In wildlife gardening, it is so easy to only think about all the wildlife that lives above ground. But imagine all the life that lives beneath the soil. We may come across some of it when we are digging, but what is it? How is it faring? And how can you help it?
Well, this weekend I'm going to try something I have never done - being a fearless hunter, I'm going to go seeking worms. And I'm going to invite you to do the same!
The thing that inspired me to go underground exploring was an email I received telling me about the 'Big Worm Dig'. It is an initiative set up by Riverford Farm, an award-winning organic farm, in collaboration with the University of Central Lancashire.
What they are asking is for people to dig a one foot by one foot square of soil and count and identify which worms they find. Now you may, like me, think that your worm identification skills aren't quite up to the task, but Riverford have created a wonderful information pack to help us all. With it, you will suddenly realise that the off-colour worms you sometimes find aren't sick, they're the Green Worm. Or you might find those with a pink tip, which will be either the Rosy-tip or the Grey Worm. See, they're not all just 'earthworms'!
In order to take part, you need to go onto the Riverford website here. Or you can leapfrog the opening pages to the log-in page here. Don't be put off by the fact that you have to put in name and address - it is worth it and you will be emailed an electronic booklet showing you how to take part and how to identify your worms. And they say it only takes about 20 minutes.
Now they're not after the worms of your compost heap (which I find are the only worms I've ever photographed, so that's the photo you're getting!) - we know that compost heaps can be stuffed with them.
No, this survey is looking to see how worm-rich our soils are across the country.
I'll let you know how I get on - I think I'm bound to learn something from the exercise. And I'd love to know if any of you give it a go too.
I'm delighted to hand the reins of this week's blog to Mark Nowers from the RSPB's dedicated wildlife garden at Flatford Mill, for an update of how their season is going and news of an event you might like to try:
Okay, tail-end of Hurricane Bertha aside, the weather has been very kind to us this year. So much so that, at the Flatford Wildlife Garden, nature's calendar has been a good two weeks ahead. A marked difference to last year, when we didn't have a warm spell until early June! Not that we mind, because we have been treated to one or two surprise visitors.The garden lies at the west end of the Stour Estuary in the heart of Constable Country on the Suffolk/Essex border. About six miles to the east lies Stour Wood and a similar distance to the north is Wolves Wood. Both RSPB reserves are excellent spots to see some very special woodland butterflies - White Admirals and Silver-washed Fritillaries from late-June through to August. One of our volunteers, Dick Rabjohn, has been fortunate enough to see both of these in the garden this summer, the first time either species has been seen. This tells me that the garden is performing its role as a stepping stone for nature. Ideally, we want to link those stones!
Above is Flatford's White Admiral, with its distinctive flash of white, and below their male Silver-washed Fritillary (you can see the 'silver wash' in the second photo on the lower underwing).
Our ethos at the garden is to inspire and inform people about simple actions that can take in their own garden to help nature thrive in order to provide that all important home. On top of the 22 species of butterflies already seen in the garden, these rare visitors help to demonstrate that things are working. They were taking advantage of the abundant nectar sources that insects can find in the garden from late-winter to the last throes of autumn. This is testament to the hard work of our head gardener, Shirley, and her team of Thursday volunteers who keep the garden looking great and working for nature.The garden is open every day up until the 2 November from 10.30 to 4.30 for people to enjoy. However, Shirley is running a bespoke one-day workshop on Sunday 21 September at the garden if you would like the benefit of some group tuition. Shirley is a qualified horticulturalist and garden designer, now forging a career in conservation too. Topics will include:
The course runs from 10am to 4pm and costs £45 with a £10 discount for RSPB members. Worth every penny! If you would like any more information please call Shirley on 07803 116592.
Now, in high summer, we're at the height of the butterfly season - hoorah for that! There is a whole host of species you can see in gardens if you're lucky...and if you've been doing the right things to give them a home.
There are blue ones and white ones, golden ones and brown ones. But black ones?
Well, this was the sight that greeted me when I popped into the RSPB HQ at The Lodge in Bedfordshire last week.
In fact there were about a couple of dozen of these black butterflies, all merrily feeding on Hemp Agrimony, which is such a wonderful nectar plant.
I'm anticipating that many of you will already have identified them as Peacock butterflies, whose dark undersides are in sharp contrast to the rich mahogany upperwings with their bold eye spots.
These Peacocks are the offspring of the adults you would have flown in March and April. The parents would have laid their eggs in large stands of nettle and then perished, letting this brood to hatch and grow into spiky black caterpillars before pupating and then emerging from late July onwards.
They then feed up on favourite nectar-rich plants, including Fleabane, Echinacea and Inula, before finding a safe place to sleep for six months. Log piles, hollow trees and - in gardens - sheds and outbuildings are their typical choice, and many will settle down within the next few weeks, so enjoy them while you can.
Sadly, few of us have the space in our garden for a large bed of nettles but at least we can all grow the flowers that give them a sugary autumn boost. And remember never to upset a Peacock - they are the one British buttefly that can 'hiss' when annoyed, by rubbing their wings together. You have been warned!