Tuesday, 25 December 2018

IN AN ENGLISH COUNTRY GARDEN - a celebration

 
a view from the office window - no wonder I never get any work done
I’ve wanted to be an RSPB Reserve warden ever since being inspired when growing up at school under the Fenland skies around Ely Cathedral.
views that stretch beyond infinity are always going to intrigue an inquisitive child
what a privilege it was to sing to the glory of god in such a magnificent building


the innocence of youth - perhaps

I won a choral scholarship to be a chorister in this wonderful building, singing for my supper from age eight and a half and loving it.

It was so exciting to sing all that magical music but another equally important adventure began when services were over. Escaping from the confines of the cathedral school there was water and wildlife everywhere and I became passionate about finding it.

looking for wildlife included hunting for big pike
School holidays were spent volunteering at reserves, most notably the RSPB’s famous Minsmere where I became a disciple to Bert Axel, the warden who pioneered the concept of creating habitat to attract breeding birds. I even stayed with him and his wife Joan at Christmas and New Year, hauling pit props washed up on the beach to construct hides.

the famous scrape at Minsmere in 1989 - an inspiration to the rest of the world © RSPB
Bert created the first 'scrapes' to attract wading birds such as the then very rare avocet and I was helping there in 1961 when he first started the idea by creating islands for terns. Bitterns and marsh harriers were even rarer and what with watching bearded tits as well, it's no wonder I became a bird nut.

I vowed to become a warden myself but became tied up making wildlife films for the rest of my life so the nearest I’ve come is to turn our garden into a wildlife haven ... and we're still trying.
God's rays at sunrise from our office
 

we were so lucky to find this hiding place from the world in sunny Dorset


building trellises allowed our ancient wisteria to spread it's wings


Sue and I moved here thirty-eight years ago and our five-year plan to attract wildlife has become a fifty-year plan!

stock doves and many others enjoy the crystal clear water provided by underground springs
First off we harnessed the springs that rose from aquifers all around our two acre hill-top patch and then created streams that flowed through the garden.

Then we dug five ponds for the streams to flow through before the water spills down to the River Stour.

Half the garden is classic English woodland of oak and birch with hazel coppice. I left this largely unchanged for years so that it could be used for  making films for the BBC, notably one about winter wildlife in Britain which proved very popular, as all UK based wildlife films did in those days.
pruning trees and shrubs is an essential and enjoyable task

However, now I’m doing less filming we are developing it into an ornamental woodland garden by planting camellias, acers and lots of shade loving flowers and shrubs. It looks a real picture in the spring and autumn.
we constructed a path through the silver birches, added tons and tons of soil and got planting
hellebores are a delight
cyclamen seem to thrive in our soil 
we've added aconites to the hellebores and bluebells

witch hazel bursts forth to celebrate Christmas with us
many camellias reach for the sky - we love 'em

glorious acers are a must have in any woodland garden 
the beech tree in the distance we planted twenty five years ago - it's grown rather well ...

We diverted the stream to run past our cottage and turned the ‘lawn’ between into a wild flower meadow, a haven for numerous butterflies and inverts, even grasshoppers when they decide to visit.

put your mower away and let nature take it's course - it's a win win every time
The wild flowers that appeared unhindered seemed like a miracle of nature because having left it to grow naturally, among many species, southern marsh orchids started to appear, just three the first year but now we have upwards of a hundred and fifty and they are spreading all over, even jumping the streams and appearing in the wood.
three species of orchid have appeared like magic and lots of other wild flowers too - it's a delight
The woodland birches provide plenty of feeding and nest sites and this year we were privileged to enjoy a pair of remarkably confiding sparrow hawks that decided to raise a youngster in the heart of the wood.
our star bird of the summer - so confiding he allowed me to walk up to him




only one chick survived the relentless heat of this last summer - we hope they will return

our streams are valuable to many species, buzzards and others using them for drinking and bathing ©  Mike Read
The male used to bathe in the stream every morning, then preen in the sunshine for hours so we nicknamed him ‘Fancy Dan’.
he's quite smart isn't he

golden orfe, rudd and mallard duckling enjoyed the ponds until 'playful' otters arrived
grass snakes make walks along the ponds exciting


The ponds themselves are a joy because of all the wildlife they attract. Mallard nest every year, moorhens for a few years too before the otters arrived and mandarin ducks look keenly for nest sites - and food!
a pair of mandarin ducks are not a common visitor to bird tables except here ...
lots of spade work created perfect habitat for frogs, newts and countless invertebrates


buzzards are here most days - usually strafed by crows
impressive numbers of frogs gather to spawn in our marsh and attract hungry herons and buzzards
We dug a shallow marsh in one patch of woodland and forty or more frogs gather to spawn there every spring, watched and eaten by herons and buzzards.


three pairs of mallard usually honour us with their presence and chicks every year
Every garden should have water as it’s a wonderful wildlife magnet and we are regularly visited by eels, travelling here on their miraculous journey from the Sargasso Sea.

naughty otter but what an honour to have them visiting
They are followed by otters, a mixed blessing as we love fish too.



It’s easy to ignore the fact that fish are wildlife too and contrary to what many wildlife trusts say, fish are an essential part of any healthy freshwater ecosystem. For instance, minnows spawn in our streams and provide a good meal for herons and kingfishers.
kingfishers usually visit regularly in the summer and autumn but the 'Beast' dealt them a lethal blow this spring
minnows thrive in all the ponds and they spawn successfully in the streams every year - food for many birds
 a bit of mowing smartens up the wilderness and allows the dragons and damsels to lay their eggs in the pond banks

rudd and orfe love the clean water but only the red fined rudd survived the last otter visit
In spite of several species of native fish like rudd thriving here, the ponds and streams also provide a haven for uncountable numbers of dragons and damsels, mayfly too and they are a joy in the summer months.
dragonfly and human enjoying some summer sunshine


an emperor egg laying in the shallows
beautiful demoiselles were more common this year

a damsel confused by a dragons tail
the spectacular golden ringed dragonfly, Britain's biggest and a feast for a hobby
What’s more, on one notable occasion we were sat with a cuppa watching a beautiful golden ringed dragonfly just a few feet from us when a hobby zoomed in and snatched it with an audible crack. Ain’t nature wonderful.

We provide a home for several species of bat and nightjars have sometimes come hunting over the garden as we watch with a glass of wine at dusk.
on the lookout for bats and nightjars

delightful foxes are a daily and nightly visitor to our patch
colourful companions. I called the pheasant 'Prince Wilhelm the 2nd' - Sue called him 'Dinner'!
our greedy feathered friends eat us out of house and home

Just sitting quietly almost always means we see something that makes us smile, even if it’s ‘only’ a family party of long tailed tits, Sue’s favourite. 


long-tailed-tits nest in or around the garden every year, much to Sue's delight
we provided a haven of shelter and food for fieldfares fleeing the 'Beast'
nuthatches nest in the garden so knew what side their bread was buttered
bullfinches nest here too and love the tasty buds of blackthorn in the spring


Up until now we’ve recorded one hundred and seven different species of birds in or over the garden so maybe my ambition of being an RSPB warden has almost been fulfilled.
even hard winters are magical in their own way and fox prints show that they appreciate this garden, snipe too
little egrets are becoming more regular visitors each year
sometimes the garden resembles Slimbridge - we love it!
the sight and scent of wisteria is difficult to beat

silver-washed fritillaries are a rare but frequent visitor every summer 
grapes ripen beautifully but the blackbirds always get there first
clematis seem to thrive here but how much to prune is always a puzzle
the garden buzzes with clouds of butterflies, bees and hover flies

brimstone butterflies - a harbinger of spring
a wafting scent of phlox


We simply love it here and though the garden and it’s woodland and water and insect loving flowers are a lot of work to create and maintain, it has provided us with endless joy and as we grow old, all we need now is to dig a couple of six-foot long holes so we can stay and push up the daisies forever.


Sue and I do hope you are enjoying a splendid Christmas and may life be kind to you all ... every day!
Here's hoping that you get as much joy from your garden as we do and that 'The Beast from the East' doesn't return any time soon.



The future's bright. Spring is already on the way, snow drops are pushing up fast and the days are getting longer. Summer will be back soon!