Who's that Honking?
So why are they there? Tiger and I thought, as I dived into Google on my mobile.
By the time Tiger had got back to me huffing and puffing, the birds were already in their 'V' formation before flying straight up the Brize Norton flight path and out towards Eynsham, then hard right and back over South Leigh.
Why do they fly like that?, I thought desperately trying to remember the film 'Fly Away Home'.
And it is not a coincidence that the RAFs Red Arrows fly in exactly the same formation and the Tour of France riders do the equivalent on the ground.
But why do they only honk while they are flying? Google told me that the ones behind honk those in front, not to overtake like on the motorway in Germany, but to encourage the leaders to keep up their speed. When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the wind resistance and quickly gets back into line and take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front.
Funny that, because I have heard them honk even when they are flying alone. I guess it becomes a habit when you can fly up to 1,500 miles in a single day. That's one way to Athens or Moscow, or to Barcelona and back. That's an awful lot of honks!
South Leigh 'Hogwatch'
We have now come to the end of another year and now it’s time to collate all signs and sightings and to estimate numbers of adults and young within our village.
HOW HAVE OUR HEDGEHOGS FARED?
Unfortunately, results of sightings for this year are very disappointing and very sad. In 2016 I estimated there to be 20 adults and 18 young in and around South Leigh. This year I've estimated just 10 adults and 2 young; this is very startling and it means that, since 2016, our hedgehogs have declined by around 68%. I imagine that numbers are possibly higher than those seen because it is also quite certain that there are hedgehogs out there that were just not seen by anyone - at least I hope there are. If these numbers are accurate, then it is quite possible that we could see the extinction of hedgehogs in South Leigh within the next 5 to 10 years, which is a terrible thought. In fact, the hedgehog is only one of many species that is in danger of extinction in the UK and around the world.
WHERE HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN?
The largest number of sightings have been along Chapel Road. The remaining sightings were along Station Road and within Lymbrook Close. There were no sightings at High Cogges this year that I am aware of. As in 2016, there were no sightings up at Church End.
WHY ARE THEY SEEN IN CERTAIN AREAS BUT NOT IN OTHER AREAS?
Let’s take a look along Chapel Road where most were seen... I believe that they have the advantage of having open grazing fields behind the houses and easy access into and between all the gardens, which is preferred habitat for hedgehogs because grassland used for grazing is undisturbed by the plough and not sprayed with any insecticides or fungicides. Therefore, no hedgehog prey is killed so they have an abundance of prey.
Some residents along Chapel Road have also been feeding them and giving them water which, in times of very hot weather, is a great help as hedgehogs can have a problem accessing worms in hard dry ground because worms migrate deeper into the soil where it is cooler and has more moisture. Also slugs and snails can be difficult to find in hot temperatures as they hide away in cool damp areas.
The hedgehogs seen along Station Road and in Lymbrook Close also have much access to grassland, but I believe that access between gardens is not so easy as those in Chapel Road. This is why it is so important for you all to get together and agree to create a 'hedgehog highway' between all your gardens giving them more and much needed feeding habitat. I also know that some of you in Station Road and Lymbrook Close have also been feeding them and leaving them some water.
WHY ARE THERE NO SIGHTINGS AT CHURCH END?
I believe it is because there is much arable land around there. Where I live at the Witney end of Chapel Road, I also have arable land all around my cottage. I have seen a hedgehog in my garden in the past but I haven’t seen one for a few years now. It is well documented that arable land is not liked by hedgehogs due to the lack of prey which is killed by constant spraying with pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
HOW CAN HEDGEHOG NUMBERS RECOVER?
With so much habitat lost and continuing to be lost, it is difficult to see how they can recover. I believe that we can only carry on giving them as much help as possible by giving them access to our gardens and also between all of our gardens. Feeding them during the autumn to allow them to gain the weight needed to see them through the winter hibernation. Also never forget to leave them some water, especially during the hot summer days.
I was planning to give 'Hogwatch' a rest next year, but with the alarming drop in numbers I feel that I have to keep a close eye on them and to decide the best way forward to, hopefully, get their numbers to increase.
I will give you my ideas in the Spring. Until then, I wish you all a Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Many thanks to all of you who have helped me with Hogwatch, and for helping our hedgehogs by providing them with habitat and by feeding them - they all appreciate it.
Brian Hutchings: 07437 358587 or firstname.lastname@example.orgHELP AND HAZARDS
It has been recognised that the hedgehog is in serious decline throughout the British Isles. Our help is now more necessary than ever before. The decline is down to a number of factors...
- Modern farming practices are a major factor, with the use of herbicides and pesticides which deplete the numbers of earthworms, slugs, snails and many insects all of which are hedgehog prey.
- The removal and also close cutting of hedgerows has a huge impact of the feeding and activities of the hedgehog.
- The loss of habitats through land development and with such a lot of new houses to be built, there is going to be a lot more habitat lost.
- More roads will be built, there will be much more traffic, and many drivers go too fast, especially through our villages.
The future of our beautiful hedgehogs looks bleak without a lot of help from us.
Hedgehog friendly things we can do to help...
- Linking our gardens. With so much habitat being lost through development it is vital that hedgehogs can access our gardens. If you have solid wooden fences, cut a few 13cm square holes, if you have wire fencing you can also cut holes for hedgehogs, even stone walls can be accessed by removing stones and fitting pipes around 13cm diameter. Ask your neighbours if they can do the same - hedgehogs will do a lot of good in gardens.
- Log piles. One of the best features for a lot of wildlife, especially the hedgehog. Log piles provide a safe, secure site for breeding and/ or hibernating. They are also good for insects.
- Open compost heaps. These can make an attractive nesting site for a hedgehog. Open air composting is also great for insects. But please be careful if turning compost, especially with a garden fork. Be safe and leave it alone during the nesting season.
- Leaf piles. These can be used as a potential nest site and can also be used for bedding material for other nest sites, also for use in hibernation, maybe in a hibernation box or in a log pile.
- Ponds can be very beneficial for hedgehogs. An all year round water supply and hedgehogs will love the added insects and amphibians it will attract. Just be sure to put in a ramp or sloping side to allow hedgehogs to get out, they are in fact good swimmers.
Hazards are something we must be aware of...
- Netting. Hedgehogs can and very often do get caught up in them. All you need to do is hook it up during the night and when you are not using it. Also, fix pea netting so that it is at least 8 inches off the ground.
- Bonfires. Just be sure to check it before lighting, especially if it was built a day or longer ago.
- Strimming. Always check long overgrown areas to be cut for hedgehogs that may be resting.
- Open drains and similar openings are very dangerous for hedgehogs. Cover them with wooden boards or similar and maybe put a pot plant on it.
- Slug pellets. Please do not use chemical based pellets. Hedgehogs will eat the slugs for you if they can get access to them, they are the best slug controllers.
Hedgehogs are living in tough times. They cannot survive without our help. We are responsible for their decline so we must be responsible and help them to survive.
I will be extremely grateful if you can let me know of any sightings.
Brian Hutchings: email@example.com - 01993 772078 / 07437358587 - Upper Wayside Cottage, Chapel Road.HOGWATCH 2018
Some of you may have heard or maybe seen a mammal society report which says that one in five British mammals are at risk of extinction, one of those mammals being our beloved hedgehog. That is a very sad and terrifying thought. Is it possible that the British Isles could possibly have no hedgehogs in the future? Well, if we don’t do anything it will be a possible reality.
This is why many concerned people all over the country are doing a study similar to ours. Through this study we look at possible reasons why hedgehogs are struggling. When we find the reasons we will do whatever we can to put them right so that we can provide the habitats that are fit and right to support the hedgehog.
We do know of some reasons why they are having a hard time; some of them are: habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, much of this is caused by roads and a lot more traffic. Also, development is a big problem and that is something that is going to continue for some years to come as we are all aware of.
Arable land is also of great concern. Crops are sprayed quite regularly with either insecticide, fungicide or herbicide, all of which are bad for insects and of course hedgehog prey such as slugs, snails and also earthworms. Arable land has become undesirable and mainly no-go areas for hedgehogs.
With more and more countryside disappearing and constant fragmentation, you can see how important our gardens are for hedgehogs. We need to, and must, for the sake of the hedgehog, make our gardens ‘friendly’ and ‘safe’ for them. The first thing we all need to do is to allow easy access into and between our gardens. To do this we need to, with our neighbours permission, cut holes about the size of a CD into the bottom of our fences, even chain link can be cut to make access, even a stone or brick wall can have a hole made in them. We must also make our gardens safe for our hedgehogs. If you have a pond, make sure that they can get out if they fall in by providing a ramp or have plants that they can clamber onto and get out, cover any open drains so they don’t fall in, and please don’t put down any slug pellets - the hedgehogs with eat the slugs for you. Make your gardens friendly by allowing small ‘wild’ areas, also make a log pile for them to sleep in or to nest in. With the rapid decline in the rural hedgehog, it is more important than ever to give them all the help that we can.
With warmer weather normal through autumn and up to winter, hedgehogs can be active up until the end of the year, so it’s a good idea to feed them until hibernation. So in the autumn ‘South Leigh News’ I will tell you what to feed them and also how to make a hibernation box.
Brian Hutchings: firstname.lastname@example.org - 01993 772078 / 07437358587 - Upper Wayside Cottage, Chapel Road. Spring 2018.
The above images © Tim Lawson2017 ~ YEAR 2 OF A 3 YEAR STUDY
With spring well and truly here, our local hedgehogs will be well out of hibernation. Their priority will be feeding as much as they can to gain weight and condition in readiness for breeding, which is usually from May onwards.
Sightings: Last year i was extremely grateful to all of you who let me know of your hedgehog sightings, and also of any droppings seen. It made my first year study very successful. This year I am again asking you all to let me know of any hedgehogs you see and also any droppings. I am hoping for more sightings because we should have most of last year's adults plus some of their young. I am also hoping to hear of sightings up at Church End as I had no reports last year. I would also like to see an increase in hedgehog numbers as we need to stop their decline nationally.
Spring - what we can do: Firstly, if the weather is cold and wet, some food for our hedgehogs would be very welcome. Just remember to put out a meat-based dog or cat food, also mealworms are very good. Spring is the main time for breeding and our hedgehogs will be looking for somewhere to nest; why not leave a wild corner in your garden and maybe build a log pile with a hollow beneath it, or maybe put a wooden box, upside down, in a wild corner - about 60cm square with a 15cm square entrance hole, covered with leaves or dry grass. Be sure it can’t be disturbed by anyone or pets. With a little luck you could have a hedgehog family in your garden and be helping with their conservation.
Safety: If you have a pond or are lucky enough to have a swimming pool, be sure to provide a ramp of some kind for the hedgehogs to be able to climb out or have a pond with a slope at one end. If you intend to strim long vegetation, please check for hedgehogs first. If you have a build up of trimmings or cuttings ready for burning, please check for hedgehogs before lighting. Other possible dangers include open drains - if you have one please keep it covered so they can’t fall in. Pea netting and tennis court netting - hang pea netting at least 15cm above the ground and roll up tennis netting when not in use as hedgehogs can get caught up in them. Hedgehogs are the gardener's friend, eating many slugs and snails, so if you do use slug pellets, please use ones that are ‘wildlife friendly’. If you are about to put up a fence, consider planting a hedge, they provide flowers for bees, fruits for birds as well as nesting, and they also provide cover for hedgehogs, voles and shrews as well as many invertebrates. They are also much more attractive than fences.
So please, if you see any hedgehogs this summer, let me know
Brian Hutchings: email@example.com - 01993 772078 / 07437358587 - Upper Wayside Cottage, Chapel Road.2016 Results
First of all, I have to say a huge 'Thank you' to all of you who have seen hedgehogs and let me know. Without you I could never have made this such a successful study. I have been amazed and overwhelmed at the number of sightings reported to me- somewhere in the region of 80. You have all been very kind and extremely helpful.
Where they have been seen
Below is a map of South Leigh from High Cogges at one end to College Farm at the other end - click on the thumbnail to expand the image. The map shows where the main areas of the sightings were, with a large amount around the Lymbrook Close area and Station Road. There were also many sightings along Chapel Road.
I studied all the reported sightings, adults and young, where they were seen and when, and came up with a rough idea of numbers. Obviously, some sightings will be of the same hedgehogs and some sightings have been of both parents and their young. Seeing parents and their young is very exciting but it also tells me of successful pairings and nesting.
After much thought and consideration, I have come up with an estimate of hedgehogs seen as roughly 20 adults and 18 young. We also have to consider that there are some hedgehogs which were not seen around the village, both adults and young. Also, I have had no reports of any seen at Church End so numbers are probably higher than I have estimated.
I believe we have a fairly good population of hedgehogs in South Leigh considering the national decline in recent years, but numbers could be, and need to be, many more. We will deal with that next spring.
We are now into winter and most hedgehogs will be hibernating. If you see any hedgehogs about, especially during the day and it appears a little small, please take it in and weigh it on your kitchen scales - it needs to be at least 500 grams to survive hibernation. If it is quite a bit lighter, then either take it to somewhere like Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital - they are at Aston Road, Haddenham, Nr. Aylesbury. Or, if you feel competent, take it into your home for the winter. Put it into a high sided box at least 60cm square, keep it fed on a meat-based dog or cat food, or even some meal worms, and give it plenty of straw bedding to get under to keep it warm so it doesn't attempt to hibernate. You are unlikely to see any during the winter so things should be quiet.If you have a question or problem involving hedgehogs, please contact me on: 07437 358587 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Once again, many thanks for all your help.
Brian Hutchings. Upper Wayside Cottage, Chapel Road.Update - September 2016
I have been amazed and am extremely grateful to all of you who never have reported your sightings of hedgehogs. Without you I could not have made this study.
So far, i have had around 50 responses and they have given me a very good picture of the hedgehog population of South Leigh and also an idea of their numbers. The full report of where they have been seen and of their numbers will be published here and in the December issue of the newsletter.
We are now into Autumn and it's the time when we are likely to see more hedgehogs as the young leave their parents and try to find their way in the world. Those young will, hopefully, feed well to enable them to grow and put on weight to prepare
themselves for hibernation. There are a few things we can do to help them get through Autumn and prepare for hibernation:
- Feeding: Put out some food which will be a great help for the youngsters as they have to find food for themselves. You can put out either meat-based dog or cat food and some water - do not put out milk as it is not good for them. Try to put it where dogs or cats cannot get to it. You can, if you are practical, build them a feeding station by cutting a 13cm hole in a plastic storage box and weighing down the lid with a stone or bricks, this will stop cats and foxes taking the food. If you are worried about attracting rats, don’t put grain-based foods out and take in any food still there in the mornings.
- Bonfires: Every year a number of hedgehogs die or suffer injuries due to bonﬁre piles not being checked before being lit. To help them and other wildlife from suffering, it is advised by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to avoid building your bonﬁre until the day it is going to be lit. This will reduce the chances of the hedgehogs taking up residence in the bonﬁre pile for hibernation. If you are building a ﬁreworks bonﬁre over several days, it is a good idea to put a low fence of chicken wire around it to prevent them getting into the pile.
- Hibernation: Hedgehogs need a dry and quiet place for hibernation. We can help by building a log pile, making sure there is room for a hedgehog. Cover the log pile with leaves and grass to keep the wind and rain out. Better still, we can buy or make a purpose made hedgehog house. Position it in a quiet part of your garden where they won't be disturbed, make sure the roof is water-tight, hide it under a wood pile or amongst tall vegetation with the entrance in a position that is hidden from view but can be found by the hedgehog.
By giving a little thought to the hedgehog and considering their needs, we may just allow more of them to survive to breed next spring and every spring, and maybe bring their numbers up to the level of 30 years ago.
Happy hedgehog spotting!
As always, please let me know of your sightings.
Brian Hutchings, email@example.com, text only to 07437 358587, Upper Wayside Cottage, Chapel, Road, South Leigh.
Great Crested Newts and Slow Worms
- I am trying to establish the location of great crested newts and slow worms in the parish of South Leigh. This information will then be included in the Parish Neighbourhood plan.
If you have a garden pond you may not be aware that great crested newts are present. The best time to look is after dark, using a torch. If you are unsure of the identity of your newts, I will gladly assist.
The great crested newt (triturus cristatus), also known as the warty newt, is one of the most protected species in the UK, and is safeguarded by both British and European law. Despite this, great crested newts are still in decline due to habitat destruction, fragmentation, intensive agriculture and development. Loss of ponds and suitable habitat around breeding areas have all added to their decline.
Slow worms used to be seen in the village churchyard and any information on their sighting would be most helpful.
The slow worm (anguis fragilis) also has protected status under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countrside Act 1981 and is classified as a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Plan.
All known habitats of great crested newts and slow worms should be registered with the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre at TVERC, Oxfordshire County Council, Speedwell House, Speedwell Street, Oxford OX1 1NE / http://sightings.tverc.org/
John Everard ~ 01993 704188 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Rushy Common Nature Reserve
- The restoration of Rushy Common is now complete and the area designated as an area for wildlife. There is a lake of varying depths with islands surrounded by a high hedge to limit human disturbance. The large number of waterfowl already using the site is a tribute to its design. These waterfowl can be viewed from a spacious bird hide with disabled access. Inside is a book for recording sightings. Details of how a key can be obtained are available from me. The same key fits the bird hide at Standlake Common.
Rushy Common Nature Reserve can be accessed by car roughly half way along Cogges Lane between Stanton Harcourt and Witney or on foot by following Moor Lane from South Leigh. There is a car park and footpath with disabled access across Cogges Lane to Tar Lakes a public amenity area.
John Ashwell, July 2011
Waxwings in South Leigh, December 2010
Photo of Waxwings in Aston village taken by Barry Hudson;
note that the red-wax patches are just visible on the wings, but this is unusual.
I was walking through the village on Christmas Eve delivering some late Christmas cards when I set eyes on a bird that I had never seen before in my life. Since I have been interested in birds since the age of about five and have travelled around many parts of the world working as a professional ornithologist, or simply looking at birds for pleasure, this was quite a momentous occasion. And a home-grown one too.
The bird in question was a Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus - see the photo. It is starling-sized with a sort of beigey-brown plumage but what is striking is its punk-rocker style crest which it raises when the mood takes it. It gets its name from the waxy red patches on the tips of its inner flight feathers but in the field one does not see these easily and it just looks as though the wings have nicely scalloped black and white edges. The bird I saw was in the hedge along Chapel Road on the right going towards Witney. And it was doing what waxwings habitually do in winter, which is eating berries.
I had been hoping to see a waxwing this winter because the birding networks were full of reports of them around Oxfordshire, but somehow they were always being reported from somewhere other than where I was. The weather at that time with about a foot of snow was not exactly conducive to driving around looking for waxwings. I had asked various friends to call me if they saw one but that had not produced any leads except to places I was not sure I could get to in the snow.
It turns out that this winter, according to the Oxford Ornithological Society, has proved to be a bumper year for waxwings with a 'spectacular invasion of this species'. They invade from Scandinavia and Russia when the berry crop fails in those areas, moving into Britain from the East. It happens only every few years and in the books it mentions another large-scale invasion in 1965/6. This winter (2010/11) there were one or two records in Oxford in November, but they really moved in big-time in December with 'a peak around the third week when multiple flocks were discovered on a daily basis'. It was roughly estimated that there may have been 700 to 800 birds in Oxfordshire. Reading those details in the OOS Bulletin, made my one bird in Chapel Road seem like small beer, but for me it was still exciting to see just one having never seen it before.
As I write this on 3rd February, waxwings are still around in Oxfordshire and several small flocks have been seen today around Abingdon. In winter waxwings love berries, so if you have some rowan berry crops in your garden, some rose hips or some crab apples, look out for that sandy coloured bird with a puffy crest and black and white markings on its wings. They often occur in small flocks of ten or less. The number of birds tends gradually to tail off during January to March with a few stragglers around until April or May. They nest in pine trees by preference, in northern Scandinavia laying their eggs in mid-June, quite late in the year by British standards. It may be many years before they invade Oxfordshire on the scale they did this year.
Butterfly count in South Leigh - May to August 2009
- Earlier this year I went to a meeting of the West Oxfordshire Field Club to hear a talk on butterflies given by local expert, David Redhead. In the audience was Alan Cole who asked for volunteers to help him with a butterfly count being undertaken by Butterfly Conservation. The idea appealed to me and after studying the OS map, I chose South Leigh as I could see that there were lots of footpaths and a variety of habitats. The idea was to do 4 counts between May and August.
So armed with a notebook, binoculars and the excellent Field Studies Council waterproof, folding information sheet on British butterflies, I embarked on what was to prove a rewarding and beautiful experience. I am only an amateur but undertaking the count has greatly improved my recognition of butterfly species. My daughter, Jen joined me on count 2 and my friend, Janet Maxwell came with me on counts 3 & 4.
I started by going round the churchyard and then walked along Bonds Lane - a wonderful habitat for butterflies, day-flying moths, dragonflies, damselflies, birds, blackberries and sloes (the sloe gin will be ready for Christmas!). After exploring a strip of set aside at the edge of a field, I then crossed two uncultivated fields towards Gunn cottage. After crossing the old railway, I walked around recently planted native woodland and returned to the church along the road, stopping at Windrush Cottage to count the butterflies in Heather Horner's beautiful garden that she has planted with many native species. We also were treated to a glass of freshly pressed apple juice on count 3 - very welcome as it was a very hot day. Then we called on our friend Anne Peake and were invited to an impromptu supper.
There was a huge influx of Painted Ladies this year. They fly here from Morocco, over the Atlas Mountains, across the Mediterranean, over Europe and then across the English Channel. We counted small numbers in May and June, some of whom looked very tatty but at the beginning of August we saw 28 newly emerged Painted Ladies, the offspring of the intrepid immigrants.
I've made a record of the species and numbers that we counted - I suspect that some of the small whites may have been green veined whites but it's very hard to tell unless they are at rest. If you are interested in improving the number of butterflies in your garden, please go to the Butterfly Conservation website where you will find lots of advice about what to plant. Top of the list is a patch of nettles in the sun as a food source for caterpillars so it's time to go wild. Additionally, there are some excellent guides for sale from the Field Studies Council.
P.S. If there is anyone in South Leigh who runs a light trap for moths, please get in touch with me so that we can compare notes. My telephone number is 01993 851862 or email email@example.com
Mary Elford, Bampton
In South Leigh, we are lucky enough to have several pairs of both the most common native woodpeckers - the Greater Spotted and the Green. Often the first sign of a Green Woodpecker is the distinctive sharp, repetitive 'yaffle' call. The flight for both species is also very characteristic, with fast flapping and swooping movements. The Lesser Spotted woodpecker is much rarer, although I have seen them locally in Wytham Wood.
You are most likely to see woodpeckers in flight rather than perched on tree trunks because they will almost always make sure they are on the far side of the tree trunk from you.
If you have bird boxes for smaller birds, you may need to reinforce the edge of the hole because woodpeckers can enlarge it and kill any chicks they find inside.
Respect your elderLichens are everywhere - on gravestones, on trees and on roofs. There are many varieties but they fall into three main groups according to how they grow. The flat 'crusty' lichens are the ones you would normally find on gravestones and rocks. There are also shrubby lichens and leafy lichens, which are more commonly found on the bark of trees or growing on the ground in much more northerly climes (reindeer eat plenty of lichen).
The humble lichen is an example of a true symbiotic relationship between two species, in this case between a plant (algae) and a fungus. Each species contributes and takes something from this close relationship - the fungus provides nutrients and tough protection against drought. While the delicate alga captures energy from sunlight.
Flashes of brillianceThere have been further reports of a kingfisher hunting up and down the Lim as it runs behind the houses in Chapel Road. It is rare to see these beautiful creatures but, I am told, there is no mistaking one when you do catch a glimpse.
The distinctive blue colour of a Kingfisher's plumage is so intense because it is not just brightly-coloured pigment in the feathers; in fact these feathers are brown. The iridescent blue colour is created by the way that the special structure of each feather reflects sunlight.
When the kingfisher dives and enters the water after spotting a fish, it is unable to see and must rely on its memory to predict the final position of its prey. Sometimes their memory does fail them and they may return to the surface holding a stone.
Kingfishers eat fish head first, so when the male is trying to impress a female he will offer her a fishy gift, but he turns it around in his beak to ensure she can swallow it easily.
Respect your elderAt the time of writing the elder blossom on the tree behind our house is just starting to drop after a stunning display this year. The profusion of pure white flowers and the distinctive scent of elder have always inspired rich folklore. It was thought that the most auspicious time to encounter fairies was under an elder bush on Midsummer's Eve.
It was felt to be good luck for an elder to seed itself near the back door of your house to keep evil spirits and other negative influences from entering the home. In fact, the strong scent of elder leaves does repel flies and they were sometimes attached to horses' harnesses and elders were often planted near dairies for reasons of hygiene.
Elder flowers seem particularly attractive to the hoverfly. Hoverflies are harmless and their larvae eat greenfly - another reason to consider allowing at least one elder bush in your garden.
Winners and LosersEach year the RSPB organise a massive survey of British garden birds by asking volunteers to count birds for one hour during one weekend in January. The results for 2008 were released recently and it is possible to obtain results broken down by county.
The Oxfordshire Top 10 is given here.
- House sparrow
- Blue tit
- Great tit
- Collared dove
For more details and full results check out the RSPB birdwatch results website here.
Rooks and ReassuranceThe Rookery off Homan's Lane is in full swing as I write. The birds come and go from this site all year but don't start serious nest building and repair until the end of February, battling against some fearsome gales. As building progresses, they start to strip small whippy twigs from a shrub very near us to weave in some strength to their precarious-looking structures.
This year there are around 15 nests, most of which are occupied and the social interaction is fascinating, if a little noisy.
A recent study by a Cambridge scientist has studied 'post conflict behaviour' in rooks. What they found was that following a particularly nasty argument, both the bully and the victim go back to their mate to seek reassurance by locking beaks, which seems to provide much-needed de-stressing.
Postscript: There is a special mention for one of Britain's favourite birds - the Kingfisher, which has been seen on the brook behind the houses in Chapel Lane. Keep your eyes peeled this summer for this special little bird.
Red, Gold and GreenEvery winter, when the goldfinches arrive in the garden, it strikes me how genuinely exotic they appear. They would not look out of place in a rainforest amongst gaudy parrots. They have such vivid colours and their presence is a real joy in the bleak midwinter.
Goldfinches are delicate birds compared to their bigger, stronger and more butch cousins the greenfinches. Their small beaks are adapted perfectly to feed on smaller, less accessible seeds. The variety and design of finch beaks did not escape the attention of Mr Darwin 250 years ago.
If you want to encourage these beautiful birds, then it is best to cater for them specifically. If you grow Evening Primrose in the garden, then leave it alone rather than dead-heading. The oil-rich seeds provide high energy food for birds, including goldfinches during the winter. If you prefer a tidier garden, then you can buy special hanging feeders with tiny holes, which you can then fill with their favourite small black Niger seeds.
Over HereThis autumn I spent a number of hours fishing in the Windrush with my youngest son. He has progressed from trawling the Lym with a rock-pooling net to fishing with a rod and line. The fish were few and far between, but we did encounter an animal that he was already familiar with from the brook. Any of our bait lurking anywhere near the bottom of the river was avidly snapped up by American Signal Crayfish, which didn't let go until they were on the bank.
These fearsome crustaceans were introduced into this country to supply the restaurant trade, but they are now widespread and decimating wildlife in our rivers and streams. Their aggression and size drives out our own smaller crayfish, but these monsters of the deep also carry a virus capable of killing their native cousins. American crayfish mop up large numbers of insects and fish eggs from the riverbed and so have an enormous impact on all freshwater wildlife.
This was one catch that we didn't throw back!