With a little effort and for minimal cost, we can all have more wildlife in our countryside and towns, says David Tomlinson
It doesn’t take much land, cost or effort to encourage a wonderful variety of wildlife just outside the back door. David Tomlinson advises on how to create your own nature reserve.
If you have a large space to fill, consider a wild meadow to encourage all manner of flora and fauna. Read how to create a garden for insects for our top tips.
HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN NATURE RESERVE
Rare plants, exotic trees, stunning sculptures – money can purchase all these things but it can’t buy wildlife. This is what makes creating your own private wildlife reserve so special. You don’t need a fortune to do it, nor do you require countless acres. What you do need is land (even a half acre will do) and determination. Create the habitat and the right conditions and, eventually, the wildlife will come to you.
Birds will be the first to respond to any moves you make to encourage them. Providing food is the best way to start. Buy quality feeders that are not only built to last but are easy to clean, and resist the temptation to fill them with cheap seed that only pigeons and pheasants like. Sunflower hearts and peanuts are the classic foods but don’t hesitate to experiment with millet and rapeseed, or suet and mealworms.
Simple habitat management will work wonders. Many species, such as thrushes and green woodpeckers, like mown lawns but areas of rough (not overgrown) grass will harbour voles and mice, which in turn will attract owls and kestrels. Nectar-bearing plants such as lavenders and verbena are great for insects, while buddleia might not be native but butterflies love it. If you are going to plant trees, opt for natives such as rowan, bird cherry and hawthorn, or, if you have the space, oak and beech.
What your new reserve will almost certainly lack is sufficient nesting sites for the birds you are going to attract. This is an easy problem to solve, as in recent years the nest-box business has become increasingly high-tech, with dedicated boxes for particular species made from modern, durable materials. You can even install close-circuit television to see how the occupants are getting on.
Nestboxes only appeal to birds that nest in holes or crevices, so there’s nothing you can provide for species such as song thrushes and goldfinches other than the right cover. But for hole nesters like tits and sparrows there’s a huge choice of boxes. In my experience, nothing beats the wide range produced by the German company Schwegler. Its boxes are made from Woodcrete, a patented mix of wood and concrete, making them not only virtually indestructible but also well insulated. They are low maintenance, though an annual clean-out is recommended.
Schwegler boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the species you are hoping to attract. The size of the entrance hole dictates which species can use it: a 26mm hole is fine for blue tits but excludes larger species. I opt for 32mm entrances, as blue tits will still use the box but they are equally attractive to tree sparrows and great tits. There is the option to buy larger boxes with bigger entrance holes that will attract starlings, while open-fronted boxes are ideal for robins and spotted flycatchers. There’s even a box designed specifically for treecreepers. Prices of the classic Schwegler box start at around £30. (Widely available, but for the widest range go to livingwithbirds.com; 0800 072 0130.)
SWIFT BRICKS AND BOXES
The past 30 years have seen a dramatic decline in the numbers of swifts breeding in the UK. The reason is a similar fall in the number of available nest sites. Swifts are specialist nesters, not building nests but breeding under eaves or in gable ends. Modern buildings seldom offer such nesting opportunities, while nests sites are frequently lost when old buildings are renovated.
One way to help these birds is with swift bricks, a relatively new innovation. Several manufacturers now offer purpose-built bricks, designed to be slotted into the brickwork of a building, replacing a single brick, and easily fitted by any bricklayer. You can even get swift bricks to match your existing brickwork. Swift bricks have a single oval entrance hole, with a nest chamber behind. Prices range from around £30 to £50.
There are also a wide variety of swift boxes available, manufactured in everything from recycled, compressed-foam insulation board to solid wood. All are designed for erecting under eaves or gables – the situation is vital to attracting swifts. These birds are slow to find new nest sites, but you can attract them by playing swift calls, available on CD or in MP3 format. For more information, visit: swift-conservation.org. It carries comprehensive details on nest-box and brick manufacturers, plus back-up support and advice.
SWALLOW AND HOUSE MARTIN BOXES
Unlike swifts, house martins and swallows do build their own nests but both species will readily use artificial nests. House martins build their round nests of mud under eaves. Mud is often difficult to find in a dry spring, so providing artificial nests will help them to breed earlier and have more broods. If you see house martins prospecting under your eaves then the chances of the birds adopting an artificial box are high. Some years ago a pair inspected the front of my house. I had a spare martin box, which I put up at once; within minutes the pair had moved in, and they went on to breed successfully. House martins are communal nesters, so it is worth erecting boxes in pairs.
I have had similar success with nesting swallows. Swallows favour open barns or sheds with easy access, building open, cup-shaped nests on rafters. They will readily use artificial nests, and if you provide nests in suitable sites you can tempt them to breed in buildings they have never used before. Artificial nests have the great advantage that, unlike natural nests, they are not prone to crumble and fall. Vinehousefarm.co.uk (01775 630208) offers swallow and house martin nests at £19.95, with a double house martin at £29.95.
At the end of the past century, the number of barn owls in Suffolk was at an all-time low, numbering fewer than 100 pairs. Today, the population has multiplied tenfold, helped by the erection of more than 1,500 barn-owl boxes countywide. Barn-owl boxes come in two basic designs: one for the inside of barns (square and deep, with entrance at the top); the other for trees (usually A-shaped, also with entrance at the top). The former is less expensive; purpose-built boxes start at around £70 (01364 653026; barnowltrust.org.uk). For trees, NHBS.com (01803 865913) offers an impressive Eco Barn owl box made almost entirely of recycled plastic, though with a wooden floor. At £129 it is expensive but robust and should last for years.
Erecting these boxes is a challenge as they are big and heavy, so it’s a task best accomplished with a tractor with cherry-picker attachment. My local farmer helped me put mine up. It was soon adopted by stock doves but eventually the doves gave way to tawny owls. Barn owls have only attempted to nest once and, frustratingly, were evicted by jackdaws. Policing the box to ensure the preferred occupants are in residence is a good policy, though as stock doves are less numerous worldwide than barn owls you can hardly begrudge them their tenancy.
Purpose-built nest boxes for little owls are also available, but I have never had any success in attracting them to use one, despite there being a local breeding pair. However, the British Trust for Ornithology’s website (bto.org) provides details on how to build a box, which has proved popular with these owls. If you are lucky enough to have long-eared owls present, then you might well persuade them to nest in a suitably situated basket.
Bats can be noisy neighbours. My previous house, a barn conversion, hosted a summer nursery of pipistrelles, numbering about 100 individuals. I tried to persuade them to move to a bat box but they preferred the apex of my roof. However, bats will readily adopt boxes, while they are excellent creatures to have around, as a single individual will take up to 3,000 flying insects a night.
The Nestbox Company (01675 442299; nestbox.co.uk) offers a wide variety of bat boxes for different species, which like different accommodation. The self-cleaning Eco Kent box (£37.50) has a plastic shell protecting the wooden box and is ideal for crevice roosting species such as common pipistrelles and soprano pipistrelles. The same company offers the ultimate in bat housing, a heated bat box (£369). Schwegler also has a wide range of innovative bat boxes: I have a smart 1FF box (£72.95 from livingwithbirds.com).
It’s not just birds you can help with boxes: bumblebees and other insects will appreciate having accommodation provided, too. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (bumblebeeconservation.org) offers comprehensive instructions on how to make boxes for solitary bees – surprisingly easy, even for those who, like me, don’t relish making things. The open-fronted box should be filled with natural, hollow tubes, 2mm to 10mm in diameter, at least 15cm long. As with all boxes, siting is vital. Somewhere sheltered but not shaded is ideal, as these bees really like full sunshine. Replace the tubes as and when necessary.
YOUR OWN RESERVE
The pleasure of establishing your own nature reserve is immeasurable. Whether it’s a barn owl hunting habitat you have created or coaxing swifts to adopt the nest boxes you have put up, few things are more satisfying. At my previous house I attracted a small, wintering flock of tree sparrows. By erecting suitable nest boxes a few pairs were persuaded to stay on and breed, and eventually I had a thriving colony of more than a dozen pairs, rearing in excess of 100 chicks a season. It was one of only three colonies in Suffolk. I’ve now moved a few miles east, so will be trying to establish a similar colony in my new garden. It’s a major challenge but I now know what I have to do to succeed.
All the county wildlife trusts are keen to encourage private reserves, whatever their size, and offer free conservation advice for landowners. One of the delights of managing ground for wildlife is that you never know what might turn up next, so keep looking and have your binoculars handy. Last winter, a passing jack snipe was the 137th addition to my reserve’s list, while in the spring my big excitement was discovering a small colony of bee orchids that mysteriously appeared in my paddock. It transpired that my new practice of regular light mowing of rough grassland was just what these beautiful flowers favour. It was sad to leave them behind, but creating a reserve at my new house is an exciting challenge for 2020.