How do they cope?

25 Jan
January and February are typically the coldest months of the year although in many years we don’t get too many frosts. Our wild animals deal with the short days and limited food supply in quite different ways.
Hedgehogs (the few that are still around) hibernate while Badgers don’t, they just pile on lots of weight in the autumn and sleep a lot!! Sounds a bit like me….
Lots of other residents hibernate such as bats, frogs and a number of butterflies. Some 6 species of butterfly hibernate as adults in garages, sheds and anywhere its dry. I know a few people in the village who have a number of butterflies move in every winter.
Many of our insect eating birds will have long migrated to southern warmer climates in Africa and southern Europe where there are lots of insects to eat. Some species of moths only appear in the winter as they know there will be very few birds that will eat them. Like many months, our winter moths have been given some wonderful names such as the Pale Brindled Beauty, Spring Ushers and Mottled Umbers.
Some our birds are resident all year around but research has shown that birds we often think as residents such as Blackbirds and Robins also migrate and are replaced by other birds from further north. A number of our winter resident birds only come for the winter as it’s warmer here compared to their summer home in Siberia and Northern Scandinavia. The Redwings and Fieldfares find lots of eat in our hedgerows particularly berries.
Over the winter a number of species of smaller birds will flock together including Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and various finches. They develop a regular feeding pattern each day and if they have found your bird feeders early in the season it’s likely you will have lots of visitors throughout the winter. If they haven’t found your feeders by now you may find (like me) you mostly get Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons. It often takes some really cold weather to cause this pattern to change.
While it’s really important you do put food out on a regular basis it’s also important to provide fresh water especially when there is a hard frost. A hard frost can kill many birds from the temperature but they can also die from dehydration as there isn’t any liquid water!!
If we get a really hard spell and the streams freeze over the Kingfishers, Herons, Moorhens and Egrets can really suffer as they simply can’t get to their food.
A couple of changes which has effected our farmland birds since the 1940’s is the increased efficiency of farming and changing planting times which results in less food over the winter. Over the last few years there has been a fascinating project on the Marlborough Downs where a number of local people have worked with cereal farmers. The farmers donate, or sell at a marginal cost, the poor quality grains that end up in the bottom of the hoppers and the volunteers carry out large scale regular feeding and the results have been really quite amazing. It started as a project to help the Tree Sparrows recover (they have declined by 93% since the 1970’s) and the population has increased significantly with many other finches benefiting as well. If any local farmers are interested in such an experiment over this winter please do let me know.

Fluttering and buzzing

12 Nov

(Originally published in the Sherston Cliffhanger September 2014)

This spring and summer have proven to be fantastic for our wildlife – warm spring to get everything started and a good summer so far (aside from the thunder and rain late July) so all our plants, bugs, birds and animals are having a great year so far.

This year has been particularly good for butterfly’s. This is one group who, generally speaking, can recover really quickly if the weather’s right and we provide them with the right habitat either at field edges or in our gardens and this is really quite easy to do. A fantastic example of this in on Silver Street in Sherston where Valerian plants have been left to grow and they have attracted a stunning display of butterfly’s.

The Cliff and Grove Wood, among many other places are alive with hover flies, moths, bees and bugs – just spend a few minutes looking around. There are lots of Marbled White butterfly’s around as illustrated. For those who do want to look around there is a Butterfly Walk on the 2nd August at Yatton Down near Castle Coombe kindly hosted by the owner of the site Maurice Avent. It’s an amazing nature reserve Maurice has been managing for some 30 years. Meet there are 11.15 am or call me for details.

The first migratory birds are just about to leave. Aside from the Cuckoo’s (anyone see/heard one for a few years?) which have already gone back to Central Africa, the Swifts are often the first ones to go that actually raise their chicks here, as opposed to the Cuckoo which lay’s it’s egg in someone else’s nest. The swifts are the black birds that shriek around the village in small flocks with swept-back wings and a forked tail. They nest under the eaves of a number of houses around the village and will be soon followed to Africa by the Swallows and House Martins which look broadly similar but have some white on their front.

This time of year can be really quite dangerous for many birds and animals with lots of young ones who don’t really know about many of the dangers such as cats and cars. There was a Buzzard injured near the church in mid July apparently hit by a cars and was subsequently put to sleep due to it’s injuries. You may see young hedgehogs out and about but please don’t touch them unless they are in danger such as on a road. There aren’t many left so every one is important.

The Holly and the Ivy

12 Nov

(Originally published the Sherston Cliffhanger October 2014)

Autumn has well and truly arrived with many trees dropping their leaves and the bird migration in full flow.

Most of our summer residents have gone, such as the House Martins and Swallows, while not many of the winter migrants like the Redwing (a bit like a Thrush) have departed their breeding grounds in Northern Europe.

Believe it of not but some of our butterfly’s also migrate. The Red Admiral butterfly, which is quite common here in the summer, migrates north in May and then goes south again in September. In early September I was fortunate to spend a week on a small island off the coast of Wales and there were literally thousands starting to move south across the Bristol Channel.

Even more amazing is the migration of a closely related butterfly – the Painted Lady – which is quite common here in the summer. Not only does this small insect migrate from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle, which is a feat in itself, but it takes six generations of them to achieve this. Each generation migrates only part of the way with the following generation continuing the circular journey. This was only discovered fairly recently using, amongst other things, radar data. This just goes to show how little we know about even common insects that we take for granted.

The Ivy growing over walls and up trees is another part of our natural habitat that’s easy to overlook. The Ivy flowers in October and November and has flower buds that are greenish-white and often look like small drumsticks and are in little groups. The buds open to display tiny little green flowers which smell like Elderflower and produce pollen and nectar and consequently are a really important late autumn food source for many insects. By December the Ivy is covered in black flat-topped berries which are a really important source of food for the winter bird visitors such as the Red Wing and Fieldfare as well as our resident birds.

This warm reasonably wet summer has been fantastic for many birds and insects so we may see larger than normal numbers of migrant birds arriving here in the next few weeks so a large food supply over the winter is really important.

The Ivy and other berry producing plants often live the hedgerows and consequently hedgerows are a major source of food. These, however, are often trimmed/flailed in the autumn by farmers to keep things tidy which can be a disaster for wildlife – taking away important food sources just when they are needed. As a plea is it possible to trim the hedgerows every few years rather than every year? It will start to look messy but nature really needs messy.

Finally – time to get the bird feeders out with a variety of seeds, fats etc. Please do wash them out on a regular basis as there are some quite nasty diseases that spread from bird to bird. Last winter my feeders weren’t used much (aside from the Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons) as it was quite mild. This winter may be harder so please keep the feeders topped up!!

Of irruptions and hazy days

12 Nov

For the more experienced (i.e. older) amongst us, cast your mind back to your childhood going on summer days out with your parents. I have vivid recollections of the windscreen getting covered in squashed insects leaving smears and all kinds of marks on the front of the car which my father would spend ages trying to clean off. I also seem to recollect you could buy plastic covers to go over the front of the car to stop the paintwork being damaged… (OK – where is he going with this one..)

The point being is that we simply don’t get the number of insects we used to and, as a consequence, there isn’t as much for food for insectivores (Shrews, Swallows, Blackcaps etc) – so we don’t have as many insect predators as we used to – so we don’t have as many higher level predators such as birds of prey and stoats. (This is what’s known in ecological circles at trophic layers). Given a chance nature can recover quite quickly from population declines but in reality nearly all our countryside is quite heavily managed especially when you compare it to rural France or Poland where there is still lots of messy and unimproved bits as there isn’t as much pressure on farmers.

The more long-term deeper concern is what our children will see a lack of insects as normal.

On a more positive note the autumn bird migration will be almost complete in November with the usual suspects here in good numbers such as Fieldfares and Redwings. Many other continental birds such as Starlings, Jays, Wood Pigeons and Goldfinches will have arrived. In some years the number arriving is quite incredible. For example in November 2010 some 161,000 Wood Pigeons flew over a site in Dorset in 1 day!! (This wasn’t a typo..). In 2014 some 50,000 Swallows also flew over a site in Dorset in 1 day and in 2011 some 10,000 Goldfinches flew over a site in Kent in 1 day.

Sometimes these large numbers are due to the shortage of food for the birds in their summer grounds, or having a couple of successful years breeding when the numbers of individuals can significantly increase. This is known as an Irruption and in some years some unusual birds can arrive here such as 3 years ago when we had lots of Waxwings in the apple tree next to the village school.

If this winter proves to be a cold one and, just having completed a great breeding season for most birds, we may get all sorts of strange immigrants in the village.

Butterfly walk – 2nd August

16 Jul

Butterfly walk – 2nd August 2014.

Following WildSherston, Maurice Avent from Butterfly Conservation has kindly agreed to guide us through his own wildlife reserve not far from Sherston on Saturday 2nd August at 11.30am.

Yatton Down is a 36 acre site Maurice has been managing for many years particularly for butterflys – more details at

Not far from Castle Coombe – directions are:

Directions to Yatton Down: 
From the A420 four miles south of Chippenham (heading towards Bath and Bristol), turn onto a minor road signposted to West Yatton directly opposite “The Crown Inn”. Follow this (narrow) road for about a mile until it drops to the right down a sleep slope. At the bottom of the slope there is a sign pointing left towards Long Dean. Just after this turning is a ‘flattened’ embankment under some large trees, and most people park here. Access to the Down is through a gate immediately opposite this ‘parking area’ on the other side of the road.

Subject to the weather this promises to be a very interesting trip for all kinds of wildlife.

If you are interested please let me know.


Our river of life

5 Jul

Trout on the Cliff - Sherston. Pound coin for size

Trout on the Cliff – Sherston. Pound coin for size

We are so very fortunate in Sherston to have not just one but one and half rivers (if you count the two streams that have a confluence near Stretchline as half…) and they provide so many important elements to our local wildlife. Not only does the river have habitats for animals and plants that depend on water such as crayfish and willows and herons and kingfishers, but the fact that we have a water table which is just below the surface means we have verdant plant growth around us.

Like many ecosystems the river, with the right management, can recover from all kinds of problems such as the major pollution the Sherston Avon suffered from in 1998.

Rivers can be an enormous resource and it’s something we should really look after – while we may enjoy the benefit of a vibrant and healthy river system, the people downstream also appreciate it. Wouldn’t it be great if we had otters around the village!!

and to illustrate how wildlife can re-generate the picture shows a dead trout I found about 20 yards away from the river – and the round thing beneath the fish is a pound coin!! I suspect Heron had caught it and it was so big it couldn’t swallow it (I should have taken it home for tea!)

This year, so far, has been fantastic for nature. The warm late spring and summer has allowed birds to raise large broods and insects to breed at a fantastic rate. While we don’t always appreciate the insects, the birds do. If you happen to go down to Grove Wood you may see large mixed flock of Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Great Tits and even March Tits – what a fantastic sight.

Finally a date for the diary – WildSherston in 2015 will be on the 16th May. Village Hall booked – just a few logistics to sort out now! If you have any ideas or suggestions, or want to help please let me know.

WildSherston in review

26 May

The weekend of WildSherston went with a flutter, flap, a squeak and slither (and no bangs…) due to the bats, moths, owls and snails. The children made quite a lot of noise as well!!

The weather was superb with lots of display stands outside as well as in the large marquee. We were fortunate to have a number of really good speakers including Kelvin Boot on Friday night with his stories being a well-travelled naturalist. On Saturday there were 6 speakers on a whole variety of subjects from Wild Flowers to Birds and Rivers. The two stalls most in demand were the snail racing (which brought out the competitive spirit in many people albeit in slow motion) and the bats. It was a rare chance to see bats close up and many of the children were fascinated… the adults couldn’t get close..

On Friday night a series of moth traps were put out around the village and some very large moths were caught which were a bit scary. About 50 different species were found.

The Sherston mums did a fantastic job of setting up and running a whole series of activities for children including clay models, nature walks and a special thanks to Carron Watehouse for managing this.

Sunday dawned at 4.15am with a hardy bunch out and about for the Dawn Chorus and then a bird ringing exhibition, with breakfast, at the Vineyard. A series of fascinating walks followed looking at different aspects of nature including the river, birds, wild flowers and butterflies.

I suspect some people felt it was worth going just for the fantastic food alone, provided by “The Awkward Squad”.

Many thanks to lots of people and organizations who really made this a fantastic experience and to the main organisers Martin Rea, Jo Egerton, Pete Bishop, Carron Watehouse.

And of course the brain behind the idea, and general management of the event our thanks go to Geoff Carss.

Sherston Craft Club did a fantastic job with the legacy banner, and it was clear that the children loved getting stuck in.

Thank you to Sherston Church and Sue Robinson for organising the children’s and pets service on Sunday morning. The “Living Churchyard” proved to be somewhere a bit different to discover nature and wildlife.The Living Churchyards and Cemeteries Project (LCCP) was set up nationally in the 1990s with the aim of promoting churchyards and cemeteries as a valuable source of biodiversity.

We received funding from the Parish Council, Wiltshire County Council , MVCAP and support from N3 Graphic Displays (Nick Holland), The Post Office, Wentworth Jigsaws, Highgrove, Bugs Eye View, Whatley Manor, The Ship at Luckington, Sonardyne, Jeremy Nabarro and Carole Conyngham.

People clearly enjoyed themselves with some fantastic feedback including from Miranda Krestovnikov (presenter of BBC’s Coast programme and President of RSPB) who stayed for 5 hours and insisted she is invited again and will bring more people. The BBC, who broadcast the BBC Wiltshire Radio programme ‘Wild about Wiltshire” live from the event on Sunday mentioned it was the best ever live broadcast they have ever done and interviewed lots of people over the 2 hour programme.

The overall intention was to get more people, adults and children, interested in their environment and from the feedback it certainly achieved that aim.

We also had some great coverage in local newspapers:

and there are some great photo’s on our facebook site: