Category Archives: Wildlife in gardens in Britain

Results of the Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

Fears about the impact of last December’s severe weather, the coldest in 100 years, were unfounded.  The drop in small bird populations witnessed in the RSPB Birdwatch of 2010 during the Big Freeze was rectified by excellent breeding conditions in the following spring.  Small birds in recovery notably include goldcrests, long-tailed tits and coal tits.

Another interesting result of the survey were the numerous sightings of waxwings, reflecting both the large numbers migrating from Scandinavia this winter and the “bird-friendly” berry-producing vegetation people are increasingly planting in their gardens.  A record 600,000 people took part.  The results compared with last year:

  • House sparrow – 4.2 birds per garden in 2011, rise from 3.8 in 2010
  • Starling – 3.9, up from 3.1
  • Blackbird – 3.3, stayed the same
  • Blue tit – 3.2, up from 2.6
  • Chaffinch – 2.4, up from 2.2
  • Wood pigeon – 1.9, stayed the same
  • Great tit – 1.6, up from 1.4
  • Goldfinch – 1.5, up from 1.3
  • Robin – 1.5, stayed the same
  • Collared Dove – 1.3, stayed the same at 1.3

Are foxes dangerous to cats?

On a recent BBC wildlife podcast, fox expert Professor Steve Harris, Bristol University stated that the average urban fox will kill a cat every 6 years, and that some 500 cats live in every fox territory. So the risk is tiny.

A Bristol City Council leaflet writen by Professor Harris gives the follwoing advice:

This is very rare; a survey in northwest Bristol, where foxes were particularly common, showed that they killed 0.7% of the cats each year and these were predominantly young kittens. This means your cat is far more likely to be run over, stray or die from a variety of other causes.

Foxes are only a little bit bigger than a cat (males average about 5.5 kilograms) and are equipped with a set of sharp teeth. Cats have an equally sharp set of teeth, plus some pretty unpleasant sharp claws. If a fox tackles a cat, it risks severe injuries and that is the last thing it wants. Every night a single fox will meet many, perhaps dozens of cats and most encounters are either indifferent or amicable.

Cats and foxes will usually ignore each other. However, some cats are aggressive animals and will go for a fox, sometimes to drive it away from their garden or food bowl. Usually a fox will flee but if this is not practical and particularly if it is cornered, it may defend itself against the cat. Then both animals may be injured.

Finally, although foxes live in family groups and meet up periodically to play or socialise, they hunt alone. So stories of “packs of foxes” roaming the streets killing pet cats are totally fictitious.

Above photo from Wiki Commons of fox and pet rabbit by Oosoom.

Mammals in British gardens

92,000 people have taken part in the RSPB’s survey of garden wildlife, Make Your Nature Count, taking in 69,000 gardens in the UK. In addition to birds, the RSB asked participamts to look out for certain species of mammals. Above image: Nigel Blake (

Fourteen per cent  recorded the presence of moles, with half of these detecting moles regularly. Unsurprisingly, most moles were detected in rural gardens, being most frequently seen (or at least their molehills) in Wales in 25% of gardens, compared with 15% in Scotland and 13% in England. There are no moles in Northern Ireland.  Roe deer were recorded in 5% of gardens, with most sightings came from Scotland, where they were seen in 16% of gardens, compared to 4% in England and only 0.5% in Wales. There are no roe deer in Northern Ireland.

Hedgehogs were seen in 30% of gardens in urban areas, and more than one in seven saw them regularly. Hedgehog expert Hugh Warwick said: “Gardens are clearly very important for hedgehogs, a great example of a truly wild animal not only at home with us but also of great benefit to gardeners. “We should treasure the fact that they live comfortably in our gardens and so many people can get nose-to-nose with them.” The Guardian

A lucky 5%, in my opinion, saw badgers, including more than 20& in Somerset and Pembrokeshire.

The results:

Badger 5.50
Fox 26.23
Muntjac deer 1.91
Hedgehog 23.35
Roe deer 2.22
Mole 7.33
Red Squirrel 0.77
Cat 79.41

Help birds through the cold

The RSPB has just issued its “wild bird winter survival plan”  to help birds get through the worst of the freezing weather. It recommends:

  1. Put out feed regularly, especially in severe weather.  Set up a bird table and use high calorie seed mixes.
  2. Put out hanging feeders for black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, sunflower-rich mixes or unsalted peanuts.
  3. Ensure a supply of fresh water every day. If it is very cold use tepid water but DO NOT use any antifreeze products.
  4. Put out fruit, such as apples and pears, for Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and other members of the thrush family.
  5. Food bars or fat hung up or rubbed into the bark of trees is a great help for Treecreepers, Goldcrests and many other species.
  6. Put up nest boxes to provide roost sites for the smaller birds. They will then be used for breeding later in the year.

Squirrel-proof Birdfeeders

For those who don’t succumb to the charms of grey squirrels, keeping them off the bird feeder is a challenge.  There are plenty of ideas on the forums, such as placing a table on top of a greased pole, or capitulating by scattering food on the ground to distract the squirrels and give the birds a chance.  If unwanted rodents are consuming kilos of bird food, it might be worth investing in a specially designed squirrel-proof bird feeder.  Those sold by the RSPB include conventional seed and nut dispensers caged within bars too narrow for a squirrel to pass through.  Then there’s the robust–looking Squirrel Buster, which automatically closes down when something heavier than a small bird tries to access the food.  It’s the most expensive option, but comes with a life-time guarantee. Not bad considering the fearless acrobatics and determined wire-chewing tendencies of squirrels.
View at the RSPB

Birds sharing nest boxes

The RSPB have put out a reminder that now is a good moment to clean out nest boxes and put up new ones, since birds begin searching for likely sites well in advance of spring. And a sure sign that more nest boxes are needed in the area is when different species are found sharing the same space. This occurs particularly with barn owl boxes, since holes in trees or old buildings suitable for larger birds are becoming harder to find. The photograph shows barn owl and kestrel chicks being raised together. Great and blue tits are also known to share. RSPB

The house and garden of Roger Deakin

Anyone who has enjoyed reading Roger Deakin’s books, especially Waterlog and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, will love listening to these radio programmes that he recorded for the BBC.  Produced by Sara Blunt, the 25 minute-long programmes capture Deakin’s unusual home and garden, and the man who lived there.  The producer deliberately chose not to use an interviewer, instead allowing Deakin to draw you into his world with his own words. Continue reading The house and garden of Roger Deakin

Green roofs

When a million-strong swarm of ladybirds landed on Blackdown Horticultural farm recently, every time the staff ventured outside they were coated in insects. But the red cloud brought good publicity for their enterprise:  green roof installation.

The swarm had arrived to feast on aphids living on pesticide-free sedum plants, a staple of green roofs since these succulents are drought-resistant and thrive in well-drained conditions. Continue reading Green roofs

Brace yourself for the insect invasions

Summer time is perilous, judging by some of the recent headlines in the Daily Telegraph:

Wasp Hordes poised to invade British GardensArmy of Flying Ants descend on BritainSwarm of Millions of Ladybirds infests farm.

It’s enough to make you flee indoors and hide, with all windows sealed shut.

But one invasion is described in words that don’t invite fear and loathing: Billions of Butterflies expected in GardensContinue reading Brace yourself for the insect invasions

Derek Jarman’s garden

180-8003_IMG por angusf.

I love this series of photos of the shingle cottage-garden of the late film-maker Derek Jarman in Dungeness, Kent. The garden is unfenced and the tended areas blend in naturally with the natural vegetation. Jarman created the garden in the latter years of his life, in the shadow of the Dungeness power station. Continue reading Derek Jarman’s garden

What hedgehogs like to eat

The idea of hedgehogs feasting mainly on slugs and snails is somewhat of a misconception.  It’s true that hedgehogs are very useful natural pest controllers, snaffling up all kinds of unwanted creatures in your garden, but gastropods form only part of their varied diet, which includes beetles, earth worms, millipedes, caterpillars, earwigs, frogs, and bird’s eggs.  In fact, if they are forced to eat too many slugs and snails, because of lack of alternative food, they are at risk of lungworm infestation.  Hedgehogs suffering from this parasite, which slugs and snails harbour, will develop the symptoms of a heavy smoker, wheezing and coughing their way to an early death. Continue reading What hedgehogs like to eat

Wildflowers in your garden

If you’re looking for wildflower seeds, an experienced supplier is Landlife, a registered charity who promote biodiversity.  But they don’t simply plant wildflowers.  Firm believers in nature’s power to heal and uplift, Landlife strive to improve the environment for people’s wellbeing, focusing particularly on deprived areas.  You can support their work by ordering fabulous mixtures of wildflower seeds, or making up your own combinations.  They are experts in large-scale conservation projects, as well as transforming small gardens, even balconies.  The photograph shows their classic best-selling Cornfield mix.

Read about their products and projects.