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As a thick layer of snow covered the Wildlife Garden this week we took a pause from practical tasks to avoid disturbing life hidden below the snow and, instead, took the time to reflect on a year in the life of the Wildlife Garden from the perspective of one of our volunteers, Nicky.


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The view across the main pond from the reed bed taken on Monday by Visit Planner Mark Humphries


"What does volunteering to work in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden involve and why do it? I have been a volunteer here for about eight years and I am part of a dedicated team that looks after the garden so I hope I can give you a good answer to that question...

The year starts with the coppicing and pollarding of trees during the cold of January, and creating a woven sheep-proof fence with the coppiced poles and stakes as preparation for the arrival of the sheep later in the summer (more about coppicing next week). Pruning, planting, weeding all occupy our time before the garden opens to the public on 1 April each year, with the aim of creating habitats that show the potential for wildlife conservation in an inner city.


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Nicky pollarding willow near the chalk pond


I always look forward to spring, with the opportunity it gives to watch the new growth start to emerge. The blooms of the first primroses always make me feel happy, as does seeing the movement of the moorhens through the undergrowth on their way to the ponds.


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Primroses - the first flower of the year in the Wildlife Garden


The many public events - including Spring Wildlife in April, the Bat Festival in June, Open Garden Squares Weekend, Big Nature Day, and all the way through to our Hedgerow Harvest autumn event - keep us all very busy. For these events many of the Museum’s scientists join volunteers and Wildlife Garden staff to set up stalls and displays, and to entertain and enthrall the visitors.

We also welcome the participation of and help from several outside groups such as the Bat Conservation Trust, RSPB and Hedgehog Street. The many activities, which include leaf rubbing, seed identification and plant sales - and let's not forget the teas with delicious home-made cakes! - are enjoyed by our visitors and it is very rewarding to be able to show them the fruits of all our efforts during the first half of the year.


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A scene from the annual Bat Festival - held in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust.


One of my favourite activities is to help with the Seed Identification workshop held in the Wildlife Garden’s shed, which is hidden toward the back amongst the trees. Children and adults peer in at the door and, seeing the six microscopes set up, wonder if they should come in. With a little coaxing the visitors enter, peer into the eyepieces and, “I can’t see anything!” is the usual response.

I disarm them of their bags or ruck sacks. Children's lollypops are propped up in a glass jar and toy dinosaurs toy are put down on the table for a sleep. Then, once the new guests are sitting correctly, we can begin.


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A keen young scientist-in-the-making identifying seeds and fruits with Nicky


With microscopes focused, one hand on the seed tray and tweezers in the other, the response is now, “Wow, are these all seeds?” I explain that plants can be identified just by looking at the seeds and fruits, and soon they are busy picking out each specimen and matching it to the plant using the identification sheet supplied. For many visitors it is the first time they have looked down a microscope and done something scientific.

It requires a lot of patience but I feel really pleased when visitors want to take home their seeds and fruits and identification sheet, but especially when some now want to have a microscope of their own. A whole new world awaits them!


Outside these events I have the opportunity to attend a variety of workshops for volunteers (more about these another time), carry out summer jobs such as weeding, and help with species recording. Plant recording though the seasons is something I really enjoy: I usually team up with another volunteer and, with plant recording sheet, hand lens and a field guide in hand, we soon get our eyes in and recognise some of the more familiar native plants.


For the more difficult plants we work though the keys in the field guide to aid identification. Plants such as the duckweeds at first glance can look the same, but closer examination reveals minute detail and we must decide if it is least duckweed, common duckweed or even ivy-leaved duckweed."


Nicky’s volunteering year will continue next month.




Roy Vickery, botanist and Museum Scientific Associate and longtime ‘friend’ of the Wildlife Garden, has been collecting plant stories for many years. Roy tells us more about mistletoe myths:


“Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. described druids in France cutting mistletoe from oak trees in a ritual which involved golden sickles, dressing in white cloaks, slaughtering white bulls.  Because of this, mistletoe was considered to be a pagan plant and banned from churches.”


4 LowRes_Mistletoe_close-up_JBRIGGScopyright+(Custom).jpgThe distinctive white berries of mistletoe (Viscum album)


But what is the origin of our seasonal fascination for this plant?


“Mistletoe was associated with Christmas since the mid-17th Century. By the 19th Century this association was well established, and people who had mistletoe-bearing trees on their land were bothered by people who raided them. In 1876 it was recorded that one Lincolnshire landowner hired 14 'watchers' each year to protect the mistletoe in her park.


“Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be a tradition which originated in the British Isles, but it does not appear to be an ancient one. It seems that it developed from the kissing bough which decorated homes in medieval times. This consisted of a bunch of evergreens, or a number of intersecting hoops covered in evergreens, which was hung from the ceiling, and under which people kissed. At sometime, probably in the late 18th or early 19th Century, mistletoe became an important component of these boughs, and eventually, by the mid-19th Century, the other greenery seems to have become of secondary importance, with the mistletoe becoming essential. Certainly, as numerous illustrations show, the association of kissing and mistletoe was well established by Victorian times.


“The situation is complicated by the fact that in some areas there were decorations known as 'mistletoe boughs' which appear to be identical to the kissing boughs and contained no mistletoe.


“It is sometimes said that a berry should be removed every time anyone kisses under the mistletoe.


“There are various beliefs about what should be done with mistletoe once Christmas has passed. In some areas some was kept indoors throughout the year to ensure happiness, love, food and money throughout the year. In other places, Christmas mistletoe was burnt under the pancake pan on Shrove Tuesday.


“Mistletoe doesn't seem to have been much used in folk medicine. The only remedy which I've collected is from Somerset, where it was remembered that a vile-tasting tea, made from mistletoe which grew on hawthorn, was used to treat measles. Other people have collected information on mistletoe being used to treat hysteria in Herefordshire and prevent strokes in Essex.”


5 mtoe_poplars_roadside_v2_jbriggs+(Custom).jpgMistletoe on poplars bordering a road (Jonathan Briggs)


In the meantime we are watching out for the mistletoe plant dispersers. Mistle thrush is a rare visitor to the Wildlife Garden but the blackcap is now more commonly seen - and has been observed in the garden throughout 2012.


Posted on behalf of Caroline who is currently on annual leave.