Community Wildlife Area – February 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

Well, 2019 ended very wet and 2020 has begun just as wet. This has meant that not much work has been done on the patch since Autumn last year. Before the rain came we did put the pond in place and fill it with water. However, there is still some tidying up to do round the pond edge and the pond needs planting ready for use by frogs etc. We will choose plants which provide habitats that attract species already known in the area or even attract new species. Although we have still to make a detailed list of what these plants will be. We will mostly use plants that are known to grow in the wild locally, then after establishing them in the pond, allow it all to develop with as little intervention as possible.

On the rest of the patch, Mary and Mark have sown most of the available ground with a wildflower and grass mixture that should form a sward similar to that which would have grown in antiquity and still exists in some parts of the county. It is hoped by doing this we we will encourage more species to make a home in Nether Heyford. There is also another plot planted with the “Cornfield Annual” mixture that was so successful in providing pollen as food for a variety insects last year.

What have we learned in 2019? One lesson for me has been to be prepared to change plans with new knowledge. For instance the original plan was to have a lot of flower rich grass that we could mow once a year as in many wildlife reserves. Our insect count demonstrated that long unmown grass with flower rich grassland easily available is much more conducive to what we want to achieve. Another surprise was when our insect recording (especially Butterflies and moths) demonstrated that southern species are colonising suitable habitat well to The North of their previous strongholds. We recorded a Jersey Tiger Moth and a Cream Spot Tiger Moth. Both are unmistakable large, showy, southern moths that are steadily moving North as our climate warms up. I logged a Dusky Sallow Moth which is a new moth to me and is similarly moving extending it’s range to the North.

The identification and recording of wild species is major part of our work on the patch and is the main way that we gauge success or otherwise of the project. This work can be very time consuming yet exciting and rewarding. Mary and Mark have done wonderful job of recording Bees, Wasps, Beetles, Flowers etc.. I have recorded a few Moths, Woodlice and Molluscs. There is still much work to be done in 2020.

We also have a target to involve local children in the project but have yet to decide on what form this work will take.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – December 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

Right now much of the ground on the patch is cold and very wet. The difference between the ground that has been cleared, sown or made ready to sow and that still covered in old standing grass is very clear. The latter is still relatively sheltered with a few dry places even after all of the rain we have had. There is evidence of runs made by mice and voles in this whilst the bare earth is cold, wet and exposed to all elements. It is very clear that untouched grassland is much more conducive to the bio diversity that we desire than that managed by other means.

One of the things that I noticed, at ground level in the long grass was the presence of small pieces of “bitten off” green leaf seemingly placed around the aforementioned runs. This is often evidence of Wood mouse activity. Previously named “Field mice”, these are large (for mice), brown, with whitish tummies and bulging, black eyes that look about to fall out. If you grab one by the tail it will shed the skin of the tail to get away and you will be left with just a mouse tail skin in your hand. They are relatively numerous, you will almost certainly have come across a Wood mouse at sometime.

As far as is known they are the only British mammals that place “markers” to help to find their way round. The pieces of leaf are some of these “markers”. They do use other material but green leaves are the most noticeable. In autumn a family of two parents with 4 or 5 young will live in a nest which is usually a burrow but may be anywhere warm and dry. They line the nest with dry grass etc and build up a store of grain, nuts, berries etc to keep them through the winter. My Wife has a family in her greenhouse right now that has stored an incredible amount of chestnuts. Unlike House Mice they never breed in the winter but all snuggle up as a family throughout the cold weather whilst using up their store. In Springtime parents stay together whilst the young find mates of their own. They then feed on young buds and invertebrates such as Caterpillars, Worms, Beetles etc. and start to breed again. In Spring and Summer months the broods are larger with 7 young not unusual. Populations are kept down due to a high level of predation.

As a young man I spent many winter months ploughing with tractors much smaller and slower than today’s tractors. There was usually a Kestrel or two watching the plough from a comfortable perch. There were also Carrion Crows doing the same. I often ploughed up Wood mouse families that were over wintering as described. Often alive but exposed they would run like mad to find shelter. The Kestrel would come down to pick one up, then take it to its perch to consume at leisure. A Crow would fly down. Then hop from one mouse to another, despatching each mouse with its huge bill. It would then pick them all up in one “beakfull” and fly off to eat them on the edge of the field. There must be lesson there somewhere.

Merry Christmas

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – November 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

We have been busy preparing the patch in preparation for sowing the wildflower seed on the designated meadow area. We have removed the weed smothering covers and raked over the soil ready to receive the seed; all we need now is for the rain to stop and the seed can go in.

We were extremely pleased to find during the uncovering operation that our resident toad is still in situ.

HeyfordResidentToad

We shall have to ensure that we keep an area covered over for it to lurk in. Toads, unlike frogs, are very conservative creatures and will only lay their eggs in the place where they themselves were tadpoles, so it is unlikely that we will have toad spawn in our new pond. However we shall almost certainly find frogs and newts in there fairly soon.

As the days shorten and cool, the amount of insect life in the patch is reducing, but the flowering ivy is still producing things of interest. Recently there has been a group of large black flies with showy orange wing bases hanging out there; these were noon flies, something I don’t remember seeing before. A large orange flying insect also appeared, looking at first like a hornet, but it turned out to be a species of hoverfly. This creature not only looks like a hornet, but flies and moves like one too. Its larvae actually live in hornet and wasp nests where they eat the rubbish in the bottom of the nest, and so are tolerated by their hosts.

On a recent trip to Suffolk (prior to the wet weather) I was astonished to see on lawns and patches of grass numerous little bees flying just above the ground. These were mining bees which had just hatched from their burrows in the soil. This is something that would normally happen in the spring (I have seen that at Harlestone Heath in the past) but September would seem too late for the bees to get enough pollen and nectar to make the nests to raise the next generation. If we keep an area of close mown grass we can hope for a similar colony of bees on our own patch in due course.

Mark Newstead

Community Wildlife Area – October 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

The heads of Ivy in the bordering Roadside Hedge are now in full bloom and providing a bounty of nectar for a variety of insects. Right now there are several species of Wasp, Hover Fly, Bee, Butterfly and many more insects, including massive European Hornets which are really just huge Wasps. On warmer nights, nocturnal insects, especially moths will be found on the same flowers.

Elsewhere, we have cut down as much of the long grass as we are going to. This has been collected and put in heaps. One of these has a cavity underneath which will hopefully be taken up by a Hedgehog.

Grass has been cut and removed from the area where the pond will be. Most of the area exposed thus will be cut quite short and covered with spoil from pond digging. This will be planted with a wildflower /grass mixture though some will be kept as bare earth. This being essential for some solitary Bee and Wasp species.

Early in October we will sow the Cornfield Annual patch with the same mixture as the new ground and those patches now covered with plastic sheeting will be stripped bare and sown with Cornfield Annuals. The seating/picnic area will be sown with a Wildflower Lawn seed.

When the pond is in we will need to provide a barrier to keep small, unattended children from the pond. One of my Grandchildren, when younger, tried using my garden pond net as a trampoline which was not good idea. I think we will need to put a fence round the pond with a gate for access. This should be much safer.

Molehills are usually very much in evidence at this time of year. They live singly and feed mainly on a diet of Earthworms. Each mole digs series of subterranean tunnels which it “cruises” along, picking up any worms which drop into the tunnels. Earthworms migrate up and down vertically in the soil according to outside conditions. For example they go deeper in times of drought, then Moles dig their burrows at a lower level to trap them. When they dig these new tunnels they push the spoil to the surface to create Molehills.

I know that some gardeners believe moles eat vegetable roots from underground. This belief is erroneous. Moles cannot digest any form of vegetable matter, they are not rodents and just do not have the dentition to gnaw roots. Moles need to eat every few hours and dine EXCLUSIVELY on earthworms and insects. Having said that I did find a beetroot on my allotment that had been well and truly gnawed below ground underneath was what appeared to be the top end of a Mole Tunnel. A closer look at the damage showed very clearly the double tooth marks of a Rodent. This was no doubt the work of a Brown Rat which had modified a moles tunnel to burrow up to my Beet.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – September 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

As Summer draws to a close we are beginning to evaluate our first two season’s activities, What has gone well? What have we learned? Do we need to modify plans? etc. Whilst there are no disappointments so far, lessons are being learned all of the time.

A real success has been the sowing of a mixture of “Cornfield Annuals” on the only bare patch available to plant. Some are still in flower as I write this in late August. They have been nothing short of magnificent. Looking absolutely wonderful, attracting a whole host of pollinating insects day and night, as well as suppressing all other plants which some may term as “weeds”. We will certainly plant this mixture this Autumn on the patches that have been cleared of vegetation during Summer. We will still plant original patch with a “Flowering Meadow Mixture” as planned.

Cornfield Annuals are ultra easy to establish and being natural wild plants need minimal after care. They are inexpensive to buy as seed, ultra easy to establish, only last for one season, look gorgeous, attract insects and suppress weeds. Why would you not want some? They include Corn Chamomile, Wild Cornflower, Corncockle and Corn Marigold.

I will be ordering soon and will buy ready mixed, loose seed in quantity. I can order extra for anyone who needs them. Plant at 4/5 gm per square metre, just scrape the soil and sprinkle them in – so simple -. Contact me on 01327 344461 or davemusson073@gmail.com if you would like to give some Cornfields Annual a try.

The other success was the decision to leave a large proportion of the site unmown for the whole season. I admit that before I was involved in this, I was only vaguely aware of the value of this habitat.. A number of our butterflies and moths live on grass and spend 8-10 months as caterpillars and another month or so as a chrysalis so depend on uncut grass, as do most of our Small Mammals, and a host of creatures too numerous to list. In the light of this, our original plan to have the area very largely as “ Flowering Meadow” type habitat is now under review. We will be mowing and removing long grass soon and have yet to discuss which we will treat thus. We may end up with more permanent long grass habitat than was originally planned, however this is likely to be modified with the introduction plants such as Hogweed, Knapweed, Teasels etc. to further increase the species that this will support.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – July 2019

Take the time to just stand back and watch the bees in your garden and you will be amazed at their variety. Its the sound they make that is so wonderful, from the high pitched hum of a bee swimming in the stamens of a poppy to the deep drone of a queen bumblebee.

On the wildlife patch on the allotments I have counted ten different types of bee so far. They come in all shapes and sizes ranging from the tiny “hairy footed flower bee” (I think that is the best name ever) that darts about and hovers in front of flowers. The females are black with orange hairs on their back legs for collecting pollen. Red and buff tailed bumble bees on the other hand seem huge in comparison, and the flowers bend under their weight. Honey bees and bumble bees are social insects, where the queen lays eggs and daughter workers do all the work. Solitary bees work on their own and make their own nests in different locations, from a hole in the ground or brick or cob wall. You will often find their holes grouped together but each nest is completely separate.

Amongst the bees that I have spotted so far are two that are called nomad bees that on first sight appear to be tiny wasps for they have bright yellow and black markings, but in fact they parasitise solitary bee’s nests. They lay an egg inside host’s nest and the nomad grub then destroys the host’s egg or grub and proceeds to feed on the food store.

The best thing we can all do for bees is to grow a variety of flowers in our gardens particularly those which flower early and late so providing nectar for the longest possible period. Different species of bees have tongues of different lengths so need flowers of different lengths of tube. This doesn’t stop some short tongued bees from cheating. You can see this happening if you stand by a clump of comfrey; not all the bees will be entering the flowers but some will bite a hole at top of the flower to get the nectar. This unfortunately prevents the flower from being pollinated.

For the allotment holders having such a number and variety of bees in the wildlife patch is good news for they will be out and about pollinating the fruit and vegetables. The best crop of runner beans we ever had was when the beans were planted next to our lavender bushes (a good reason to grow some flowers amongst the vegetables, which also looks beautiful).

To make a solitary bee nest site:
1. Cut the top off a plastic drinks bottle.
2. Fill the bottle with lengths of hollow woody plant stems, reed stems or bamboo cane to make lots of tunnels for the bees to crawl into and make their nests.
3. Hang the bottle up in the garden (at a slight angle so the rain doesn’t get in) where it will get some sun but not be baked all day..

Mary Newstead

Community Wildlife Area – June 2019

Some readers will be aware that a group of vacant allotments have been taken out
of commission to be used as a “Wildlife Area”. In the same way that the Community Orchard is a project undertaken on behalf of the community as a whole, this Wildlife Area is also a Community Wildlife Area. The following is brief explanation of the “Hows and Whys” of the project to bring readers up to date with progress and to outline plans for the future development of this area.

Who is doing this? Under the umbrella of the NHPC Allotment Committee Mark and Mary Newstead and Pauline Musson with me overseeing are using our knowledge and expertise to plan, manage and develop this project from concept to fruition. We expect to involve others when necessary as appropriate as the project develops.

What are we doing? We are providing a safe area where local wildlife will be able to live, flourish and be enjoyed by our Community.

Why are we doing this? A recent study by 30 scientists has concluded that Right now our Natural World is at more risk than at any time since Human Beings first walked this Earth. Whilst we cannot change the world, we can change a bit of Nether Heyford to form an area where our local wildlife (plants and animals) will be safe and able to increase rather than decrease. Not only will this benefit our wonderful wildlife but it has been proven that being able to spend time in such an area (however small) benefits our own health and well being.

Where are we doing it? A patch of about 5 vacant allotments forms a rough triangle toward the Sports Field end of the Allotment field along the Watery Lane Hedge Border. This patch has been taken out of allotment use to form the Wildlife area.

How are we doing this? It is a known fact that if one provides the habitat, the wildlife will move in to make use of it. For example, nesting boxes were in use within hours of being put on our site. With this in mind we have chosen to provide a range of connected habitats that seek to restore the area to a state in which it may have been many years before it was ploughed or became allotments.

We know that a brook ran down that side of the field. We cannot provide a brook so we have planned a Wildlife Pond in the Area. There will be three other main
habitats. Sown along the length of the hedge, to a depth of up to 3m will be plants associated with hedgerows. This will be mown once a year. Other areas will be Wildflower Meadow which will also be mown once a year. We intend to establish “Tussock Areas” which will not be mown at all. These latter provide invaluable habitat for small mammals with many insects and other invertebrates benefiting from the undisturbed life. There will also be a wildflower lawn square with seating, surrounded by small trees to provide a peaceful area. This will all be achieved by using purpose designed seeds mixtures which are readily available on the open market and good management.

When will we do all this and how long will it take? We have already started the work and are busy recording the current Flora and Fauna for future reference. The area has been fenced off and pathways cut into the grass and the seating area has been mown. We have no wish to destroy any wildlife that already occupies the area and all development will be gradual, enabling life to move to suitable areas as patches become bare before replanting. If you were to visit this summer there will be an allotment size patch of old fashioned Arable Field Wildflowers in bloom. This patch will be re-sown with a Meadow Mixture in autumn to grow on in 2020.

The Pond should also be in place and some planting and landscaping around it.
There will be areas covered in plastic sheeting. This is to kill the present flora in order for us to sow these areas with appropriate mixtures in autumn 2019. We don`t expect the whole area to be sown till the autumn of 2020 or even 2021.

Unfortunately we have not yet established safe and sensible, unescorted public access to the Wildlife Area. This will come in the future. In the meantime we would be very pleased to welcome interested visitors. If you would like to visit the area please feel free to contact me on 01327 344461 or e-mail davemusson073@gmail.com

I would be glad to arrange an escorted visit with myself or another team member.

Dave Musson