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Wildlife Garden blog

10 Posts tagged with the wildlife_garden tag

At this time of year we are watching for the first signs of life on the ground, and in this exceptionally mild winter the glossy green spikes of bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) leaves had already started poking through the leaf litter in late December followed by the curled leaves of dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis). And in a small corner, the blue-green tips of snowdrop have been gently pushing through the soil.


Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) were not planted in the Garden and do not belong in the woodland plant communities that we're trying to create, but when a single snowdrop flower first appeared a few years ago I didn't have the heart to remove it and I have watched it reappear each year with steady but increasing vigour. Its first flowering date has varied by a few days to a week - the latest being 4 February last year - a harsh winter. We found it in flower at lunchtime today - 27 January -  though there were plenty of earlier sightings elsewhere in the country as reported in The Woodland Trust's Nature's Calendar.


Wildlife%20Garden%2027Jan2014_037[1] copy-700px.JPGSnowdrop in the Wildlife Garden - lunchtime on 27 January

Jonathan Jackson


But is it or is it not indigenous to Britain? Museum botanist, Fred Rumsey, tells us more about this dainty flower and how it arrived in this country:

Snowdrops are so familiar to us and are so ubiquitous in those areas around where we live that it has been natural to think of them as native.



Common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in drifts in a wooded Somerset lane

Fred Rumsey


However, this isn’t the case and although we know that they were present in British gardens by 1597, the first records from a wild situation were not made until 1778. Clues to their true status can be gained by looking in detail at where they appear in our landscape and in which habitats.


In most cases it is apparent from where the plants have escaped as most plants grow near gardens, when in wilder places they usually appear with other plants of garden origin; seed-set is often poor and most spread is by gradual division of the bulbs. This clonal spread is often most apparent where the double flowered ‘flore pleno’ forms have been planted.



Galanthus ‘Blewbury Tart’: found in St. Michael’s churchyard, Blewbury, Oxon. in the 1970s - it has upward facing rather spiky double flowers

Fred Rumsey

People often don’t realise that there are actually quite a few species of snowdrop (genus Galanthus). Views differ on how many, but most authorities currently recognize 20. These are distributed from southern-central Europe, through the eastern Mediterranean, down to the mountains of the Middle East but with the highest concentration of species and diversity in Turkey and the Caucasus.



Galanthus ikariae: a broad green-leaved snowdrop from the Greek Islands. Plants now sold as this are usually the similar G. woronowii from the Caucasus. It has a smaller green mark.

Fred Rumsey


While all rather similar in appearance subtle differences help differentiate them. The key points to look at are the arrangement of the leaves when they emerge: are they separate and facing each other, or does one wrap round the other? Are the margins flat or neatly folded under?



Supervolute vernation: the inner leaf wrapped by the outer, as shown by Galanthus elwesii and very different from that shown by G. nivalis

Fred Rumsey


What colour are they: grey, greeney-grey or green; matt or glossy? The flowers too differ: when are they produced, from Autumn to late spring, and in their form - the shape and colouration of the three smaller, inner perianth segments being most useful to tell the species apart.

Much of the horticultural interest in these plants though is not centred on the wild-type species but on the selected cultivars of them, many of which are of hybrid origin. The return of soldiers and tourists from the Crimean wars with floral souvenirs in the shape of the more robust and free-seeding Galanthus plicatus (pleated snowdrop) brought excellent breeding stock back into British gardens. These when mixed with the common snowdrops in our gardens have given rise to some of the most garden-worthy and persistent snowdrop cultivars.



Galanthus ‘Wasp’: a popular cultivar with narrow outer perianth segments and strong markings on the inners which together give its waspish appearance

Fred Rumsey

In recent years these plants have been experiencing a huge surge of interest with many more gardeners overcome by ‘Galanthomania’ - the demand for new and interesting named cultivars pushing prices up to stratospheric levels.



  Galanthus ‘Hippolyta’: a very neat double flowered hybrid raised by H.A. Greatorex in the 1940s

Fred Rumsey



Galanthus elwesii ‘Grumpy’

Fred Rumsey


Each year during the brief season some bulbs change hands on internet auction sites for many hundreds of pounds. Flowers in which the green colouration normally just found on the tips of the inner segments occurs over much of the flower seem particularly sought after and fought over, as are those with more peculiarly shaped flowers with all of the segments similar in shape and colour - my favourites of these are ‘Trym’ and ‘South Hayes’.



Galanthus ‘South Hayes’

Fred Rumsey


Thank you Fred, and for the beautiful photographs.


On return from a week's absence, I was eager to see how our autumn pattern of colours had developed over the past few days in the Garden - ever hopeful that the leathery leaves of the London planes had been whisked away by the high winds last week - they hadn't. But the leaves of field maple had now turned a vibrant yellow and the beautiful honeyed glow of beech had faded. Several hazel have yet to turn colour and many berries and hips remain on trees and shrubs. Here is more, from Larissa who finds some striking comparisons with last year:


"This time last year I wrote about the autumnal work we were busy with in the Wildlife Garden. It was 27 November and autumn was well under way. This year, it all seems a bit late. News articles have appeared since October debating whether autumn is late, and by the Woodland Trust’s estimations from data collected in their citizen science project Nature’s Calendar, autumn did arrive around 14 days later than previous years.


So it got me wondering and digging around last year’s photos to compare them to this year and there are definitely some variations. The first noticeable difference on last year is the abundance of fruits and berries we have had in the Garden. In fact the rowan (Sorbus acuparia) is still holding on to some fruit not yet eaten by the blackbirds – who haven’t had a short supply of food this year!


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Rowan fruits are in abundance this year with large bunches such as this one covering the trees.

© Jonathan Jackson


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The rowan tree last year, on 14 November 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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The same rowan tree this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


You can see from the above two pictures the branches of the rowan trees in 2012 were bare compared to 2013, where the leaves are hanging on and the fruits are abundant.


At the edge of the meadow, the beech (Fagus sylvatica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) trees last year were already vibrant in mid-November, but the colours still hadn’t matched 2012 by late November this year.


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Our beech woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And the beech this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Looking out from the bridge across the chalk pond, you can see from the pictures below the green leaves on the trees that had already turned two weeks earlier last year.


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The chalk pond in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And the chalk pond in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our other woodlands such as this coppice area in the centre of the Garden are strikingly different, and the mature lime tree (Tilia x europea) in the centre of the garden still had some leaves late November this year.


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Our coppice woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And a similar view of the coppice woodland in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Even now, in December things seem behind of last year. We are still raking falling plane tree (Plantanus x hispanica) leaves and looking up at the branches, some still rather full! I can’t help but view them by how many bags they will fill. The Hazels (Corylus avellana), oaks (Quercus robur) and silver birch (Betula pendula) also have many more leaves still attached compared to last year.


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Hazel, oak and birch trees still clinging on to some leaves this year ...

© Larissa Cooper


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... compared to last year

© Sue Snell


But there is a positive side to this. This time last year, the ground was frosty and cold...


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Leaves on the ground were covered in frost this time last year.

© Larissa Cooper


...which we are yet to experience this year, but when we do, we'll still be out there in the Wildlife Garden, preparing it for you all to come and enjoy when we re-open on a daily basis again in spring!


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No frost in the garden yet this year...

© Larissa Cooper


You can help the woodland trust monitor wildlife phenology by taking part in their citizen science projects at Nature’s Calendar.


Thank you Larissa!


And for more autumn delights from the Wildlife Garden you can watch Mark Spencer on his fungal foray in the Garden last month:



Although it's been quiet on our blog recently, we have been busy elsewhere preparing for and hosting important events, two at the start, and one at the end, of June: our annual Bat Festival (in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust), the Open Garden Squares Weekend, and the Wildlife Gardening Forum conference this week.


And naturally we’ve been busy in the Garden itself sowing seeds, potting on, planting, caring for new plants, removing invasive plants ... as well as observing and monitoring our wildlife. Spring stunned us with a spectacular show of woodland flora, making up for the slow start to this year:


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Spring woodland in our Wildlife Garden


And now the buttercups are blooming. Three species are flowering amongst other early summer species in our meadow and chalk downland habitats, woodland glades and along paths.


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Buttercups on our chalk downland. © Derek Adams


Gardening with native flowers is full of surprises: certain species that we thought had disappeared reappear with renewed vigour. So is the case with buttercups and it’s been an especially good year for the buttercup family so far. The first of the buttercup family to appear was lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) on 13 March.


New Image celendine (Custom).JPGLesser celandine (Ficaria verna). © Derek Adams


Small clumps planted over the years have spread tentatively, until this year, when they exploded into brazen golden clumps announcing the already late spring. After several disappointing years, wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) exceeded our expectations this spring with their generous covering beneath silver birch and oak from March to early April.


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Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa). © Derek Adams


Later, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), our third member of the buttercup family to bloom this spring, appeared around pond edges and the fen.


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Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). © Derek Adams


A few plants of columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), a less obvious member of the buttercup family, are still flowering along the hedge boundaries to the north of the garden and are a subtle addition in parts of our woodland areas.


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Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris). © Derek Adams


But the buttercups that are currently shining in the Garden are meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), bulbous buttercup (Ranunculous bulbosa), and creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens).


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Meadow buttercups in meadow. © Derek Adams



Although superficially very similar, there are a number of features that distinguish these three species, including:


  • Bulbous buttercup is in bloom slightly earlier than meadow, and creeping buttercup. It has a grooved stem and its sepals are reflexed. It also has a swollen (bulbous) base to its stem


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Under side of bulbous buttercup showing reflexed sepals. © Derek Adams


  • Meadow buttercup has rounded stems and more deeply cut leaves than the other two species, and sepals are spreading beneath its petals. It also generally grows taller than the other two species - the tallest in our Wildlife Garden stands at 1.30 metres.


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Meadow buttercup - note the sepals under the petals. © Derek Adams


  • Creeping buttercup, has grooved stems, spreading sepals and, true to its name, a creeping habit, spreading by means of runners - disliked by most gardeners!


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Creeping buttercup: a demonstration of its creeping habit...


As well as brightening our meadow areas, the buttercups also bring a special glow to the hedge banks and pathway verges.


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Hedge bank. © Jonathan Jackson


Buttercups attract a variety of insects and can be seen below hosting a honey bee and ladybird.


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So, this is an exciting time of year for we gardeners with different species of flowering plant coming into bloom in rapid succession (including other members of the buttercup family).




P.S. Another big event in the Wildlife Garden is approaching, with Big Nature Day on Saturday 13 July


With bees very much in the news this month, here is our own bee news from our Wildlife Garden bee-keeper, Luke Dixon:


“We have a new bee tree in the Wildlife Garden. It is a great trunk of oak, two tonnes hewn from a tree in The National Arboretum, Westonbirt, Gloucester. It took a specialist team from Norbury Park Sawmill, Dorking, Surrey to fell the tree and cut it into shape.


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Delivery of the new bee tree

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria



And another team to remove the old bee tree and prepare for the new tree...


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Spencer Abberley who, with beekeeper Qais Zakaria, removed the old bee tree and prepared the pit for the new tree

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria


Then yet another specialist team and two mighty cranes to lift it into the Wildlife Garden and gently lower it into the hole in the ground where the old bee tree once stood ...



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New bee tree about to be lowered into the ground

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria


The old tree had served the garden and the bees well and never has London known a happier colony of bees. Unlike many of their urban sisters, these bees had survived season after season. The colony had thrived in this first bee tree, living in a plastic observation hive, building down natural comb. The only disturbance was visitors opening the doors in the tree to reveal the 'wild' colony, living as bees have done for millions of years, hidden away in the dark interior of a tree.


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The colony of bees in the old bee tree

Image copyright: Derek Adams


The original colony came from Lambeth Palace and it was the Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, who had suggested the bee tree. A team at the Museum built the hive inside that first tree and John Chapple and I collected a bucket of bees from one of the Palace hives and carefully removed a sealed queen cell that was about to hatch.


We placed a few strips of wax in their new home as a starting point to build new wax comb, tipped the bees into the hive, wedged in the queen cell amongst them and then left them to it. After a couple of weeks the new queen had hatched; there were swathes of 'wild' comb, eggs and larvae and the colony was established.

But then, last year, the weight of bees and honey and comb in the colony reached a critical mass and split the hive apart. It was time for a new and larger hive. With fellow beekeeper Qais Zakaria, we set about designing a new bee tree with a bigger hive and a system that enables removal of the bees should they again grow too big for their home.


Danny Smith, one of the beekeepers at the London School of Economics and who made their beautiful oak portable observation hive, built our new hive. The new bees came from Oxford in a nucleus box, living on frames just as in any traditional bee hive. This time the bees were shaken from their frames into the new hive. We made sure the queen was amongst them, knowing that if she was in the new hive the thousands of other bees would stay with her.


Within a couple of days the bees had built down five pieces of wild comb some six inches long and were already making honey. Soon the queen was laying. The combs the bees came on were placed in one of the Wildlife Garden’s traditional bee hives, the emerging young combining with that hive’s colony.


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Inside the new bee tree

Image copyright: Jonathan Jackson

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The new colony of bees lost no time and promptly set to work collecting pollen and are seen here at the hive entrance

Image copyright: Jonathan Jackson


And the original bees? Their hive might have split and begun to fall apart, but that had not bothered them at all. When we removed the old bee tree we gently removed the colony within and found them a new home. You can now visit them at the Kennington Lodge Community Apiary in South London.


And you can visit our new bee tree every day that the Wildlife Garden is open. All we ask is that you treat the bees with respect: open the door onto their world slowly and be sure to close it after you have looked at them."


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Bees prefer to be kept in the dark

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria


Thank you Luke and Qais, Spencer and Danny for all the planning, digging and tweaking necessary to install our new bee tree new colony of bees and thank you to our new bee tree-funder, who wishes to remain anonymous.




With the Wildlife Garden opening earlier this week and our first event of the year due to happen this Saturday 6 April, Larissa has been looking around the garden for the first signs of Spring ...


"Sitting at my desk in the Wildlife Garden shed, I heard something scratching outside. Thinking the squirrels were raiding the bird seed, I crept to the window to catch them at it. No squirrels, then the sound came again but from under my feet. It was the foxes confirming our suspicions they had taken up residence under the shed again.


Despite the chilly weather persisting, the garden is slowly beginning to wake up around us with the first bluebells, daffodils, primroses and cowslips appearing, and the blackthorn beginning to blossom.


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Wild daffodils in the Wildlife Garden were some of the first to flower this year.

© Derek Adams


The leaves of the wild garlic have carpeted the woodland in one area while, in another, dog’s mercury is making an appearance.



A squirrel climbs a tree above the wild garlic covering the woodland floor.

© Jonathan Jackson

However, this is a poor show compared to last year when around this time wood anemone, marsh marigold, wood sorrel, and wild cherry amongst others were all in flower.



A bumblebee enjoys the nectar from a hybrid bluebell in 2012. We haven't spotted many bumblebees yet this year.

©  Jonathan Jackson  


Although the sleepy frogs and toads are yet to wake up, the birds are gathering supplies for their nests. This wren spent a whole day meticulously constructing a nest only for it to be blown down the next day.




This wren spent the whole day building a nest precariously balanced on the shed porch ... Unfortunately the wind blew down its efforts the next day!

© Larissa Cooper

It’s not just the wrens who have been busy. The moorhens have been spotted carefully choosing dry leaves and pieces of reed before carrying their finds into their nest box. The box is so full - as you can see from the picture below - there is scarcely space for the moorhens themselves. The moorhens are not the only birds on the pond preparing for spring. Over the last couple of weeks, a group of mallards have also been visiting the garden on a daily basis.



You can see just how full the moorhen nest box is!

© Larissa Cooper


The staff and volunteers in the garden are just as active with preparations for the opening of the garden at the beginning of April. The laid hedges have all had a trim to encourage bushy growth which will benefit both the birds looking to nest and the small mammals which hide in the base of the hedge.



One of our laid hedges trimmed and ready for spring growth.

© Larissa Cooper


In some of the hedges we have added new whips (the name given to nursery-grown small trees and hedge plants) to fill a few gaps. Elder and wild cherry have been added to the hedge bordering the Darwin centre courtyard and the Wildlife Garden and will be allowed to mature within the hedgerow providing nectar for insects and food for birds.


I love this time of year, if only it was a little warmer…"


Thank you Larissa

Watch out for details of our Spring Wildlife and other events on our web page.


With the return of wintry weather there’s little chance of finding many flying insects at the moment so - when not pruning or planting up hedge gaps in the Wildlife Garden - we’ve been focusing on animals found at ground level under stones, logs, leaf litter and within pitfall traps (n.b. more about pitfall traps another time). Amongst these animals, woodlice are a rewarding group to study as some of us learnt at a Woodlouse Workshop we attended a week ago last Sunday.


The study day, held in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, was led by Museum scientists Miranda Lowe and Duncan Sivell and covered an introduction to woodlouse anatomy and classification, as well as ecology and recording methods. Below are just a few of the many interesting facts we learnt:


Woodlice are crustaceans and are related to crabs, lobsters and shrimps. They belong to a group called Isopoda which means ‘equal legs’. Most Isopoda are marine animals but woodlice are one of the few groups of crustaceans that have adapted successfully to life on land. They live in damp dark places, beneath logs, stones or leaf litter, where they feed on rotting wood and other decaying vegetable matter, helping to recycle nutrients back into the soil.


Miranda described their basic anatomy, general body form, and some of the diagnostic features that help to distinguish between the different species. Woodlice have an oval flattened body which will vary in colour and form depending on the species, and seven pairs of legs (pereopods).



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Common striped woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum - their colour can vary but all have a dark head and dark stripe along their back

© Martin Angel


The general body form of the different genuses explains some of their behaviour – there are six types: runner, clinger, roller, creeper, spiny form and non-conformist, of which the first four only are found in Britain. When you pick up a woodlouse, you may recognise it by its body form - for example, if disturbed, the common pill woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare, will roll into a ball. Conversely, a common striped woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum, is a definite runner ...



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Common pill woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare

© Martin Angel


Apart from body form, shape and colour, another useful diagnostic feature is the antennae and it is important to examine the individual sections. For example, the common rough woodlouse, Porcello scaber, has a flagellum (end section of an antennae) made up of 2 segments whereas the common striped woodlouse has a 3-segmented flagellum. We were equipped with microscopes to observe these finer details.




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Common rough woodlouse, Porcellio scaber

© Martin Angel


These woodlice are three of the five species most commonly found in gardens - together with the other two species, they are known as the ‘Famous Five’. The remaining two in this club are common pigmy woodlouse, Trichoniscus pusillus, and the common shiny woodlouse, Oniscus asellus.

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Common shiny woodlouse, Oniscus asellus

© Harry Taylor, Natural History Museum


The different body form and characters may explain many of the affectionate, common names that woodlice have acquired throughout the ages and in different parts of the country. Duncan introduced us to some of these names such as slater where he comes from in the north, bibble-bug, cheese-pig, roly-poly and chuggy pig. The authors of Bugs Britannica discovered 80 nicknames for woodlice!


Duncan also told us more about the favourite habitats of woodlice and how to collect and record the different species. We explored the dark and damp underside of logs, leaf litter and compost bins in the Wildlife Garden and returned to the lab to identify our collection.


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Common shiny woodlouse at home

© Derek Adams, Natural History Museum


In our brief foray in the bitter wind, we found 5 different species - four of the Famous Five and Porcellio dilatatus. We know there are at least seven different species in the garden in addition to the honourary woodlouse, the landhopper, Arcitralitrus dorrieni.


But this is just a taster of the some of the fascinating facts and details we learnt about these endearing little animals. At a later date Miranda will write about the landhopper which has made itself at home in the Wildlife Garden.


Thank you Miranda and Duncan


For the past few days we have been coppicing and pollarding some of our hazel, alder and field maple, using the cut poles as binders and stakes for our woven fence repairs. Woven fences border the meadow and other areas where sheep-proof fences are necessary.


The woven fences are also reminders of one of our volunteers, John Chabrillat, who sadly died in November. John, originally from France, had lived in England for around 40 years and still retained an endearingly strong French accent. In retirement John worked as a conservation volunteer for several organizations including the Surrey Wildlife Trust and Ealing Council park rangers. He had been a volunteer in the Wildlife Garden since autumn 1997. John specialized in woodland management.


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John Chabrillat working on a woven fence


Always arriving in the garden promptly at 9.30 am on his appointed day, John often brought his own tools - such as bill hook or hatchet - cleverly wrapped up in newspaper to avoid any suspicion on the train. I was reminded of his hachet-carrying habit by Roger of the Surrey Wildlife Trust where John often worked in Nower Wood nature reserve


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John preparing coppiced stems for his woven fence



John shared his skills in coppicing, pollarding and hedge-laying and was always looking to perfect his own techniques by attending the coppicing workshops held here for Museum Members and volunteers.


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John learning how to ‘bodge’ during a woodland workshop


He taught us how to build woven fences using hazel and ash. Any surplus wood would be neatly sawn or chopped up and used for log piles created in his inimitable style. 


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One of John’s log piles – ideal habitats for toads, newts, fungi and many invertebrates


John worked on a variety of other tasks throughout the year including weekend sheep care. He was full of interesting facts and funny anecdotes and arranged reciprocal volunteer outings between Nower Wood and the Museum. He grew vegetables in his back garden and in summer months would present us with gifts of tasty home-grown tomatoes.


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John making a woven willow barrier


We have missed John since he ‘retired’ from volunteering nearly 2 years ago and, now we know he will not be returning, it seems fitting in this season of woodland work to remember John - a true woodsman -  and to describe the art of coppicing in his words, as they appeared in an article for the Wildlife Garden page of the Museum’s Membership magazine, Nature First in Spring 2002.


Coppicing by John Chabrillat, conservation volunteer:

"Although coppicing is generally associated with the open countryside, it also finds its place - albeit small - in the Wildlife Garden. Coppicing consists of cutting trees, preferably saplings, to ground level, and then allowing the stumps (or stools) to grow back for up to 12 to 15 years. This resulting growth is a straight piece of timber, ideal for weaving into fencing or hurdles, tool handles, or in medieval and Tudor days, wattles for wattle and daub houses. Hazel and sweet chestnut are still the main coppice trees in southern England, and sometimes English oaks are allowed to grow to maturity for heavy timber - this is called coppice with standards.


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Workshop leader, Rob Graham demonstrating coppicing in the Wildlife Garden


Coppiced woodland produces a better structure of growth than would occur naturally. Many more plants will grow and it provides a more attractive environment for birds and insects, including butterflies, as has been proven in conservation coppicing. It has been said that when man developed coppicing, it was the only time he improved nature.


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Coppiced woodland benefits spring flowers such as primroses (above) and bluebells and stitchwort (below)


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The practice may have been introduced in this country by the Romans. It is still widely practiced in France and Italy for firewood and charcoal production. It was certainly practiced in Norman times here, as ‘coppice’ is an Anglo-Norman word derived from the old French copez (to cut). In England it had become the most common way of woodland management by the end of the 13th century. Before the use of coal, it provided a renewable source of timber and firewood, which helped to maintain a constant supply of fuel for the iron industry without endangering the survival of woodland.


In the Wildlife Garden, hazel and ash are coppiced to provide supple and smooth stakes for ‘dead’ hedges, which make good stock-proof fences to control our summer sheep."


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One of John’s woven fences visible behind the sheep he loved to watch


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Goodbye and thank you John


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.




As the woodland habitats in the Wildlife Garden mature, the pageant of autumn colour seems to increase in intensity each year. Museum photographer, Jonathan Jackson (who needs little encouragement to escape the studio and work with living natural history), spent some time in the garden 2 weeks ago shooting many beautiful images, including most of the photos below. And Larissa Cooper, who joined us nearly 3 months ago, adds some of her own and describes her first autumn in the Wildlife Garden:


"As the autumnal chill creeps up on us, the many different (mostly native) trees we have in the garden begin to show off their colours before being cast away now their job has been done.

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The colours of the garden vary as the leaves begin to fall. The first tree to drop its leaves was the common lime (Tilia x europea).

It’s a beautiful but busy time for us in the garden. Leaves are broken down on the woodland floor by decomposers such as fungi and detritivores like millipedes and earthworms. However the non-native London plane trees (Plantanus x hispanica) cover the garden with large leathery leaves which are a bit too much for our native flora, such as bluebells, to push through.


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Fungi growing from decaying wood sits in front of a fallen plane tree leaf (Photo: L.Cooper)



3 (Custom).jpgLondon plane tree leaves lie with rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

Enter the wildlife gardeners, volunteers and occasionally other staff with our rakes and trusty shredder, giving nature a little helping hand to break down the leaves. Looking out for frogs and toads hiding from the cold we gently rake and remove the plane tree leaves. being careful not to damage any seedlings and delicate plants. By December we will have raked and shredded tonnes of leaves, and scattered the shreddings back onto the woodland floor to allow a buildup of decomposed leaves.



4 (Custom).JPG Not all the leaves are shredded, the poplar (Populus nigra 'Italica') leaves which fall around the greenhouse are mixed with straw from the sheep shed and composted (Photo: L.Cooper)

But raking leaves aside; it gives us a chance to see the beauty of the changing colours around us. The beech (Fagus sylvatica) trees turn amber while the poplar leaves change to a vibrant yellow.


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Beech trees behind the meadow show off their varying colours


The plants around the pond die back diverting the attention to the golden reeds which complement the colours of the early autumnal evenings.


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Common reeds (Phragmites australis) turn a golden brown


While the holly holds its colour, with dashes of red from the berries, the spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) displays an almost tropical array of fuchsia-coloured berries.


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Spindle berries add a touch of pink to the usual reds, yellows and browns of autumn



It is all such a treat so see on a daily basis!"

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The main pond is surrounded by autumnal colours



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The bright yellows of the hornbeam are reminiscent of summer glowing on a clear chilly autumnal afternoon


Thank you to Larissa and Jonathan for the blog and photos.


One of our first tasks of autumn is spent around the ponds thinning out reeds from the pond margins, removing decaying vegetation and covering the top pond with netting to keep it free of plane tree leaves. Of course, some less invasive pond management takes place throughout the year...


Here in July, Nadia enjoyed cooling off in the coracle whilst pruning willow on the floating moorhen island. The island was at risk of blowing over - the thick growth of willow acting as a sail:


1. Nadia tending to the moorhen island (Custom).JPGNadia tending to the moorhen island

This summer we had a build up of least duck weed (Lemna minuta) that threatened to block out light to the submerged aquatic plants in one of the ponds.


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Veolia Environmental Services’ volunteers take a break from skimming duck weed off the top pond to reduce its cover



Common reed (Phragmites australis) is a beautiful plant in all seasons but given half a chance it’ll romp away across the pond reducing the area of open water and shading out less robust marginal pond plants such as marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).


A little surreptitious reed weeding happens in summer...


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Sophia has just dropped her secateurs...



...but in October we get into more serious reed-pulling along with thinning of other tall marginals such as great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) and hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum).


Most insect larvae will have hatched and left the pond but there is still plenty of life in the ponds and in the mud and so plant thinning is confined to one short section of the pond to minimise disturbance.


4, Nicky and Sean reed pulling (Custom).JPGNicky and Sean are working hard pulling reeds and willowherb from margins along the eastern edge of the main pond


The moorhens kept away but they surprised a few frogs:


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Common frog (Rana temporaria)


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Nicky and Sean's work complete!


Finally, the least popular autumn pond task is covering the top pond with netting to protect it from the falling plane tree leaves. The net is placed over a pyramidal structure in the centre of the pond.


Alex and I drew the short straws and had to wade into the water on one of the coldest days so far this month, but unfortunately (for him) Alex got the really short straw - leaky waders! The longest straw went to Sophia, who got to stand on the dry bank to take these photographs.


7. placing thepyramid (Custom).JPGPlacing the ‘pyramid’ in the pond to hold the net


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Struggling to place the 'pyramid' into the centre of the pond


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Pegging down the net to hold it in place to catch the falling leaves


The ‘pyramid’ was designed and constructed by the Saturday volunteer team 3 years ago using coppiced alder, cherry and hazel, and is now a little fragile.


More about leaves to follow next week but i,n the meantime, something that happened back in October:


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Tommy, Nadia and Alex collecting the Brighter Kensington and Chelsea Scheme’s Wildlife Garden Award from the Mayor in Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall


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Damian, Rama and Pam collecting the President’s Trophy for the best overall prize winner in the Brighter Kensington and Chelsea Scheme this year

Thank you to ALL our volunteers for helping us to win these awards!