Wednesday, 16 October 2019

OUR ENGLISH COUNTRY GARDEN IS BUZZING


 salvia atrocyanea with ubiquitous common carder bee - they LOVE it
Inspired by the need to help bees and butterflies and then encouraged by this years Dorset Wildlife Trust campaign to get Dorset buzzing, we set out three years ago to create a gravel garden that would enhance the attraction of our little patch of wildlife heaven. What follows is the story of our ‘work in progress’ -

    ‘CREATING A GRAVEL GARDEN FOR THE BUZZERS’


We started by visiting inspiring gardens such as Beth Chatto’s where she dug up her car park to create a stunning gravel garden, then reading books and seeking advice from our delightful Knoll Gardens near Wimborne.

as tall as our cottage, the bamboo thicket on the right is the chosen spot for our creation - lots of hard work ahead!
The site we chose picked itself, for it is the sunniest area in our wooded two acres. Trouble was, this large patch was a forest of invasive bamboo, so tall and thick that giant pandas raised young in it!

cutting the bamboo provided a lifetime of kitchen garden poles and allowed us to admire our lovely oak tree behind
If you’re wondering what the scaffold is there for, we were building ‘Hugh’s Folly’ at the time, a picture window that looks out over our frog marsh and as it faces east, allows us to bask in the sunrise of winter dawns. It’s beautiful but cost twice as much as estimated and took twice as long to build, hence the term ‘folly’!
a timber framed 'folly' maybe, but warming in a winter sunrise overlooking our frog marsh is a delight


in the summer it's a very wild garden - just as we like it
winter pollarding and pruning - and progress clearing the gravel garden area on the right
Clearing the bamboo jungle was the first priority and after a couple of years of sawing and digging bamboo and snowberry roots, along with a jungle of bramble and ivy, we had the beginnings of a workable site. 
bottom left is our chosen spot, sunny in the summer but we'd hardly started even clearing it
But other priorities got in the way and all the roots started a riot of growth once again and removing them was getting ever more difficult.

blink and the jungle returns - bamboo and snowberry growth is relentless

There was also the smelly matter of an old toilet soak-away buried under all this growth, left over from the days when there was a privy outside our ancient cottage. 

a glass plate pic of our old cottage built on sunny heathland before the top story was added in 1910
The three thatched cob dwellings are shown on maps dating 1747, set in a heathland habitat and when we first moved here thirty eight years ago, the area behind the house was still heathland and had a population of stonechats and linnets. The extraordinary speed of the oak and birch growth behind the cottage since living here still surpises us every week.
the cottage has changed a bit over the years but look at the growth of the oaks and birch behind the cottage - awesome
After many weeks we had cleared the site but still had the problem of deeply buried tree and bamboo roots and had to remove them without damaging the roots of our majestic oak tree.
what a beautiful tree - 100+ years old and growing fast - the gravel garden will be on the left

the fibreglass skin I'd added to the wood survived under the compost heap
Buried underneath the jungle of roots was a compost heap for grass snakes and slow-worms, covered by my old boat that in my early twenties enabled me to row around the Norfolk Broads, looking for birds and fish.


making a start between the stream and main pond
Then we had to remove the soak-away and tree roots and it seemed the only way to achieve this was with a mini digger. Enter fiddle player Steve Brown who plays in Irish bands at ceilis but by his own admission is even more skilled and artistic with the blade of a digger.
it's a big area and needs all the roots and ivy stripping off - a digger made it possible

Steve making excellent progress
piles to fill many barrow loads - good excersise
dismantling the woodland privy soak-away and filling the hole with roots and soil
roots all dug out and cleared and almost ready for covering - didn't he do well!
several layers of tarram left for two growing seasons would kill any growth below - we hoped!
In just a few hours he had everything dug up and the site levelled, so all I had to do was barrow the mountains of bamboo root away and we were ready for the next stage.
 a lovely tidy job created by Steve and now we could make a start creating our dream garden for buzzers

after nearly two years it's almost ready for removal, then the hard work of tons of soil, gravel and planting can commence
The advice was to cover the area with an impervious membrane for two growing seasons in order to kill anything still hidden below, so after laying five layers we waited patiently until dragging it off a couple of months ago. It was so encouraging to see that it worked and hardly anything had survived the dry darkness we’d created.

we were advised by Knoll Gardens to create raised areas of soil and gravel so the plants were free draining
Because the area lies between a stream and a large pond, friend David and I laid 23 tons of soil in hills to ensure the plant’s roots were above any damp soil. Then came the expensive purchase of bank-balance breaking numbers of plants loved by bees and buzzers. Planting could now commence.

barrows of delight for bees and butterflies
We purchased seemingly endless numbers of lavender, hebe, salvia, aster, nepeta, echinacea, rudbeckia, lobelia, gaura and several others, [blimey, I sound like an expert] and it was so exciting to see all the wildlife buzzing in to take advantage, sometimes flying onto the plants before I’d even put them down, let alone planted them.
paths through the area will become less formal as the plants grow

 we mulched the new plants with 2" of 10mm gravel to keep them moist but weed free - dream on!

aster nectar for hoverflies that arrived within minutes and we have a years planting still to go - exciting times
The bees have come in squadrons and we’ve hardly started, so once I’ve secured another mortgage from the bank so we can afford to buy the spring and summer delights, by next autumn the area should be pure joy. Then comes the fun of learning to identify all the insects that we’ve attracted to this lovely little corner of sunny Dorset.
silver-washed fritillaries love hebes


The Dorset Wildlife Trust’s campaign to encourage members to plant for invertebrates ‘Get Dorset Buzzing’ has been an impressive success. They hoped to win support from about 1,000 and have now attracted upwards of 4,000 so well done to them all because it’s great for bees and for all those other pollinators that are so essential for our own long-term survival.

In the meantime, we’ll just keep digging for England. Flowers, colour, bees and butterflies in our gardens. What’s there not to like!

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

SCOTTISH WILDCAT CRISIS


wild by name, wild by nature, all teeth, claws, muscle and attitude to match
Blood dripped profusely from my hand as I walked up the steps of the hospital, a red trail leading to reception and forming a pool on the floor. The nurse asked what I’d done, the answer not what she expected, her expression incredulous. I’d been bitten by a Scottish wildcat.
one of Scotland's ultimate gems

Several stitches later I left Grantown on Spey hospital, bandaged but able to continue my work, making a film on ‘The Great Wood of Caledon’ and it's wildlife for ITV. I felt it essential that one of my key characters had to be this rarest of animals.
the Caledonian pine forests of the Spey Valley in the Highlands, a last stronghold for the Scottish wildcats

doing what they do best, trying to be invisible in the forest
On a recent BBC news item, several authorities stated that the native Scottish Wildcat is one of the most endangered species in the world and with only about 35 survivors left, even rarer than the giant panda. Hybridization with feral cats has brought it close to extinction and one biologist even declared it to be functionally extinct in the wild. Being almost impossible to see in the wild, I'll always wonder how they calculated that total of 35, for over many years I've only been lucky enough to catch a few glimpses in the dense forest.

such beautiful creatures and deserving of all the help we can provide so they survive for years to come
The situation wasn’t as critical in the early nineties when I was attempting to tell their story but I needed a pair of true wildcats in the hope of captive breeding so their lifecycle could be intimately filmed.

this is the area of forest that we felt would make a perfect home for our cats
With the considerable help of friends such as my colleague Michael Richards  and not least Jo and Molly Porter, we built a huge escape proof enclosure in a dense area of remote forest. 

fallen scots pines and larch would provide the cats with cover

upturned tree roots are always favourite places for sunbathing cats

enclosure building in all weathers ... and there's always plenty of weather in Scotland
many hands make light work - thank you guys and gals


Scots pines and fallen larch with dense ground cover and rocky caves seemed a perfect habitat for our cats, and once netted up the sides and over the roof, we felt they would be secure and happy with their new home.
if the film failed we could at least get a job as scaffolders with SGB 
It was an impressive structure and on reflection seemed like madness but my ambition knew no bounds. I still can't believe how we managed to wire a roof over the top of all the big trees. Madness indeed!

We even managed to get the scaffold lorry stuck in the mud and had to hike a long way to find a friendly farmer.







Once the enclosure was complete we were loaned a true native female from the Edinburgh Zoological Society and she soon settled in with what seemed happy approval of her new home. 

she loved the wind blown trees as a look out for prey and we hoped kittens might one day appear from the cave
We needed a male to join her and I put the word out with several friendly keepers. In those bad old days wildcats were persecuted but one kind keeper trapped a magnificent male and took it to the Highland Wildlife Park for safe keeping until we were ready to re-house it.

We approached his temporary enclosure and there hiding on a shelf was the most magnificent cat, twenty pounds of extremely angry feline, ears flat with fear, growling with such menace that his scowl could kill. I've been snarled at a few times by tigers in India but this was in a fiercer league. All we had to do was capture him, put him in a box and take him to his new home. Simple!

Armed with thick leather gauntlets, the head keeper was going to grab him by the tale while I held his fang armed head with a noose on a pole. I was worried I would strangle him so didn’t hold the noose tight enough and suddenly he escaped my grip and I was confronted by this fierce and angry cat that was all claws and teeth and even though he was held by the tail he flew at me like a whirling dervish. It was really quite frightening as twenty pounds of truly wild cat tried to claw my face as he growled and spat while attempting to kill me.

Watching outside, my wife and daughter screamed in fear and though it all happened in a blur, it seemed the only way to quell the attack was to grab him by the sharp end and so plunged my hand into his mouth. He bit me so hard through the thick leather gauntlets that the blood blisters and wounds from his canines took weeks to heal. His strength was most impressive as we forced him into the box, the adrenalin rush replaced by relief. What a battle.

the male was never relaxed in my presence, threatening me if I ventured too close, if I could find him

Within an hour we had released this magnificent male in the enclosure and so dense was the cover and his ability to hide I didn’t see him for weeks. I sat silently in hides for days with no success but when I crept round looking, he would suddenly leap out in front of me and growl explosively while stamping his foot in anger. His spitting fire always made me step sharply back in shock.
those flattened ears prove our male was never at ease, even after several weeks. He sure was a wild cat.
Our female was much more benign and I captured some lovely film of her simply being a wild pussy cat in the forest. It was a memorable privilege.

compared with our male, our lady was completely at ease in our huge enclosure
what a delightful pussy cat
grooming was a daily ritual

I was lucky enough to film her stalking prey
 On one day the mouse was actually dead and pulled by a string to get her to pounce - ‘cheating’ I know but it looked very convincing and she seemed to 'enjoy' the game.

wound up to strike
Unfortunately the story has a sad ending because in spite of the notice attached to the enclosure explaining the reason for the captive breeding attempt, some supposed ‘do-gooder’ broke open the gate and released the cats. No doubt soon after some keeper probably shot them for we never saw them again.

I pray that these ancient forests will provide a safe home for one of the world's rarest animals long into the future
Captive breeding of true native Scottish wildcats is now being carried out successfully by various conservationists and we can only hope that this magnificent creature survives to inspire us all for many years to come. I feel quite honoured to have been a bloody victim of their fierce will to live.