One of the projects I had set myself for a number of years was to provide the garden with a pond, a natural habitat for whatever wildlife turned up.
There is water around the garden in the form of dykes and ditches but these tend to disappear during the summer months, especially during dry weather so I wanted to provide a more permanent water source. Dug in the warmth of a day in March 2021, I was fascinated to see how quickly nature would take hold in a couple of metres of water and what wildlife would turn up. It is hard to believe that just a few short months can turn a shallow gouge in the ground into a bustling new habitat but that is exactly what happened with the new pond.
Once the pond was filled with well water, which seemed to take forever; it actually took 9 hours, the margins and both deep and shallow water required plants. Small clumps of bullrushes and lesser spearwort where inserted into the mud to start with then the addition of water mint. Some water weed and Equisetum fluviatile (water horsetail), acquired from a local ditch as well as a water lily for the deep water area.. The acquired water weed was accompanied by some creepy crawlies, more on those later.
One of the colourful marginal plants to be added was the bright yellow flowers of the common flag iris - Iris pseudacorus which can also be found in ditches, damp marshes and other wetland habitats. It can form large, spreading clumps of sword-like, grey-green leaves. with clusters of 2-3 buds that open to yellow flowers, some as early as May and continue until August. This iris is robust enough to become really problematic and can colonise areas to the exclusion of other species.
As the plant material began to knit together on the edges of the pond and within the shallow shelf edge, aquatic life arrived to the waters, many that were stowaways on some of the imported plant material, water snails, freshwater shrimp and pea mussels. I already had a very small pond in an old bucket and emptied this into the new pond with the silt and any creepy crawlies that lived there, noticing some larvae of dragonfly or damselfly which would increase the pond life.
Another great perennial added was Water Mint (Mentha aquatica); an Irish native found on damp soil around lakes and ponds, along canals or riverbanks, and in marshy areas. Pretty mauve-purple flowers from July to October and it gives off a pleasant minty scent when crushed. During the Middle Ages it was a strewing herb on floors of the bed chambers so that when people walked the scent of the mint was released into the air. Along with Meadowsweet and Vervain, Water Mint was one of the herbs held sacred by the Druids.
Another perennial that provides wonderful yellow flowers, like golden coins, above the surface of the water in late spring are the Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris). A native wildflower at home in the shallow water, on the margins of the pond, in fact anywhere the soil is continually damp. A member of the buttercup family so, large yellow flowers, with usually 5 but can be up to 8 petals, and a central cluster of golden stamens. There are now double forms and a rarer white form though I think the natural native plant is hard to beat.
As the season progressed the vegetation became evermore lush, the grasses and wildflowers grew over the liner to hide the edges though the warm sun and bright days also encouraged algae to form. As this is a natural pond with no pump or filtration system it had to be left for one season to allow the natural processes to settle down but I will treat the algae - with natural products - 1 year on, if necessary.
So, with plants maturing, the pond life began to emerge, one of the earliest of the damselflies was the Large Red Damselfly - Pyrrhosoma nymphula followed by the Four-spotted Chaser - Libellula quadrimaculata and then for most of the summer the Common Darters - Sympetrum striolatum
As the year in the life in the pond draws near, my one hope was that the pond would be a suitable site for frogs and newts. Frogs are definitely around the garden as I see a number each year in the long grass and along the damp margins of the boundary ditches. Traditionally, frogs return to their home habitat to spawn but I'm hoping that one or two might consider the pond as a bit of an upgrade for their offspring this year and that frogs will become one of the pond's resident species.
This hope turn to reality this week, when I discovered clusters of frogspawn in the shallowest parts of the pond, 13 clusters and counting. With no fish in the pond hopefully many will turn into tadpoles and eventually to adult frogs.
If it's suitable for frogs then the next species of my wish list ..... newts..
I also look forward to welcoming any new invertebrates such as Water Boatman, Pond Skater maybe even a Diving beetle or two that are on the look out for new habitat, the pond is ready and waiting.
Birds are becoming short of nesting sites;, our gardens, parks and woodlands are tidier than they used to be, old and dead trees are often felled depriving birds of natural nesting holes and there are fewer nooks and crannies in modern and renovated houses. It is this housing shortage which is thought to be one of the major factors behind the decline of some of our once most common garden birds.
,Of course, the good news is that every garden has space for at least one nestbox and the wild birds of urban and rural gardens, of farmland and woodland would benefit if each one of those gardens put up a nestbox or two, attracting our favourite garden birds such as bluetits, robins, blackbirds, sparrows and if you're really lucky, maybe a rarer species.
Our wild birds have their own preferences when it comes to choosing a nesting site including nestboxes though some such as chaffinches and dunnocks are not known to used nextboxes at all. Providing nest-boxes replicate nest sites for species which normally will use holes and crevices in woodland trees; many of the tit species are typical woodland birds equally at home in rural and urban gardens and will readily take up residence in man-made boxes. The most common next box users are also our most common garden song birds; Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Great Tits, Robins, Wrens and Sparrows.
It’s no surprise that the hallmarks of a good nestbox is shelter, security, access and location. Remember: your top priority when providing one is a safe location where the chicks can be raised with the least risks from either predators or bad weather.
If you are choosing a wooden box, choose one that has thickish walls (at least 15mm) to provide good insulation and be durable; a box made from cedar, oak or beech will far outlive ones made from softwood such as pine. The hole size should fit the bird you want to attract; a 32mm entrance hole is the ideal size for all small hole-nesting birds such as sparrows and tits but choose a smaller 26mm hole if you want to restrict the box to blue tits only - you may need to use a metal plate around the hole as great tits are known to peck the edges of the hole to widen it for themselves.
Some birds love to nest communally, sparrows, starlings and jackdaws being the most common and there are nextboxes to suit these communal nesters, though, if you put several boxes close together, that will often be enough for those birds that prefer company..
Location is all about siting them correctly; the entry hole should be in a northerly or easterly direction as these usually face away from prevailing wind and rain, tipped slightly downwards to prevent any rain from entering. There should be a clear flight path to the entrance and are best without any perches. The ideal height for a small-hole nest box is between 2m and 5m above the ground which can be nestled within foliage though the access should remain clear, the more inconspicuous they are, the better.
If there are no trees in your garden, the next best option is placing the box on the side of a shed or wall., again as high as will protect them from predators., especially if wall shrubs and climbers help to hide the box. itself but not the entrance.
With a garden large enough and in a suitable location you could consider a nestbox for our red-listed raptors such as Kestrels and Barn Owls; research has shown that as long as appropriate hunting habitat is available, these nest boxes have a very successful occupancy rate.
Putting up a nestbox in your garden is a fantastic thing to do for breeding birds in your local area. Depending on where in the garden it is sited, you may have the privilege of watching some of them move in, rear their young and that special moment when the chicks leave the nest for the big, wide world, knowing you have provided the perfect place in which they were able to raise a family.
Have you ever wondered why some trees keep their leaves in winter when all about them other trees are losing theirs?
When selecting trees for the garden there is generally a choice of deciduous or evergreen though in reality there are many that fall into the category of semi-evergreen, trees and shrubs that in certain circumstances with lose some or all of their leaf cover. In the temperate climate of Ireland the majority of trees are deciduous; as a form of protection they lose all of their leaves for the winter. They also tend to be the most popular choice due to their greater range of tree shape, leaf shape, flowers, berries and spectacular autumn colour. Some of the common deciduous trees include large ones like oaks, beech and maples, or smaller varieties such as cherries, crab apples and rowans.
Evergreens do lose their leaves, just not in one great dollop as the autumn arrives and the temperatures drop, so they retain a cloak of green all year round. This makes them very popular to add drama to winter landscapes where they make beautiful backdrops amid a light dusting of frost or snow or as a sprig of greenery for the home; they include well known shrubs like holly and conifers such as pine, yew and juniper though some conifers, such as larch, which still have needle-like leaves but will lose them each autumn.
Evergreens are not immune to dropping foliage since most needles or leaves die after a few years anyway, in fact, most needles only live between four and seven years. For some trees, this is a continuous process with a few leaves dropping almost weekly throughout the year. Although the older foliage eventually turns brown and dies, this normally takes place in the interior of the tree, so the process goes unnoticed until the detritus covering the ground at the base of the tree provides the evidence.
Evergreen trees have evolved a different set of protective adaptations that serve the same function as deciduous ones; protecting the tree from dehydration during the winter. The leaves on evergreen plants are covered with a thick waxy coating (cuticle) that prevents water loss and they also have fewer stomata on the surface of the leaf which helps to lessen the water evaporation.
Evergreens evolved in the colder places of the planet and are really good at living there, in areas where there aren’t a lot of nutrients in the soil or available water. Evergreens take up and store up all those nutrients inside their leaves and needles and can use them through the winter months; storing water in their foliage too which helps them to stay green.
.The trees have worked hard to take up those nutrients and water so need to hang on them as long as possible, and by retaining leaf cover. enables them to do so. Leaves are designed to carry out photosynthesis, a metabolic process by which light from the sun is converted into usable chemical energy in the form of sugar. Because their leaves are so numerous and have a constant cover, evergreens are able to capture sunlight even in shady areas where the risk of evaporation from their leaves is low.
The term "evergreen" has come to refer to something that perpetually renews itself, or otherwise remains steady and constant. It is why in folklore the festive season would not be the same without evergreens, holly leaves and red-berried twigs, ivy and pine boughs used for decorating homes all across the country. A sign that was used to celebrate the winter solstice; to ward off evil spirits and to mark the approach of new growth in spring.
Holly; a native species which forms the shrub layer in some of our oldest woodlands, slow growing and very dense, it is only female hollies that bears berries and along with ivy were traditionally used for midwinter decorations, as a sign of green life to come.
Ivy - A contentious evergreen, the self-supporting climber known to clothe trees, fences and buildings but is one of the top 5 wildlife plants. Ivy produces pale yellow flowers in winter, food for the few winter-flying insects, and its berries ripen in spring when they are an important food for blackbirds and thrushes. One of the two seasonal evergreen used in wreaths and garlands to symbolise that even in the depths of winter, life persists.
It is around this time of year that I am asked the most questions about wasps. A much maligned creature with a general belief that wasps serve no purpose, that they are just a more angry version of bee but I try to show that wasps are actually invaluable to the ecosystem and many stories about them just aren’t true.
,One of the biggest myths about wasps is that they are naturally aggressive and will sting without provocation but despite their occasional aberrant attack, they only sting under certain circumstances; they sting to defend themselves and they sting to defend their nests.
Social wasps - Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp, are found in various habitats including urban areas, which in the Irish context means they are fairly ubiquitous and can be found almost anywhere on the island. When a fertilised Queen wasp emerges from hibernation she will begin to form a new colony. Wasps. make nests, like bees and these hard-working insects actually make their own building materials by turning raw wood into paper pulp. They chew wood fibers (they love my front door and the boards on the shed) into a soft pulp. This pulp plus the wasp's saliva forms the basis of the nest, which is a network of tiny hexagonal cells arranged together in a honeycomb shape, enclosed in a protective layer that covers the whole nest. Although made out of paper, the nests are sturdier than you might expect, nevertheless, they will decompose naturally over the course of the winter, due to weather and other factors and a new nest will be built each year.
Many wasp species swarm primarily to protect their nest, swarming to fend off the perceived attacker whether that is animals or people if their nest is disturbed. Although most social wasps build their nests in the eaves of houses, in sheds and outbuildings and in trees, some wasps build their nests in shrubs or climbers but also in the ground where they can be disturbed much more easily and unintentionally, causing a swarm reaction.
After building a very small nest the queen will lay the eggs that become the first workers of the colony. In the early part of the year, the nest stays quite small and growth is slow until a certain point when new workers then emerge in larger and larger numbers.
During the early summer months, when people rarely notice wasps, they seek out aphids, spiders and flies, small caterpillars. mosquitos and other insects which they bring back to the larvae in the nest. Most people are stung in late summer because this is when the fertilised queen is preparing to hibernate. In this period, a lot of the wasps die off and the workers left behind are hungry because there is less food around and they are stessed and confused because of their nestmates are dying. They are on the lookout for sugar and outdoor dining in the form of picnics and barbeques are a source of rich pickings. Then, they more likely to sting when people try and swat them; only when they think you are trying to kill them do they usually become hostile.
As well as being voracious and ecologically important predators, wasps are increasingly recognised as valuable pollinators, transferring pollen as they visit flowers to drink nectar. Many people thought that wasps were not pollinators like bees as they have a smooth body. However, they most certainly are. The hairs on the black and yellow striped abdomen of many wasps is so fine, it renders it almost invisible to the naked eye. Only on close examination fine but dense hairs were found on the abdomen and thorax of even the common wasp. The presence of hairs coupled with the fact that they visit flowers for nectar persuaded researchers that wasps were indeed plant pollinators.
In fact, researchers have found that wasps are the exclusive pollinators of some species of orchid and fig. Indeed, if wasps didn’t exist, picnics would be less fraught but, without wasps, many of the ingredients might not exist at all. Research into by a team in Florence have found that the guts of wasps provide a safe winter refuge for yeast – specifically Saccharomyces accharomyces cerevisiae, the fungus we use to make wine, beer and bread.
Sadly, wasps are facing a similar decline to bees and many other of our wild pollinating insects and that is something the world can't afford. Both bees and wasps pollinate flowers and crops - but wasps also destroy pests and insects that carry human diseases.
Our dislike of wasps is largely shaped by a small number of social stinging species, these represent a small percentage as the vast majority of wasps, more than 75,000 species are solitary ones. Global concern about the decline of pollinators has resulted in a phenomenal level of public interest in, and support of, bees (though this attention seems to be concentrated on honeybees rather than wild bees in general). The much loved bee is seen as more helpful to people and the environment than the wasp; if this global concern could be mirrored for wasps it would need a complete cultural shift in attitudes towards them..
A haven of quiet countryside highlighting issues affecting the natural world.