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Wildlife Garden blog

35 Posts

Trills and twitters of finches greet us each morning - at extra volume on the chilly bright mornings - and continue throughout the day as goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches compete for space on our bird feeders. Flocks of blue, great and long-tailed tits forage in the tree tops and hedgerows, and occasionally join the finches for seeds or fat balls while our resident blackbirds, robins, wrens and dunnocks can be heard amongst the shrubs and leaf litter.

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A robin singing through a tangle of hawthorn

© Jonathan Jackson


Over-wintering redwings were spotted swooping down to feed on the remaining holly berries last month. But what about some of our less common winter visitors? Daniel Osborne, has been looking at recent work by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)'s outstanding citizen science experiment Garden BirdWatch which unravels a mystery surrounding the blackcap:


"The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), like other UK warblers, is primarily a summer visitor, arriving in April and May to establish a breeding territory, build a nest and raise young, then departing in September and October to overwinter in Southern Europe and North Africa. Its beautiful varied song can be heard occasionally in the Wildlife Garden in spring and summer and the bird itself - a fairly drab yet distinctive grey and light brown bird, the male with a black cap, the female a brown cap - is regularly observed among the trees and woodland and even bred in the garden in 2012.


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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

© David Tipling


Since the 1950s, with the increase in use of garden bird feeders, the number of Blackcaps overwintering in the UK has increased dramatically. And in the last 30 years ornithologists have noticed the number of blackcaps in the UK during winter has seemed disproportionately large.


A number of bird ringing programmes in the UK and Europe provided the explanation. Bird ringing is the process of catching a bird, often in a net or while it is still in the nest, and attaching a small ring of metal to one of its legs before releasing it.


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Bird-ringing in progress



The hope is that the ring will be seen again, either by a keen-eyed birdwatcher or by anyone who should happen to chance upon the bird at close enough range. The ring's unique code means that scientists can be certain of an individual bird's movements. This technique has provided a number of extraordinary insights into bird migration including the large number of overwintering blackcaps.


It was found that while some German blackcaps were migrating south to Southern Europe and North Africa some were migrating to spend winter in the UK. The UK's maritime climate warmed by the Gulf Stream means that winters are milder here than in the continental climate of Germany, and global temperatures are increasing as a result of man-made climate change.


This increase in warmth is likely to mean more food, in the form of insects and berries, available during the winter and fewer sub-zero nights to endure, and has no doubt made the UK in recent years a more attractive winter destination, but surely not as attractive as Southern Europe and North Africa. That is, until the added benefit of the artificial food left out in UK gardens is taken into account.


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Blackcap migration routes from Germany


The abundance and reliability of artificial food in our gardens is of course invaluable to our native species, particularly in winter. In the last 30 years or so it has also brought about this change in blackcap migration strategy. Ongoing work by Kate Plummer of the BTO has demonstrated that bird feeding activities have been important in the establishment of the overwintering blackcaps.


The food we put out for birds in winter is tempting indeed and the blackcap population that comes here, instead of heading south, enjoys some distinct advantages. The distance is about a third shorter, which means not only do the UK-wintering birds reduce the costs and perils of migration, but they actually arrive back in Germany first.


This means they can take the prime breeding territories and potentially raise a greater number of healthier young. A fascinating by-product of this is that Germany's UK-wintering population and the southerly-wintering population breed at different times and are now genetically distinct. This winter I have so far seen one female blackcap in the Wildlife Garden, but look forward to seeing more of these beautiful birds, and speculating about how they came to be spending winter in the UK."



A female blackcap

© Edwyn Anderton, Flickr


Thank you Daniel. Last weekend we cleaned and repaired our nest boxes ready for this year's residents.


At this time of year deciduous trees can look their most beautiful silhouetted against the sky, revealing their true form and structure. Some shapes are obscured in a wrapping of ivy (Hedera helix), its lush, dark green growth providing a source of food and habitat for a variety of wildlife, as well as a traditional Christmas decoration in our homes.


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Ivy covering a tree stump © Jonathan Jackson.

Although ivy is no parasite it can sometimes cause damage as it climbs and clings to trees and hedges competing for plant nutrients in the soil, and its thick evergreen leaves, competing for light. Occasionally, if left unchecked, the sheer expanse of an ivy wrapping will act like a sail and in winter strong winds will cause the host tree and ivy stems to snap and capsize.

We restrain ivy growth on our trees on our trees in the wildlife garden by cutting it back to just below the crown before it competes for light in the tree canopy. We also keep it in check on the ground, preventing it covering large areas of ground where it would restrict the growth of other woodland plants such as primroses (Primula vulgaris) and lesser celandine (Ficaria verna).

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Ivy growth on the lime tree in the centre of the Wildlife Garden © Jonathan Jackson.


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Ivy starting to spread along the ground © Jonathan Jackson.

But no wildlife garden is complete without a wealth of ivy – albeit restrained.

Just two months ago, we watched our bees (Apis melifera) entering the bee tree laden with pollen from ivy. On a sunny autumn day there’s a constant humming from ivy flowers as bees and wasps congregate around the late autumn nectar. And during evenings a variety of moth species silently feed on ivy’s nectar-rich flowers


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Bees nectaring on ivy flowers.

But both holly and ivy are Important in the life cycle of the holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus). The female lays her eggs on ivy in autumn in time for the larvae to feed on developing flower buds – the chrysalis overwinters and the adult emerges in spring.The spring adult lays eggs beneath the  flower buds of holly (Ilex aquifolium).


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Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebell © Tim Melling, Butterfly Conservation.

Ivy leaves are a food source for the larvae of several moth species, notably the Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria)


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Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria) on ivy © Robert Thompson, Butterfly Conservation

Ivy-clad trees and other structures provide thick cover and camouflage for nesting birds as well as hibernating insects – I inadvertently disturbed four common plume moths (Emmelina monodactyla) last week from the base of an ivy-clad fence.


Berries provide nest cover and food for birds as we have written about in a previous blog


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Blackbird feeding off ripe ivy berries in March © Jonathan Jackson.


But what of ivy’s seasonal associations and other uses? Roy Vickery tells us more:


Although it’s associated with Christmas, at least in urban areas ivy is not used a great deal as a Christmas decoration. Like holly it would remain looking fresh throughout the festive season before the widespread installation of central heating, now when homes are warmer and drier its leaves soon lose their sheen and then the twigs lose their leaves. Sometimes stretched crepe paper, usually red, was wrapped around fruiting ivy to make ornamental ‘roses’.



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Fruiting ivy – still green this week and unpalatable to birds © Jonathan Jackson.

However, there are records from places as far apart as Morayshire and Essex that ivy was considered to be unlucky and should not be brought indoors. Alternatively, as reported from Staffordshire in 1983: ‘Holly and ivy must not be taken in house until Christmas Eve and must be removed by January 6th.’

Presumably an exception was made on washdays when water in which ivy leaves had been boiled was used to clean the blue serge fabric from which the uniforms of railway men, postmen, and others was made. In County Derry: ‘With an old clothes brush take your husband’s serge suit and proceed to brush in the liquid, especially [into] the lapel and neck and cuffs.  Then take a clean cloth and iron it all over. It’s like new.’



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Ivy beginning its ascent up a London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) in the Wildlife Garden

                                         © Jonathan Jackson.


And ivy leaves, either fresh, boiled or seeped in vinegar, tied on to corns and left on for about three days, will successfully remove the corn and its root so that it doesn’t return. Other medical uses included the treatment of burns in County Cork and eczema in Derbyshire.

Farmers would tempt sick sheep by offering them ivy: ‘If they did not eat ivy, they were going to die.’

Although it widely assumed that ivy is poisonous, Brian Bonnard in his Channel Island Plant Lore (1993) record that during the German occupation of the Islands in 1940-5 ‘ivy berries were boiled and eaten’. We do not recommend this.

Thank you Roy. You can read more about the uses of ivy and much more on Plant-lore Archive.


With seasonal evergreens in mind, you may like to see the progress of our mistletoe (Viscum album), planted in 2009 by Jonathan Briggs and featured in our wildlife garden blog two years ago. The plant has grown considerably in 2 years and .......


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Five and a half years after planting, our mistletoe has produced berries for the first time…

© Jonathan Jackson.


And finally, garden sightings this week also included… fox 23_12_14.jpg

A healthy young fox captured on camera today © Daniel Osborne.


Merry Christmas and Happy new Year!


It's been a while since we reported from our Wildlife Garden but work continues outdoors - and we've been enjoying the season's wildlife gardening and wildlife watching. Here we share a few hightlights from the past two months.


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The Museum as seen through the Garden's trees

© Jonathan Jackson


Throughout October and early November flashes of deep orange were spotted over the ponds, belonging to the common darter dragonfly (Sympetrum striolatum). They darted from the chalk to main pond, male and female in tandem, with the female ovipositing (laying eggs) near clumps of water soldier (Stratoides aloides) that I'd already eyed up for removing during our planned pond clearing day. The sight of this acrobatic pair laying eggs did of course change our plans slightly to avoid disturbing recently laid eggs.


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Common darter dragonfly in September. The last sighting this year was on 4 November

© Jonathan Jackson


The female lays eggs directly into the water during the late summer months, and sometimes into autumn as was the case this year. The eggs over-winter and hatch into larvae the following spring. Later in the summer, the full-grown larva crawls out of the water up on to a plant stem - such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) or reed sweet grass (Glyceria maxima) - before emerging transformed into a beautiful dragonfly. To find out more about dragonflies visit the British Dragonfly Society's website.


Flashes of gold and red goldfinches have recently been seen foraging amongst alder cones and teasels. Our beautiful autumn visitors, goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis), have also been heard and seen squabbling amongst greenfinches (Carduelis chloris) around the bird feeders.


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European goldfinch feeding on teasels

© David Tipling Photo Library


Throughout the mild days of October our Bee Tree honey bees were still collecting pollen from ivy and any remaining flowers such as black horehound. They were also spotted around the entrance to the hives on warm November days. They are fastidious in their personal hygiene and, as bee-keeper Luke Dixon informs me, will take advantage of warm winter days to exit the hive and freshen up.


There are a few flowers remaining in our garden now and they include several blooms of bedraggled hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo), the bright pink of red campion (Silene dioica) and dwarf gorse. There is one new flower of the season and this is the fresh yellow of common gorse. As the flowers of dwarf gorse (Ulex minor) fade the flowers of common gorse (Ulex europaeus) begin to bloom and next year dwarf gorse will take over again for a few months ... giving rise to the old saying "When gorse is in blossom, kissing is in season."


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Common gorse - the first flowering date this autumn was on 28 October

© Jonathan Jackson


But it is the golds and yellows of beech, hornbeam and field maple that are sensational again this year. Museum photographer, Jonathan Jackson, captured these colourful images just last week:


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Beech (Fagus sylvatica) between meadow and chalk downland habitats

© Jonathan Jackson


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Beech leaves

© Jonathan Jackson


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Field maple (Acer campestre) in a hedgerow

© Jonathan Jackson


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Hazel (Corylus avellana)

© Jonathan Jackson


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Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

© Jonathan Jackson


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Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur)

© Jonathan Jackson


And though few berries remain - the blackbirds have stripped rowan of its fruits early this autumn compared to last year - there are still remains of shocking pink spindle berries, with their orange seeds just visible.


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Fruits of spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

© Jonathan Jackson


For more about seasonal sightings in other areas visit Nature's Calendar from the Woodland Trust.


With the recent warm sunny weather here its hard to believe that it is officially autumn – but watching our surrounding shrubs and trees, their leaves and berries remind us that it has been here a while.


Join us this weekend for Hedgerow Harvest, a free family event with activities, crafts, guided tours and many other things to see and do. We'll be in the Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre this Sunday 5 October between 12.00-17.00.


Larissa, in a berry mood, tells us more about our hedgerow bounty:


Here in the Wildlife Garden we have hedgerows marking some of the boundaries of the different British habitats in the garden. These hedges are managed for wildlife such as the blackbirds and wrens which nest in them and the mice and amphibians that take cover in them.


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One of our hedgerows in the Wildlife Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson

Hedgerows are an important feature of the British landscape and although figures from the Wildlife Trusts suggest hedgerows stretch around 450,000km at present, this is much lower than historic levels.


According to the RSPB, hedgerows provide nesting habitat for around 30 species of British birds. In fact 80% of British woodland bird species, 50% of British mammals and 30% of our butterflies make use of them either as a habitat, food source or cover (RSPB). Take a look at the RSPB website to discover more about hedgerows for wildlife.


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Butterflies such as the peacock (Aglais io) forage for nectar from the flowers in our hedgerows.

© Tony Buckle


Now we are moving into autumn and the leaves are beginning to change colour, the hedges usually fill with fruits and berries. However in July this year – almost two months earlier than previous years, we found ripe elderberries (Sambucus nigra) in the garden and the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trees were dripping with red berries. All of these fruits have gone already, which won’t be good news for the mistle thrush which visited to feed on our rowan berries up until January this year.


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Elderberries by our main pond in July this year. The blackbirds didn't take long to eat them all.

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Bright red rowan berries in July.

© Jonathan Jackson


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In comparison, this January the trees were still full with last year’s fruits, which attracted two mistle thrush to the garden from late autumn until January.


These early autumnal signs weren’t just a local occurrence either – the Woodland Trust had reports through their Nature's Calendar from across the country from July onwards. You can submit your own records on the Woodland Trust’s Nature’s calendar.

One of the great things about hedgerows is not just the benefits to wildlife, but the bounty of wild produce they can bring to your kitchen if you know where to look. This year and 2013 have been bumper years for fruit and some of us have taken advantage of this. August brambles (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a handful of crab apples (for natural pectin) and a leisurely walk resulted in a couple of jars of delicious bramble jam, not to mention the elderberry and bramble wine bubbling away in my conservatory at home. Unfortunately the wine takes a year or so before it is ready, but it’ll be a nice Christmas treat for next year!


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Brambles in August in the Wildlife Garden.

©Jonathan Jackson


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Bramble jam.

© Larissa Cooper



Add in a few crab apples to the bramble jam (or other jams and jellies) to add natural pectin to assist with the setting.

© Larissa Cooper


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Elderberry wine bubbling away. Fermentation has slowed but the flavour still needs to develop. We added in some brambles to sweeten the wine slightly.

©Larissa Cooper


My colleague Chris Raper in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity has been busy foraging too, having more luck than me at finding sloes (fruits from the blackthorn Prunus spinosa) and putting them to good use making sloe gin. 


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Plenty of sloes this year if you know where to find them.

© Chris Raper


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Sloe gin in the making.

© Chris Raper


If there were any rowan berries left some could be used to make rowan jelly, much like hawthorn (Cratageus monogyna) jelly, a foraged alternative to cranberry jelly for your roast dinner. Hazel (Corylus avellana) nuts are delicious toasted – if you can get there before the squirrels that is. Rosehips also make a delicious sweet jelly, and our hops donated by Meantime Brewery last year have done very well this year – beer anyone?!

One thing to remember though – when foraging, be sure to leave something for the hedgerow inhabitants as it is their supermarket after all!


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The hops in our hedgerow have almost taken over in some parts, but we shall be leaving them for wildlife and because they look so beautiful.

© Larissa Cooper


To find out more about hedges, and taste some hedgerow produce, Join us at our Hedgerow Harvest event this Sunday 5 October in the Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre between 12.00-17.00.


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Some of the delicious produce made from hedgerow plant species.

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum



Hedgerow Harvest - join us this Sunday 5 October between 12.00-17.00.

You can also find out more about the biodiversity of hedgerows in the autumn edition of evolve magazine.


The garden has an autumnal feel to it as meadow plants fade and set seed, and rose-hips are blackberries are ready for harvest. But it is now that heathland plants come into their own with the heather (or ling as it is sometimes called) and dwarf gorse in flower attracting a variety of bees including our own honey bees.


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Heathland in flower with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and dwarf gorse (Ulex minor)

© Jonathan Jackson


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Honey bee (Apis mellifera) on heather (Calluna vulgaris) this week

© Jonathan Jackson


Luke Dixon, our beekeeper, tells us what honey bees and beekeepers are up to at the moment:


"The bee season is coming to an end and the bees in the Wildlife Garden are preparing for winter. Honey bees are the only bee to survive through the winter as a colony. All other bees and wasps are dying off now and just the newly mated queens will live through the cold months. But the honey bees have been storing up honey so they have something to eat when the cold weather comes.


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There is still plenty of activity at the entrance to the bee tree.

© Qais Zakaria

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Inside our bee tree in the Wildlife Garden

© Qais Zakaria


The bees in our other hives have also made honey and we have harvested a little of it while leaving most for the bees for the winter.


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Harvesting honey in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


It has the wonderfully complex taste of all urban honey. Town bees have much more to feed on than their country cousins and the honey they make contains all the flavours of the many different flowers that they can forage on, from the chestnuts and limes in the nearby royal parks, to the marjoram, dandelions, heather, holly and ivy nearer to home. Tasting the honey at the end of the season is one of the great rewards of beekeeping.


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Honey-filled comb

© Qais Zakaria



We've had to close up the front of the hives to make the entrances as small as possible. Predatory wasps are a real problem this time of year and they been raiding the hives in search of bees and honey to eat. By reducing the hive entrances, the bees have a better chance of defending themselves. We've seen plenty of battles between wasp and bee around the hives.


As the weather gets colder the bees will form a cluster in the depths of the hive, keeping warm and protecting the queen. We'll leave them in peace until the warm weather returns and there is once again pollen and nectar to bring into the hives'.


Thank you Luke.


  • The bee tree is laden with bees and with honey. You can check on them yourself with the webcam inside the hive.
  • You can meet our beekeepers at our Hedgerow Harvest event on Sunday 5 October which falls close on the heels of Science Uncovered when you can visit us all to find out more about the Museum's work, and our work in the Wildlife Garden.


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Taking advantage of late-flowering hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) in flower in the Wildlife Garden fen

© Jonathan Jackson


We are continuously looking to increase the biodiversity of our living exhibition of habitats and wildlife within its current confines and, with green roofs in mind, we asked Paul Richens for advice. "Start small," were his good words! Our first green roof was created in 2009 on our smallest shed using meadow turfs. This was extended two years ago, over our adjoining log store, resulting in a small raised meadow area visible from the Darwin Centre courtyard.


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The meadow roof in spring...

© Jonathan Jackson


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...and in summer.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our meadow roof is a mix of wildflowers including red clover (Trifolium pratense), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) and grasses such as Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), red fescue (Festuca rubra) and smooth meadow-grass (Poa pratensis). The roof is slightly pitched preventing waterlogging but flat enough to hold the substrate, making it ideal for this plant community.


We treat it as a meadow, with a cut in early spring, and again in late summer. It has just been cut by our volunteer Tommy who has returned to help us before leaving for further study in Oxford.


The next step was a 'green' cover for the pitched roof of our new sheep shed - Larissa Cooper took up this challenge and tells us how:


Last year we created an additional habitat in the Wildlife Garden. Not another woodland, or grassland, but a living roof on top of the shed our sheep sleep in. Our latest green roof was created in November 2013.


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The sheep shed roof before we added the green roof.

© Jonathan Jackson


It has a slight pitch so water will drain away a lot quicker than a flat roof which was a big consideration when designing the new living roof. The shed builders had provided a roof strong enough to support vegetation. We wanted a roof which would require little watering, be beneficial for invertebrates, and aesthetically pleasing and looking at it now, I think we may have achieved this!


Collaborating with information and tips from Living Roofs and two books: 'Building Green - a guide to using plants on roofs, walls and pavements' by Jacklyn Johnston and John Newton and 'Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls' by Nigel Dunnett and Noel Kingsbury, this is how we did it:


The roof comprises eight layers: (from bottom to top), with layers 2 to 6 depicted in the photograph that follows.


  1. roof top
  2. geotextile
  3. butyl rubber
  4. geotextile
  5. recycled ridged foam
  6. fleece
  7. substrate
  8. plants


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Layers added between the roof below and the substrate and plants on top.

© Larissa Cooper


  • Step 1 - We added layers 2-4 which will act as a waterproof membrane, protecting the roof surface from any possible water or root damage. These layers overlapped the roof and were trimmed at the end.
  • Step 2 - We fixed the wooden framework to the edge of the roof to hold in all the materials.
  • Step 3 - We added the recycled foam in layer 5 which helps to drain away any water via the ridges underneath, but also retains moisture, minimising the watering needed.
  • Step 4 - On top of the foam we used wool fleece for layer 6. This layer will retain moisture, but also acts as a root barrier to the other layers, preventing the plants damaging them. The fleece is made from wool which will eventually break down and become part of the substrate.
  • Step 5 - before adding the substrate we inserted crossbeams and fixed them to the outer frame. These beams will be covered by vegetation, but prevents the substrate from slipping in wet weather.
  • Step 6 - Time to add the substrate. Ours comprises poor quality topsoil (subsoil is preferable), mixed with gravel and crushed brick and aggregates. But you could use a number of different materials here from crushed brick and aggregates, compost, even clay balls. If planting wildflowers and wanting to attract invertebrates, the lower the quality the better!


If you are making a living roof at home, you can use old blankets for the fleece layer, and polythene for the waterproofing. A living roof can be created on a budget with a bit of planning and a few freecycle posts!


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We planted the roof in November with a mixture of sedums and coastal plants. The plug plants tended to do better than the potted plants.

© Jonathan Jackson


  • Step 7 - Finally, the planting. We selected combination of sedums: English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) white stonecrop (Sedum album), biting stonecrop (Sedum acre) and reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre); and coastal cliff plants: rock sea-lavender (Limonium binervosum), sea campion (Silene uniflora), thrift (Armeria maritima) and Jersey thrift (Armeria arenaria). These plants are drought tolerant, and also rich in nectar which will help to attract the insects.


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The roof just after planting and with the layers still needing to be trimmed

© Jonathan Jackson


The plants adapted well to their new habitat.


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From this...

© Jonathan Jackson


5b - c - johnathan Jackson.jpg this in just 8 months! Here you can see the sedums, rock sea lavender and thrift in flower (along with a lonesome poppy which found its own way there).

© Jonathan Jackson


We also added a small log pile and a brick pile to create added niches for invertebrates to shelter in.


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Log pile made from a selection of small logs which will hopefully attract some beetles and woodlouse.

© Larissa Cooper


Nine months on and the roof is in bloom, with the stonecrops and rock sea lavender in flower. Bees have been seen foraging for nectar and we will shortly be carrying out a more in-depth invertebrate survey.


Living or 'green' roofs are becoming more popular in the UK, but they are not a recent trend. In Europe, Germany leads the way as the country with the most living roofs. London's green roof guru, Dusty Gedge, estimates that in London alone, there is potential for 1,000 hectares of surface area to be "greened" - that's around 7 more Hyde Parks or around 2,400 more Museum Wildlife Gardens! If you think that we have recorded over 2,500 species of plants and animals here in the Garden you can see that the implications for installing green roofs can have nothing but a positive impact on our native wildlife.


Living roofs are not only great for wildlife, they can also offer environmental protection against floods, reduce heat loss and the heat-island effect in cities and also add insulation. There are many different designs of living roof and almost any roof can be converted so long as it can bear the load. I can recommend you taking a look at Living Roofs if you would like to explore doing so in further detail.


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Nine months on and plants are well established on our new roof.

© Jonathan Jackson


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Inspired by the sheep shed and making use of the cut-offs we made a mini roof for our insect hotel.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our new roof has added not only to the biodiversity of the garden with additional plant species, but also looks rather beautiful too. Now if only my landlord would let me loose on the garage at home...


Thank you Larissa - your landlord shouldn't need too much persuading once they see the work you've done here! And to close, here's one more image from our beautiful new roof.


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Thrift (and self-sown clover) amongst the sedum today.

© Naomi Lake


After last week's busy National Insect Week and its launch in the Wildlife Garden on 23 June, we turned our focus onto some important insect predators... bats! We're celebrating the amazing world of these flying mammals at our annual Bat Festival this coming weekend; an event hosted in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust and with the London Bat Group.


There are over 1,200 species of bat in the world; some are vegetarian and eat fruit and nectar, some eat fish or small mammals including frogs but, like all 18 species known to live in the UK, the majority feed on insects.


These UK bats mainly catch their insect prey in flight. Some such as the Daubenton's bat will also take insects from the surface of large ponds and rivers, and a few including the brown long-eared bat will sometimes glean or pick their insect food from leaves and bark, or even from the ground.


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Daubenton's bat in flight over water

© Kevin Durose, Bat Conservation Trust


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Brown long-eared bat - also called the whispering bat - looking down from its roost in an old cottage

© Sean Hanna, Kent Bat Group




Bats seen in the Wildlife Garden at dusk are the common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). It's a special moment to watch them feeding over the ponds and meadow areas where they catch small moths, caddisflies, midges and other small flies. There are also probably brown long-eared bats in the trees, but their ultrasonic calls are usually too quiet to hear on a bat detector.


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Pipistrelle bat in flight

© Hugh Clark, Bat Conservation Trust

Many of these insects start off life in ponds including caddisflies and non-biting midges, and their larvae are often found during pond dipping sessions.


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Yellow spotted sedge caddis fly (Philopotamus montanus)

Its larvae are found in fast flowing rivers and streams rather than in wildlife garden ponds!

© Emma Ross


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Caddis fly larvae from our pond - find out more about caddis fly larvae cases this weekend

© Larissa Cooper


While the Garden is the Museum's only permanent living exhibition with its collection of native plants and associated wildlife - including insects and bats -the Museum is, of course, renowned for its huge collection of specimens from around the world. Again, this includes bats. Mammals Curator, Louise Tomsett tells us more about these fascinating animals from a curator's perspective:


"There are over 30,000 bat specimens in the collection. Most of our collections are from mid-late 1800s and first half of 1900s.


We have an estimated 95% coverage of species but bat taxonomy is in constant flux so there may be undiscovered species present in the collection. It has happened several times in the collections.


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Dry bat skins in the reference collection 

© Louise Tomsett


The collection is rich in species variety, geographic range and historical specimens. The collection is particularly important for conservation. Researchers access the specimens to gather information to create an identification guide that is then used in biodiversity surveys.


The geographical locality information associated with the specimens also gives insight to where populations are or where they used to be and can be used to assess declines or changes in species range. Presence of a bat in a particular area also indicates the type of environment and other associated species such as insect prey.


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Type specimens in the reference collection. Types are the representative specimens that display characteristics that define that particular species. Descriptions of species are based upon these individuals and they are used as comparative examples when researchers are attempting to designate a new species.

© Louise Tomsett


The collections are sampled for a wide range of  genetic research. These samples can provide information on population genetics and may be used in association with living samples to assess inbreeding in populations and support conservation genetics.


The reference collections are kept behind closed doors in special storage areas, with controlled access. This is to prevent fading from light exposure and as protection from dirt, unnecessary handling and from pests that would destroy them.


The job of a curator is to provide access for multidisciplinary research but also to balance this use with preservation for the future as the collections are irreplaceable. Each specimen is a unique example of an animal from a specific time and place. They need to be preserved for future generations.


History has shown us that the collections hold a wealth of undiscovered information and new research techniques to unlock this are being developed all the time. We cannot always predict what research or type of information a specimen will be used for."


To see some of these unique specimens from around the world and to discover more about bats at home - their diet, lifestyle and habitats - join us in our Bat Festival this weekend, 5 and 6 July from 12.00 to 17.00 each day.


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As national Be Nice to Nettles Week closed, our plans for our own Nettle Weekend on 31 May and 1 June gathered pace - Roy Vickery prepares the way for the plant with many names and many uses:


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Common nettle, Urtica dioica.

© Derek Adams


"The smell of young stinging nettles evokes the beauty of early summer, that time of year when broad-leaved trees are covered in fresh green leaves, red campion brightens our hedgerows, and early orchids appear in grassland. Insects re-emerge and become active, and insect-eating birds boldly search for aphids and other small beasts to feed to their young.


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Aphids and a ladybird predator in our Wildlife Garden during May.

© Derek Adams


Butterflies such as the small tortoiseshell and red admiral lay their eggs on nettles and soon young caterpillars emerge.


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Nettle tap caterpillar (Anthophila fabriciana) on nettle. You can find out more about nettles, butterflies and moths in Alessandro Guisti's Curator of Lepidoptera blog.

© Harry Taylor


Now is the time to collect nettle tops for eating as a green vegetable or in soups, in a few weeks time they will be too tough to enjoy.


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Nettle tops prepared for the pot.


It is also now when early turkeys are hatched and, before the discovery of antibiotics, nettles were added to their food to try and keep them healthy. Now is also the time to start brewing nettle beer, formerly a drink much used in rural areas. It contains little alcohol, just sufficient to kill any microbes which might have been present in rural water supplies.


The stinging nettle was also valued as a fibre plant. Its fibres are strong, but difficult to extract. Fibres prepared in early summer are fine and satin-like, later in the year they are similar to hessian.


Wherever nettles grow it seem they've been believed to be useful for treating painful joints: if your knees are already painful, 'beat them with nettles'; if they are not, ramblers might find comfort in knowing that being stung with nettles early in life is said to prevent the later onset of rheumatic conditions.


In recent years the nettle, an ordinary - but also extraordinary - plant has been celebrated at events held around the country, including the Museum, so come and find out more".


Nettle Weekend will be held at the Museum on Saturday 31 May to Sunday 1 June: join Roy and the rest of the Museum nettle team to discover the many uses of the common nettle and some of its relatives from around the world. For more information about the event, download the PDF attachment to this post.


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Nettle Soup or dyes from Nettles? Come and find out more at our Nettle Weekend.

© Derek Adams


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Herbarium specimen of Himalayan Giant Nettle (Girardinia diversifolia), one of several specimens on view at our Nettle Weekend. See fine fabrics woven or knitted from the fibre of Nepalese nettle.


Nettle weekend at the Natural History Museum is part of the Chelsea Fringe.


Spring is marching on and keeping us all very busy. As the season progresses colour becomes more varied and the changes are noticed daily - its an exciting time!.


The dates of first flowers are early compared to last year's late Spring: trees in blossom this month - several of which first flowered in March - included Wild cherry (Prunus avium), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), bird cherry (Prunus padus), apple (Malus domestica), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and last week - also earlier than in previous years - elder (Sambucus nigra).

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Apple blossom, Malus domestica, from the 'Brownlees Russett' variety in the Wildlife Garden

© Jonathan Jackson


On the ground the variety of texture, scent and colour is changing even more dramatically, especially in woodland areas, which are now bright with whites: sweet woodruff (Galium odorata), wild garlic (Allium ursinum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); blues: bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), bugle (Ajuga reptans), wood speedwell (Veronica montana); and yellows: a few primroses and celendines remain with the more recent flowering of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon); and, of course, the deep pink of red campion (Silene dioica) as well as grasses wood millet (Milium effusum), false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) and more.


While in water, the delicate flowers of bogbean float daintily in the upper pond...


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Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata
© Jonathan Jackson


But the star of April is undoubtedly cowslip. In grassland areas cowslips have provided a long season - a few were spotted in flower on 25 February; ten days earlier than the first cowslip flower last year -  and there has been a succession ever since.


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Cowslip, Primula veris
© Derek Adams


Cowslips were once a common sight throughout April and May on chalk downland, and in meadows and pastures as well as hedge banks and railway embankments throughout downland areas of Britain.


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Cowslip on Wye National Nature Reserve
© Natural England


But although now sadly a rare sight generally, cowslips are still plentiful on nature reserves such as Wye NNR managed by Natural England and there are many conservation projects encouraging the return of cowslips to their former habitats…


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Cowslips in a restored meadow on the north downs in Kent this week.
© Peta Rudduck


And, some say they are returning to road sides and motorway embankments. In gardens once established they will reward you by continuing to spread both vegetatively and by seed. Our own chalk downland and pond-side meadow habitats have been crowded with cowslips all month.


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Chalk downland, with cowslips, in the Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson


And there are still a few in bud in our meadow where the flowering has been delayed due to recent grazing (at the end of March our sheep were here for a short visit, to graze the too-lush grasses in the meadow).


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March grazing in the meadow
© Sue Snell


In rural areas cowslips were traditionally harvested to make wine which was also taken medicinally. They are rich in nectar and, in former times when cowslips were a common sight, children would pick flowers and sip the nectar. Here in our Wildlife Garden, the nectar is strictly for the bees and early butterflies including the brimstone. Cowslip is also the food plant of the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary. Other insects benefit, including pollen beetles...


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A pollen beetle, Meligethes aeneus, pays a visit to a cowslip flower.
© Jonathan Jackson


Once cowslips are in bloom I feel that spring is really, truly here and although I want these beautiful flowers to last a little longer, there are now many seed heads amongst the blooms. Not so radiantly yellow, but it's good news for next year.


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Cowslip seed heads

© Jonathan Jackson


You can find out more about cowslips in folklore from Roy Vickery. If you are out and about this weekend and spot the violets of bluebells rather than the yellows of cowslips, do join in with the Museum's survey.


And at the end of May visit us here in the Garden and discover more about Britain's most common flower, the stinging nettle. Nettle Weekend is 31 May to 1 June. More on that soon...




Greetings from a garden full of Spring promise! After an absence of several weeks, I recently left winter dormancy behind and have been welcomed by the optimism of spring from the Garden.


The productive work carried out by Larissa, Naomi and our wonderful volunteers these past few weeks is evident from the signs of coppicing, pollarding, pruning and propagating, as well as thinning out some of our most determined umbellifers - cow parsley, hogweed and ground elder.


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Coppiced alder (Alnus glutinosa)

© Derek Adams


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Seed propagation in preparation for our Spring Wildlife Event on Saturday 5 April

© Sue Snell

And the garden itself has a surprise around every corner. On the ground in the coppiced woodland habitat and beneath the mature lime, the daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are in bloom.


2. .WLG_06032014-108 daffodils (Custom).JPGThe first of our native daffodils was recorded on 25 February nine days earlier than last year

© Jonathan Jackson


There's a fair sprinkling of primroses (Primula vulgaris) in flower, with many more buds yet to open.


3. WLG_06032014-058  primroses 6_3_14 (Custom).JPGPrimroses at the edge of woodland - first flower recorded on 18 February; just a couple of days earlier than last year

© Jonathan Jackson


A deeper shade of yellow is offered by the fluffy heads of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) which brighten up the hedge banks.


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Coltsfoot, a plant typical of waste areas but welcome in our garden

© Derek Adams


Red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) along the path provides nectar for early flying insects, and other shades of pink include the occasional red campion (Silene dioica) and herb robert (Geranium robertianum).


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Red campion thrives in our Wildlife garden -  at least one plant can be seen in flower throughout the year

© Derek Adams


Sweet violet (Viola odorata) is in flower between hedge and pond and dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) is increasing its territory beneath silver birch and ash. We'll be contributing our first flower and animal sightings to the Woodland Trust's Nature's Calendar.


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Dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) - first flower this year was recorded on 13th January

© Jonathan Jackson


But what is most striking is the volume of bird song this week! After crossing the threshold of the Garden the traffic noise of Cromwell Road melts away and a symphony takes over inlcuding the medodic song of blackbirds and robins, rich trills and 'Tshews' from a flock of greenfinches, a medley of calls from blue, great and long-tailed tits, the occasional sound from our moorhen couple, and more.


There are flashes of red and yellow from goldfinches, and blue and yellow as blue tits whirr across our pathways. Territories are being established, courtship is in progress - and in some cases nesting material is already being transported to niches within ivy-clad trees:


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A female blackbird was observed building a nest in ivy this week but here the male is feeding up on ivy berries

The supply of rowan berries referred to in recent blogs is finally exhausted!

© Jonathan Jackson

And to nest boxes, and the eaves of our garden shed:


DSC_0674 (Custom).JPGA wren started building here this week, the site was then taken over by a robin and now is currently vacant...

© Larissa Cooper



But not to hedges where there is too little camouflage just yet:


DSC_0399 catkins (Custom).JPGCatkins amongst the bare branches of one of our laid hedges

© Jonathan Jackson


Hazel catkins broke hedge dormancy in early January and now white flowers appear on the bare branches of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa).


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Our first blackthorn flowers opened on 18 February

© Jonathan Jackson


This is our earliest flowering native shrub in the Wildlife Garden (and elsewhere). Clouds of white blossom are already visible in hedges in the countryside. One of the many country sayings relating to Blackthorn is that its flowering is said to coincide with a cold spell - but not this week. More blackthorn country sayings and uses can be found on Roy Vickery's website of Plantlore.


Blackthorn is a spikier relative of hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) - and an excellent hedge companion, quick growing and providing good nest sites amongst a network of spiny branches and thorns. And, in autumn, sloes are food for berry-eating birds.


But this shrub and hedgerow plant is beneficial to many other species: providing nectar for early flying insects such as the tree bumble bee (Bombus hypnorum), first sighted in the garden this year on 15 February; and buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) observed on 6 March.


It's one of the larval food plants for many beautiful moth species including sloe midget (Phyllonorycter spinicolella), tufted button (Acleris cristana), clouded silver (Lomographa temerata) and the brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata), all of which have been recorded here. You can read more about moth recording in the Wildlife Garden, by Lepidopterist Martin Honey in the Spring issue of evolve - the Museum's quarterly magazine.


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Brimstone Moth - this particular specimen was caught in our light trap on 6 August and released the following morning

© Florin Feneru


This week also we were shown the concept plans for the redesign of the Museum grounds, some of which included some surprising suggestions for the Wildlife Garden - you can read about this competition at Malcolm Reading Consultants.


Its been a fine Spring week but March is a capricious month and country sayings about the blackthorn weather may yet ring true.


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Coltsfoot (again)

© Derek Adams


In the meantime we intend to hold on to our Spring optimism in the Museum's Wildlife Garden and continue to promote and conserve biodiversity here in the heart of London.


While some of us are head down searching for first flowers, others are alert to life higher up: Wildlife gardener, Daniel Osborne, who often spots some of the Wildlife Garden's less common sightings shares his winter observations:


“For those prepared to venture out in the cold, observing birds in winter has a charm all its own. While many of the enigmatic summer species will have migrated south, and none of the spring breeding displays or nesting behaviour will be in evidence, birds in winter are no less engaging.


There are still many species around. Blackbirds, robins, finches (including colourful flocks of goldfinches), tits, wrens, dunnocks and many corvids are common in gardens throughout winter. They are more or less non-migratory, but movement within these species does occur - from the colder north, and even from the countryside into cities.


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One of our resident robins (Erithacus rubecula)

© Mark Humphries


Some species, such as fieldfares and redwings, are encountered only in winter when they leave their summer breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Siberia. Redwings have been recorded in the Garden this year, as in previous years, and a pair of mistle thrush have chosen to make the Garden their home this winter, as reported in our December post.


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Redwing (Turdus iliacus) have been spotted in the Garden during the past month
© Phil Hurst


Due to the scarcity of food, many different species will flock together in winter feeding parties. Excellent viewing opportunities are afforded by the absence of foliage on the deciduous trees.


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A great tit (Parus major) in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


And birds are increasingly willing to visit garden bird feeders.


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European greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) and blue tit (Parus caeruleus) on our garden bird feeder

© Derek Adams


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Our resident moorhens (Gallinula chloropis) ensure nothing is left to waste below the feeders...

© Derek Adams


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... Though some can get left behind.

© Mark Humphries



The feeders in the Garden are usually in regular need of refilling during the winter months, although not too much this winter so far. The relatively mild temperatures appear to be offering a continued availability of natural food, and it is interesting to note that the blackbirds only recently started feeding on the rowan berries that they usually pluck in August with precise bursts of hummingbird-like hovering.


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Blackbirds (Turdus merula) feed off rowan berries most summers ... but not last summer

© Derek Adams


Blackbirds are seen frequently at all times of year in the Garden. They are common, and easily identified, the males a uniform black with a bright orange bill and eye, the females a diffuse brown as seen above and further below.


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Male blackbird in the Wildlife Garden
© Mark Humphries


They have the habit of cackling noisily when they take off and slowly bringing their tails up to the vertical when they land, making them identifiable even at distance.


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Female blackbird
© Derek Adams


The males are territorial and will often proclaim their territory from the same branch. It's my estimate that the Garden is the site of at least three different male blackbird territories. One male has a spot in the apple tree in the orchard area from which he can regularly be heard singing. At this time of year they will be re-establishing their territories and, like all birds, looking for enough food to survive.


Winter is undoubtedly a time of great hardship for birds. Severe or extended cold has disastrous effects on bird numbers. But it can also be a time of unrivaled avian spectacle. Starling murmurations are among the most celebrated natural phenomena and reach a peak during winter, when the birds roost most communally.


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Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) - sadly uncommon in the Wildlife Garden - our last sighting was in 2009

© Tim Munsey


Some parts of Britain entertain huge influxes of swans and geese. Waders and wildfowl flock in huge numbers on the coastlines. And for me, in London, there is always the hope of seeing, in my opinion, the most beautiful of birds, waxwings.”


Thank you Daniel!


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A waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) - one that is definitely on our Garden wish-list!

© Phil Hurst 


We'll be sharing more of our bird sightings with you later in the year



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.


The berry season has been spectacular this year, and continues, in green (ivy), in black (tutsan and privet), and more seasonally, in many shades of red and orange. Clusters of red fruit remain on our rowan trees and it’s easy to spot feeding birds within the bare branches. This morning I watched 2 plump mistle thrushes gorge themselves while blackbirds fed on a neighbouring tree - so no surprise that we have so many rowan seedlings throughout the garden.


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A morning feast - mistle thrush and blackbird on neighbouring rowans.


Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) brightens dark corners of woodland together with the maligned stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) - it doesn't smell bad!.


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Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus).

Derek Adams


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Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima).
Derek Adams


Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) dangles its ripe red berries over fences and through hedges where a few bruised rose-hips and the occasional pink of an unripe blackberry can also be found. But it is the holly (Ilex aquifolium) that steals the show; its scarlet berries looking luscious amongst the dark shiny leaves.

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A holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson


Holly is a rich source of food for birds and crucially will be available when most other berries have been exhausted. Blackbird, mistle thrush and redwing - all members of the family Turdidae (the thrushes) - will compete with woodpigeon and squirrels for the fruit. Our Christmas card icon, the robin, very occasionally feeds on these berries too.


Holly berries are resistant to the extreme cold and stay well preserved for several months, but another reason for their longevity is the mistle thrush.  Barbara and John Snow who spent years studying the ecological interaction between birds and berries*, observed that some holly trees are fiercely defended by mistle thrush.


By preventing other birds from feeding on the fruit, mistle thrushes can conserve the berries as a long-term food supply which may last all winter through to spring. And as they suggest, this conservation of hollies by mistle thrushes is one of the reasons there are always holly berries around on some trees for our festive decorations. 

Roy Vickery takes up the seasonal story of holly:

“Although it seems that in earlier times a variety of evergreens were used in Christmas decorations, for many years red-berried holly was the most important one. Indeed, in some parts of  England it was known simply as ‘Christmas’. Before computer-generated posters became common, holly leaves, which even artists with few skills could draw, inevitably adorned notices announcing Christmas events.

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Hedge holly in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson


Although growing holly trees were usually considered to be protective, and therefore should not be cut down, it was sometimes considered unlucky to bring branches of it indoors before Christmas Eve. There are even occasional records of holly being considered inauspicious during the Christmas period.


However, most people tried to get sprigs of holly, with its bright red berries and dark green glossy leaves, to decorate their homes. Thus the gathering of holly provided a useful supplementary income for farmers who had trees growing on their land, and gypsies who gathered it wherever they could. In 1980 it was estimated that holly sold at Christmas came equally from these two sources. In some areas, notably Cornwall, Christmas trees were traditionally hollies rather than the more usual conifer trees.


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More holly in our garden.

Jonathan Jackson


In recent years holly seems to have become much less popular, at least in London. Little was available for sale in 2012, although it appears to have made something of a come-back in 2013. Presumably holly, which tends to soon dry up and lose its leaves in warm conditions is unsuited for display in centrally heated homes, although holly wreaths, usually of natural leaves and wired-on artificial berries, are still commonly produced for decorating graves and attaching to front doors.


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Christmas wreath on the door of the Wildlife Garden shed, made by Larissa from willow stems, yew, juniper and holly - nothing artificial here!


To a certain extent more easily manageable poinsettias and stems of the deciduous North American holly, known as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), have replaced the hard to arrange holly twigs which were once sought in British hedgerows.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) on sale this weekend in a market in Kent.


In the past, outside the Christmas season, chilblains were cured by beating with holly twigs until they bled, branches were pulled down chimneys to clear them of soot, bird-lime used for trapping small birds was extracted from its bark, and an abundance of its berries were believed to foretell a severe winter.”


Partly down to the mistle thrush?


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Winter holly in the Wildlife Garden in 2003.

Derek Adams


* Snow, B and J. 1988. Birds and Berries. T & AD Poyser


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:



Neatly clipped yew, woven willow, scruffy privet, mixed hedges of several species including hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, field maple, spindle - and other combinations - hedges in town and country provide at least temporary lodging and corridors for small creatures, and at best, in a bushy mixed hedge, a varied structure for small mammals, birds and invertebrates to move through or shelter, nest and forage in.


By autumn the blossoms that adorned mixed native hedges in May and June - earlier in the case of blackthorn - have ripened into tempting purple, black and red berries, scarlet hips, burgundy-coloured haws, acorns and hazel nuts. Last month we celebrated these fruits and the biodiversity of mixed hedgerows.


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Hawthorn – a common hedgerow plant


Our annual Hedgerow Harvest event took place in Wildlife Garden, with talks in the Attenborough Studio and additional activities in the Investigate Centre on 6 October. We also introduced a similar event away in Kent at the end of October - held jointly with the Friends group of Whitstable Museum and Gallery. Here’s how we celebrated:


As well as showing off our mixed native hedges in the Garden we held activities and displays about native hedges. In previous years woodland conservationist, Rob Graham, has demonstrated hedge-laying but now that all the hedges in the Garden have been laid, we invited visitors to help plant a new mixed hedge to replace a single species hedge - the yew hedge that Carrie and Ayana surveyed and wrote about in our September blog.


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Rob demonstrating hedgelaying in the Garden -  a method of creating a stock-proof barrier and a haven for wildlife
© Photoshot, Natural History Museum


We introduced our visitors to some for the animal species that benefit from hedgerows. Some were Museum specimens such as those in the OPAL bug hunt which was a popular and fun introduction to the different groups of invertebrates, including butterflies, beetles and bugs, and a helpful aid to identifying insects in hedges next spring and summer.


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Visitors studying for the OPAL bug hunt in the Wildlife Garden

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum


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OPAL Bug hunt at Whitstable Museum

© Lydia Heeley


Some were crafty paper-made peg animals.


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Around 80 peg dormice were made!

© Sean Hanna


Unfortunately, there was no chance of live dormice in the Garden but Sean, one of our volunteers, created a lively and informative display about this endangered species and their disappearing habitats, and had a captive audience making paper dormice to take away.

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   All about dormice - display in the Wildlife Garden

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum


At both events the celebrity guests were hedgehogs...

6 Hedgerow Harvest 071012-077 (Custom).JPG'Sue Kidger Hedgehog Rescue' visited the Wildlife Garden

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum



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Loraine from Kent Wildlife Rescue introduced Whitstable visitors to rescued hedgehogs that are unable to fend for themselves

© Lydia Heeley


...and bats in Whitstable where Hazel from the Kent Bat Group introduced them to a keen audience.


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Eden and Ella meeting a pipistrelle bat

© Lydia Heeley



But food foraging is not just for the wildlife.


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Rosehips, sloes and crab apples


During the Nature Live session in the Museum's Attenborough Studio we learnt about wild food from Marcus Harrison, which was  followed by a hedgerow plant tour of the garden with Roy Vickery. And, in Whitstable, Jo Barker led a walk in the community allotment to find some of the contents of these hedgerow living larders and medicine cabinets. A food table at both events displayed a wide range of food and drink from berries, nuts and nettles.


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Display of harvest from local hedges with tasty food and drink from Whitstable Farmers' Market and local shops

© Lydia Heeley


Additional activities using resources found in hedges and associated plants included :


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Identifying seeds with the use of a microscope

© Lydia Heeley


Making fishing floats from the dried pith of elder trees.


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A fishing float made from elder pith

© Lydia Heeley


Discovering the many colours using natural plants as dyes.


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Ruth demonstrating colours from plant dyes in Whitstable Museum

© Lydia Heeley


And making seasonable bird feeders.

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Rupert making an apple bird feeder in Whitstable Museum.

© Lydia Heeley



Hedges are still in celebratory mood with leaf colours slowly changing to yellow, browns, pink and russet while squirrels, birds and mice in our Garden are busy foraging berries and hips and haws and burying nuts in earthy larders.


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Rosehips in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


You can find out more about this beautiful season with Fred Rumsey on his autumn wildlife walk on Hampstead Heath below - and then get outside and see for yourself!


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