Sunday, 8 November 2015

Vanishing Undercurrents

I recently read an article which suggested, judging by legends and stories and oral histories, that the South Downs are host to a far greater density of fairies and mystical happenings then the rest of the surrounding Sussex county. (see article here)
At the same time, I had a discussion via social media regarding ancient mystical meanings within nature and how there are layers of meanings within our landscape, much of which we have lost, but which would have been everyday understanding and language in past times. 

A simple view even, for example, is far more than shades of green and brown; each tree and plant species had properties and uses, each hollow or rise in the ground a name, an association. But a layer beneath the practical is the spiritual; a connection with land and place. 

Now we walk the trails, gaze at the views, live our lives working and playing upon the fields and streets, but how much do we allow ourselves to feel or see those layers, to understand them and make the connection? 
When I walk an ancient trackway I like to pause and feel my footsteps falling into the treads of those many who have walked the same route. I am intrigued to decipher the patterns of the view spread out before me and attempt to read it like a map. I embrace the moments when the hairs rise on the back of my neck at the sense of something unseen, but unforgotten by the woods or stones or earth. There is an undercurrent of knowledge and history within every nook and cranny and open space of our landscape, a treasure trove of language and dialect, culture and stories which is quickly and easily becoming lost and forgotten, but is part of our identity and heritage. 

It is these thoughts, and a view from the West Sussex Downs, which has inspired the following "Ode to Sussex", and a desire to look deeper, to explore, to connect with and to conserve these vanishing undercurrents. 

An Ode to Sussex – Sussex Born and Sussex Bred

The rattle of the gate-chain in the hilltop wind is the clink-clanking of sheep bells.
The bonfire smoke curling skywards from a wooded garden marks the charcoal burner’s camp.
Barrows slumber, dreaming of sword and sacrifice on the green sward; shadows march in the mist.
Below, on the dim coastal plain, streetlights flickering on make pinpoints of orange glow across the city; fires in hearths and night-lights of Roman children.
Beyond, it is hard to tell where land merges with the shifting edge of a blank glint of sea.

The drovers’ track deepens with every passing of onward feet.
The evergreen yew grows thick within the churchyard wall.
We gather on the levels, dash down the twitten, climb up the rolling Downs.
In dell and knoll the farisees still linger if we listen hard enough on moonlit nights or walk widdershins about the ring and keep our counting as we go.
As the flint is of the chalk, we are of the land, and its history and all that have gone before are distilled in the land and thus in us.

Sussex born and Sussex bred, we are sustained by the waters the Downs have shed, and to this place our hearts are wed.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Wild About Gardens - A Weekend Treat

After a few days of grey, wet autumnal winds and rains, I felt the need for some colour and brightness, and so have spent some time looking back over photos taken at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the August of 2014. It is amazing how much wildlife I managed to capture when not looking especially for it! 


More photography at:

Friday, 30 October 2015

Wild About Gardens Week - My Favourite Visitor

I am catching up with paperwork today; at least that’s what I tell people. Really I am sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table allowing myself to be pleasantly distracted by feathered friends beyond the back door. From my current position, I can see an enormously rotund wood pigeon strutting along the top of the fence, and blue tits, goldfinches and a pair of coal tits take it in turns on the feeders. A large flock of gulls is drifting across the sky overhead. 
These simple sights make me smile and as I gaze idly out the window I think how nice it is that these birds come to see me. Of course, whether I am here or not, has nothing at all to do with the garden birds’ daily visits but sometimes it is nice to think the feeders I hang, the crumbs I scatter or the water I keep free of ice during the winter might make a difference.

I had to buy some more bird food the other day, the greedy ruffians had gobbled it all! I stood in the shop, browsing the display of feeders, seed, suet balls, nuts and mealworms, and the thought crossed my mind; these birds eat better than many of us humans!  The book department revealed the same story; books of every shape and size and technical detail, dedicated to ‘common or garden birds’. What is it that makes them so special to us?

When chatting about wildlife to people I meet, birdwatchers and non-birdwatchers alike, from the nearly 100 year olds to the 4 year olds, the young mums with push-chairs and buggies, to the well-travelled twitcher loaded with telescope camera and bin’s, it is clear to see that it is often the creatures, birds or other wildlife, that come into their gardens which really capture their imagination.
The ones we watch whilst doing the washing up or eating breakfast, the squirrel that raids the peanuts, the tame Robin that comes to feed on mealworms from our hand or the Blackbirds and Thrushes that fight over apples in the snow, the fox that pops in for a midnight snack, the House Sparrows that rugby tackle each other in the bushes under the front window, or the Blue Tits rearing their family in the nest box by the back door.
Sometimes we give them names (there is a Duck on our local town pond called Donald, although whether he is aware of this I do not know). Many times I have heard people refer to ‘Their’ robin, or ‘Their’ pair of blue tits, and yet surely our existence is to them a matter of indifference; at times a convenience, at others a significant danger?

My favourite visitor came into my garden today; and brightened up my day. It was Jenny Wren; a rotund, cheerful bird, with bright beady eyes and upright tail, and such an attitude that she seems unaware of her diminutive stature.
Beneath the bushes where the rowdy Sparrows gather and the cheeky Blue Tits dash from tree to tree, between the flowerpots and discarded garden tools she hopped and crept, fluttering to pluck a spider from its web.
Lost from sight amongst the foliage, a quivering leaf or two betrayed her path and out she popped again, perched between the pink flowers of the rose, still flowering, that scrambles up the fence.
Suddenly the air is filled with sound, an explosion of song, crystal notes of pure joy and defiance; “This is me!” she seemed to declare to the world. She cocked her tail and flicked her wings and glared at me with a sharp eye. I glanced away, distracted for a moment and looked back to find the little bird had gone, hopping and creeping through the bushes and between the flowerpots, and over the garden fence.  
A little bird came today; she brought a smile with her.
I hope she comes again tomorrow; ‘MY’ Jenny Wren!

They say an Englishman’s home is his castle; perhaps it is by somehow finding their way into our gardens, our own private snippet of this land we live on, that these visitors from the wild also find their way into a special place in our hearts.

(From an article originally written for Sussex Ornithological Society's members' newsletter)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Wild About Gardens Week - Watery Wonderlands

Water is essential for wildlife - from birds to bees! 
All the creatures which visit your garden, even some of the insects, will need to drink, many will also need a place to bathe, and there are some which will even breed in water or live most of their lives beneath the surface! 

I always make sure that there is fresh water available near my bird feeders throughout the year; keeping it topped up in summer and ice free in winter. In dry weather or in a winter freeze, water can be really hard for wildlife to find!
A top tip I will be trying out this winter, is to float a ping-pong ball or similar on the waters surface, as the wind blows it around it should help to stop the water freezing solid as it moves, ensuring ice free access!

I have a small pond and love to watch the wildlife making the most of it. Birds visit to drink and bathe, snails creep beneath the surface, and a frog often peers at me from amongst the weed (the frog spends lots of it's time out and about in the garden munching on slugs and other garden pests, but has to keep damp and rests in the water during the day). A damselfly emerged from the waters this summer and tiny toadlet turned up recently too! 

Earlier in the year I snapped these photos of water boatmen: 

Whether you have a huge country estate or a high-rise balcony there are ways to include water into your garden. Check out these tips and why not try building your own pond this autumn, or put out a dish of water and see who visits! Good luck!

(click on image to enlarge)

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Wild About Gardens Week - Holes and Hideaways: Part 2

In 'Holes and Hideaways: Part 1' we looked at hedgehogs and how we can provide homes and highways for them in our gardens. But what about all the other creatures? There are lots of ways we can help everything including the bees, the bugs and the birds! 

Here are a few ideas from my own garden!

The bees...

Nesting tubes for solitary bees. 
The bees will lay their eggs in these tubes, in my garden red mason bees use these each year and the gaps between are also used by other invertebrates such as spiders, ladybirds and lacewings. 
Solitary bees are vital for pollination  but not as well known as honey bees and bumblebees which most people will recongise in their gardens.

Flowers for all seasons: I try to grow some plants which offer nectar at different times of year including early spring and into the autumn. This benefits all pollinators, not just the bees, but also butterflies and hoverflies too. Some flowers attract moths as well. 

The bugs...

These upturned flowerpots may look funny but they are very important in my garden. The pots are stuffed with straw, creating a great place for bugs to shelter and maybe even hibernate. I hope that these straw-pots help insects such as ladybirds, earwigs, and spiders.

I leave the seed-heads on some of my plants over the winter. Like the flower-pots, these can also provide shelter for insects (as well as seeds for the birds). 

Embrace the snails! Although I do get rather annoyed at the snails when they eat my favourite flowers, I do accept that they are an important part of the garden ecosystem, and indeed can be rather charming! An old terracotta flowerpot with a crack in it was no more use for plants, and so I turned it upside down and placed it in a sheltered corner, initially as a potential bumblebee nesting place. It has been left undisturbed (more or less forgotten really!) and on a closer look today I found it full of hibernating snails! 

The amphibians...

Beside my pond is the 'toad house'. 
Basically this is a broken flowerpot which has been re-cycled into a shelter for any creatures which need a dark hole to hide in, close to the water, ideal for a frog or toad. 

In summer when the weather is warm, the water level in my small pond can drop quite quickly. I always keep it topped up, often with rain water. If I do use tap water, I make sure I leave the water to stand for at least a day or two as our drinking water is often treated with chemicals. 

The birds...

The birds are probably the most visible of all my garden wildlife visitors. Robins, blackbirds, goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, blue tits, coal tits, great tits, house sparrows and wood pigeons all pop in regularly, with other species joining them in the cold winter months. I put out food and water all year round; The feeders are filled with sunflower hearts, which most garden birds seem to like, and on the coldest days of winter I also provide other high-energy treats such as mealworms, sultanas and apple, suet and grated cheese. 

The small size of our garden limits my ability to plant trees, however, the birds make use of the trees which border the edge of my neighbour's larger plot, and my garden includes climbers and bushes for shelter. The main bush is a large Pyracantha which I current covered in berries (see previous blog post), although the wood pigeons have stripped the fruit from most of the top branches, easily reached from a perch on the fence!

There are lots more things you can do, to help birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. The Wild About Gardens website has some ideas. 

Got some ideas of your own? I'd love to hear them, so if you're on Twitter or Facebook, why not join the conversation? (You'll find me by searching 'SophiEcoWild') 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Wild About Gardens Week - Holes and Hideaways: Part 1

Today in my garden I have been going a little 'H' mad - looking at creating Holes, Highways, Homes and Hideaways - checking out  my garden's Habitat for Hedgehogs! 

Hedgehog poo - found in my garden June 2015!
I was fortunate during the summer to meet our local hedgehog, first spotting it running down the road outside the house. (See blog post here) I have never seen it actually in the garden, but I know one visits by the signs it leaves behind. I like going out into the garden in the morning and spotting hints and clues as to who has visited the garden overnight; the hedgehog leaves little triangular holes in the grass where he has snuffled for grubs and slugs, or occasionally even a poop on the paving! 

Today I wanted to assess the suitability of my garden for the hog. I know at least one comes in, but how attractive is my plot from a hoggy point of view?

Access Permitted!
A major issue affecting hedgehogs is our habit for security and enclosing our gardens. Despite being a creature of little legs, a hedgehog will have a large territory and needs to travel surprisingly long distances every night to find food (and a mate in the season!). One of the simplest things everyone can do to help hedgehogs is create a Hog Highway. A simple gap beneath a hedge, or a small hole in the bottom of a fence would allow your local hedgehogs to travel in and out of your garden with ease. 
The Wild About Gardens website has some top tips on this, so get chatting to your neighbours and lets get our gardens reconnected! 

This is a photo of my own hedgehog highway! 

Welcome Hogs!

A Hungry Hog is not a Happy Hog!
Once a hedgehog is in the garden, its thoughts are undoubtably going to be on finding food! Mostly insectivorous, hedgehogs have long been known as the gardener's best friend, a title awarded due to their munching of slugs, snails and other garden 'pests'. 
The best way to provide food for hedgehogs is to ensure that you leave some scruffier areas; damp fallen leaves, a log pile, the sort of places where slugs and other 'creepy-crawlies' love to hang out.

In my own garden I do not use any pesticides or chemicals, keeping poisons out of the food chain.  I also try not to be too tidy (it's easy really!) so that the hedgehogs have places to forage for their natural food. 
If you are concerned about your local hedgehogs finding enough to eat, especially at this time of year when they need to store as much energy as they can to sustain them through their winter hibernation, you can put out food especially for them. Stay away from the traditional 'bread and milk', as both are actually very bad for hedgehogs. (Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant!) Instead, a small amount of meat-based cat food is fine, or you can buy special hedgehog mixes from many bird-food retailers. 

Danger Deep Water!
Water is as important for hedgehogs as food. Many of us may put out a bird bath for our feathered visitors, but we often forget about the wildlife that we don't see. I have a plant/seed tray which I keep filled with water year round. In the daytime the birds visit for a splash, and even bees land on the rocks I have placed in the water, to take on moisture. I hope the hedgehog makes use of it on his nighttime wanderings! 
I also have a small pond. Hedgehogs are great swimmers but I have designed my pond to have rocky edges and a ramp to ensure any clumsy creatures can easily climb back out! 

Hedgehog photographed at the British Wildlife Centre

Inspired to help hedgehogs in your own garden? Download your free guide from Wild About Gardens, or visit HedgehogStreet to find out more! 

Monday, 26 October 2015

Wild About Gardens Week - The Blackbird and the Berries

The blackbird has claimed his territory. I frequently hear his insistent alarm calls and disgruntled clucks as he attempts to defend his patch from incomers. He sits in my neighbours’ garden trees, usually the weeping silver pear or the whippy twig-branches of the papery birch, now that the dead oak sapling has been felled, and often looks like he is about to burst into song although we will not hear his melodic voice again until the spring.

I think I know why the blackbird is here, why he has chosen to spend his time in this specific area of my garden and the overlooking trees. Halfway along the adjoining fence is a thick, thorny pyracantha bush a ‘firethorn’ which this year is more than living up to it’s name. It is noticeable that the hedgerows in the winder countryside are particularly splendid with berries this autumn, and my garden pyracantha is no exception. A mass of bright fiery orange berries obscures the thorns and dark glossy evergreen leaves.

The blackbird knows the berries are here and has stationed himself in perfect position to make the most of this food source once the cold weather comes. He has some competition however; clumsy plumb-breasted wood pigeons have already been balancing their large bulks in the top of the bush, stuffing their crops with the colourful fruits. On the opposite end of the spectrum to the greedy pigeons is the flighty robin, only this morning he was seen perching on the fence and flying in to hover, pick off a berry, and return to his perch to eat it.