is so important to take care of it here, where it is in its range and where it can flourish if care is taken to safeguard its habitat.

We often can not see the big picture if we simply look out of the window and extrapolate to the rest of the county, or country, or continent. You would never expect to see a greater horseshoe bat foraging through woodland on the edges of Grantham. Similarly, you would never expect to see the day when starlings, brown hares or meadow browns were extinct in the UK but the recent State of Nature report indicates startling declines in the populations of a wide range of native UK species. Never say never.