Published: 02 December 2013
Wildlife Diary: December 2013
We are again at that time of year when we start ‘putting the garden to bed’ in preparation for winter.
Andrew McCarthy
More often than not gardeners undertake copious amounts of tidying up - dead-heading plants, strimming and cutting overgrown corners, raking up fallen leaves and fruit – in other words making the garden acceptable to look at for the coming cold and often dreary months!  This year we seem to be doing our own garden tidying later than normal as the leaves are still on the trees here.  The autumnal colours which I so enjoy photographing annually – usually in early November - seem several weeks late this year, probably the result of the very cold May which seems to have set the entire year back by several weeks.  
Anyway, back to the garden.  Whilst we are no different here in our desire to keep our plot looking reasonably tidy during winter, I try to balance our desire for order with a need to provide over-wintering wildlife habitat, which of course thrives in neglected and overgrown corners.  Over the years our garden has evolved such that whilst there are large areas of ‘well-organised space’ visible from the house, there are also ‘out of sight’ corners which are more or less left to themselves in summer (apart from an occasional cut ‘on rotation’ so as to keep invading scrub back, but whilst also leaving wildlife nesting, breeding and feeding habitat) and then completely to themselves over the winter.

My wildlife habitats include a wildlife meadow (which I normally cut in October), a pond (a portion of which is cleared every other year), adjacent marsh vegetation, informal compost heaps, piles of rotting grass clippings and decaying autumn leaves, log and rubble piles, stands of stinging nettles (in summer) and bramble scrub.  My ‘neglected’ corners support a wide range of small and microscopic wildlife, which together assist in the vital process of decomposition.

Their combined activities release nutrients into the soil and this in turn supports the base of the food chain for a whole host of organisms above them such as inspects andmolluscs, frogs and toads, insectivorous and carnivorous birds, badgers and foxes.  In addition to my wildlife areas, I also try to leave some plants without dead-heading or pruning right back, since the resultant clumps of dead vegetation provide important breeding habitat for many inspects and this in turn provides feeding habitat for birds.  I have also this year left a large number of apples where they have fallen, rather than picking them all up and tidying away.  Last week I was rewarded by the sight of large numbers of fieldfares and redwings newly arrived from Scandinavia, busily feeding on the fallen fruit and bathing in the open water of the newly cleared section of pond. Wonderful!

Having said all this, I understand how frustrating it can be when for example your cabbages are ravaged by snails or cabbage white butterfly caterpillars.  However, I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to manage our small parcels of land an environmentally friendly way and therefore we should try to minimise the impact as far as we can by good practice.  For example potential shelters for slugs and snails (such as compost heaps) are situated well away from vegetable beds, growing brassicas are netted in summer or (better still I think) we time the planting of the most sensitive vegetables to avoid the life cycles of the pests in the first place.  Since I am also a wildlife photographer, however, this is easier said than done in my garden, since I need a good supply of pest species to photograph in summer!  

Earlier this year I mentioned in an article on ponds and amphibians, the importance of good husbandry of neglected ground - in particular adjacent to ponds - and this is worth reiterating in the context of our autumn tidying.  It’s worth reminding ourselves at this time of year that amphibians and reptiles (such as slow worms) can still be found on the ground deep in the grass thatch or in the neglected habitats I mentioned above.  When cutting and strimming, I cut down progressively over a period of days in order to encourage amphibians and reptiles to move away, rather than mowing close in the first cut.  If you cut too close too soon you could end up killing the very animals you are working so hard to encourage!  
On a final and very autumnal diary note, I thought I’d share with you a close encounter I had a few days ago with an animal that is famous for its autumn breeding display.  My wife and I were just leaving our front garden a few days ago when a fallow deer stag sporting a full head of (very sharp) antlers shot out from a neighbours drive and after much indecision, ran away in a clatter of skidding hooves down the road.  The animal was clearly very frightened by being ‘trapped’ between two tall hedges and I don’t know what happened to it after it ran out of sight.  However, at one point it was only feet away from us and whilst I am enchanted by these animals and love to see and photograph them close up, I generally prefer such encounters to be on my terms!  I’ll look at the deer rut next year in a separate diary special, so do watch this space.

Reported by Andrew McCarthy  

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