Category Archives: Blog

We can all Bee Healthy

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Roselle Chapman, Wild Oxfordshire

One of the joys of this past summer was watching the Bee Healthy Borders grow, flower and buzz with pollinators in their first year. You might remember that the Bee Healthy project was developed as a partnership between Wild Oxfordshire, the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, inspired by Craig Blackwell’s magnificent bee friendly planting scheme at the Chipping Norton Health Centre. In autumn 2019, volunteers planted Bee Healthy Borders at Summertown Health Centre and St. Bartholomew’s Medical Centre in Oxford and Windrush Medical Practice in Witney. Each border was created using 15 nectar and pollen rich herbaceous perennial plant species for the benefit of bumblebees and other pollinators as well as patients, staff and visitors. The project was supported by the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment, Smiths of Bletchingdon and Postcode Local Trust, a grant giving charity funded entirely by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

Whilst we were locked down in the warm, dry spring and summer of 2020, I was worried that the young plants would perish, but I should not have been. Afterall we had not only selected the plants to be good for bees and other pollinators but to be drought resistant too. So, when we finally emerged from lockdown, I was delighted to find that almost all of the plants had not only survived but were thriving. Most importantly a wide range of pollinators were there; the seven most common species of bumblebees were observed across the sites as well several solitary bees, including the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria), the tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva) and mourning bee (Melecta albifrons). I was particularly excited to see the fascinating wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) aggressively patrolling their territories. Butterflies, hoverflies, flies ladybirds and ground beetles were also observed. Interestingly one of the sites has a lawn, the mowing of which had not been prioritised, and their dandelion population was booming. It was an incredible sight, not least because of the quantity of tiny parasitic wasps on the flowers, which is good news for the gardeners of north Oxford as these, along with lady birds and hoverfly larvae, are voracious predators of aphids. The Sage and Michaelmas daisies were still providing a colourful display of flowers right through October and pollen and nectar for late flying males and new queens stocking up before going into hibernation. I look forward to visiting the borders at the end of February when those queens will emerge from hibernation and kick start their life cycle by foraging for nectar and pollen on the Lungwort and Hellebores.

The Bee Healthy gardens have also been important for the wellbeing of humans. Specifically, these spaces have been very popular among NHS staff working during the Coronavirus pandemic: “The bee garden is a source of great enjoyment every morning when we come into the surgery. Lots of people have commented on the flowers appearing. Especially in these strange times, it provides a nice distraction and a reminder of the natural world, oblivious to it all.” -GP, Summertown Health Centre

The Bee Healthy Project Guide documents our experiences and provides practical information to help individuals and organisations create similar projects, not only at health centres but libraries, community centres, schools, places of worship, communal parks and of course private gardens. The area of the estimated 24 million UK gardens is larger than that of all of our National Nature Reserves combined, so collectively the way we manage our gardens has a huge impact on biodiversity for better or worse. If managed for pollinators and other wildlife in mind gardeners can make a positive difference. The focus for Bee Healthy Project was to plant nectar and pollen rich plants grown in peat-free compost with a minimal chemical input, but there is so much more that can be done for bees, pollinators and other wildlife. With a few small changes to the way we manage our public and private gardens we can bring major benefits for the creatures that call them home:

  1. Fill gardens with a wide variety of nectar and pollen rich plants to provide forage throughout the year. The RHS have produced an excellent list that includes herbaceous perennials, shrubs and small trees suitable for gardens of all sizes.
  2. Avoid using pesticides – use them only when really necessary. Resist their jaunty packaging conveniently placed near the queue for the checkout and don’t forget they only illustrate what you want to kill, not what the sprays actually kills. They are powerful, effective insecticides that kill insects but fewer than 1% of Britain’s insects are actually garden pests. Tolerate some damage and use cultivation techniques such as rotation of fruit and vegetables or hand removal. Using biological controls and encouraging natural enemies can reduce or eliminate the need for spraying. If a chemical control must be used, then proceed with caution, follow the instructions to the letter to ensure that people, pets and the wider environment are kept safe and never spray open flowers. The RHS have produced an excellent information sheet on pesticides for home gardeners. People concerned by the decline in pollinator numbers can purchase plants grown without synthetic pesticides from organic nurseries. In Oxfordshire we are blessed with a wealth of small independent garden nurseries whose staff are hugely knowledgeable on the subject of wild life gardening and the provenance of their plants – try Rosy Bee, Applegarth Nurseries and Babylon Plants. The other way to ensure that your new plants are pesticide free is to grow them yourself, either from seed or propagate new plants from cuttings in peat free compost. Many of the plants that we used in the ‘Bee Healthy Borders’ such as Lamb’s ears and catmint grow readily from divisions. Every 3 or 4 years divide the plant in early spring, just as the new growth appears.
  3. Delay the Autumn garden slash and burn ‘tidy’ until Spring – Providing a food source for bees is only half the equation. Many of our bees and other wildlife need a place to spend the winter, protected from cold and predators. They may hunker down under a piece of peeling tree bark, or they may stay tucked away in the hollow stem of a fennel plant or an ornamental grass. Some spend the winter as an egg or larvae in a burrow in the ground or as a chrysalis hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the soil or leaf litter. Queen bumblebees can spend half of their life in hibernation, they need to be able to do this, undisturbed, in your garden. Ladybirds also spend the colder months tucked under a pile of leaves, nestled at the base of a plant, or hidden under a rock. When we remove every last overwintering site by cutting everything down and completely cleaning up the garden, we are doing ourselves no favour. Leaving the garden intact for the winter means you’ll get a jump start on controlling pests in the spring.
  4. Allow lawns work harder for nature – The effects of having a less manicured lawn, if we are willing to accept them, can be positive. Longer grass not treated with weedkillers or fertilisers increases biodiversity by allowing more plant species to move in, creating a habitat for small creatures and producing flowers to support pollinating insects. Long grass can also make an appropriate place to grow and naturalise bulbs such as Crocus or Narcissus which may not be suited to beds and borders, while you can also experiment with other later-flowering perennials plants such as Camassia in long grass. Pushing a mower can be exhausting, too, People and Nature – Making Connections Wild Oxfordshire, Manor House, Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire OX14 4RA www.wildoxfordshire.org.uk Charity number: 1131540 especially on a slope – mowing less frequently means more time for tasks you enjoy. The RSPB have produced a helpful guihttps://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/garden-activities/giveyourmowerarest/de for reducing mower dependency.
  5. Create a pond – During the past century, nearly 70% of ponds have been lost from the UK countryside, so as well as providing much-needed habitat for frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies garden ponds also provide a water source for birds and mammals. All you need to know about creating a pond in your garden has been produced by Freshwater Habitats Trust.

If getting your fingers dirty or influencing how green space is managed is not for you, then simply enjoy observing different bees in gardens, parks and streets where we are taking our daily exercise. For help with ID, try the fantastic Field Studies Council ID chart , or focus on bumblebees with The Bumblebee Book by Nick Owens. If you are feeling confident then Steven Falk’s fully comprehensive, Field Guide the the Bees of Britain will enthral you.

Introducing the Upper Thames Wader Group

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Mike Pollard, Wild Oxfordshire

The wonderful sound of a Curlew’s ‘bubbling’ call slicing through the early morning mist in our river valleys is one of the most evocative sounds of springtime in Oxfordshire. Something we cherish, but which is sadly under threat. Many of the Curlew’s grassland breeding sites have become more intensively grazed or more frequently mown, and the numbers of generalist predators have increased, making nests more vulnerable. Each year most Curlew nests are lost before hatching, and few young survive to fledging.

The need for urgent action to help our local Curlews is a major driving force behind the creation of the Upper Thames Wader Group, established earlier this year. The group aims to bring together everyone involved in action to support our threatened wading birds and their habitats. This includes farmers, landowners, volunteer fieldworkers, local groups and other interested individuals and organisations.

The Upper Thames Wader Group is led by a partnership of organisations and currently comprises RSPB, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Environment Agency, River Thame Conservation Trust and Banbury Ornithological Society. Each organisation focuses on a particular part of the Upper Thames, co-ordinating volunteer fieldworkers, as well as supporting farmers with advice. We also link into national working groups, including the well-established Curlew Forum.

2020 was, of course, a challenging year for fieldwork, but the group were able to establish that at least 32 pairs of Curlews were present – in a normal survey year we would expect to locate about 50 pairs. The good news is that ten young birds are known to have fledged at Otmoor (6) and Chimney Meadows (4) – those at Otmoor benefitting from the protection of temporary electric fencing around their nests.

The group’s vision is to see curlew, lapwing, snipe, and redshank populations increasing across a network of extensive wetlands and grasslands in the Upper Thames.Our goals are, firstly – to halt the long-term decline in breeding curlews and lapwings and promote a sustainable recovery of their populations across the Upper Thames. And secondly – to enable redshank and snipe to continue to increase at Otmoor and colonise sites elsewhere in the Upper Thames.

Membership of the group is open to everyone interested in wading birds, their habitats, and their conservation. We are planning our first general meeting in January 2021, so now is a great time to get involved. Volunteers are needed to help with running the group and fieldwork (surveys, nest finding and temporary fencing). If you would like to join the group, or find out more, please make contact me mike@wildoxfordshire.org.uk

Yellow Wagtail Project, Turning Back Time

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Yellow Wagtail Project, Turning Back Time

2020 was supposed to be the year for nature, the year where we turned it all around and 10 months in, we have seen more devastation than progress. We discovered that in 2019, English water companies released raw sewage into our rivers on more than 200,000 occasions; the construction of HS2 is destroying precious conservation areas; supertrawlers have been devastating our marine protected areas. And to top it off, the EU’s latest State of Nature report indicated that the UK’s habitats were the most depleted in the whole of Europe, with 70% of habitats having a bad conservation status.

The UK is full of amazing habitats, woodland, heathlands and moorlands, wetlands, wildflower meadows, chalk streams, cold water reefs, sea grass; the list goes on. They clean the air we breathe, purify our water, create spaces where we can forget our problems. They can mitigate flooding, support diverse arrays of fauna and flora and are key players in the fight against climate change. It is vital that we work to not just to protect these areas but enhance them to what they once were, and reconnect fragmented landscapes.

One positive thing to come out of the year is the Prime Minister’s pledge to protect 30% of UK land by 2030, with over 4,000km2 of new land to be designated and protected. Such a promise has the potential to see a rapid draw-down of carbon from the atmosphere; reverse biodiversity loss; reconnect fragmented habitats; support nature-based businesses as well as many other ecosystem services.

Oxfordshire’s Nature Recovery Network which is proudly led by Wild Oxfordshire will be crucial for this movement within Oxfordshire, and the Yellow Wagtail Project is excited to play a part.

The Yellow Wagtail Project seeks to restore 4 miles of wetland meadow back to its former glory. In April and May the meadows turn a bright yellow as the buttercups and kingcups start to flower, throughout the spring, the strong scent of meadowsweet fills the air. Flowers from ragged robin, plantain, forget-me-not, angelica, and meadow vetchling appear. The species composition varies within and across the meadows telling a story of the history of the River Thames and showing the soil types and depths that replaced the river’s previous entity. Crickets, grasshoppers and other insects dance about in the long vegetation trying to avoid the hungry mouths of the ground nesting birds.

The Domesday Book says that wetland meadows were ten times more valuable than arable land and have provided important pasture and hay for livestock for over one thousand years. Today they are also valued for their natural flood management qualities as well as their ecological importance and potential to act as a wildlife corridor. However, over the last half century, wetland meadows have decline by 97%, largely due to agricultural intensification, and they are now listed as a priority habitat under the Biodiversity Action Plan.

The Yellow Wagtail Project plans to use traditional management approaches such as low intensity grazing, and the sewing of additional plant species to encourage the herb-rich meadows to be re-established in the degraded areas. Historically, low intensity grazing has been an important management method for these meadows and we are proud to be working with local grazier, Emma. The cattle are natural lawn mowers, grazing on the vegetation all day. They help to disperse seeds. As the cattle rip the vegetation from its roots, seeds are thrown to the surrounding area, those eaten are excreted in cow pats and some seeds use the cattle as their personal taxi, by clinging onto their fur. The cattle are frequented by birds, including the yellow wagtail, who use them as bait to catch flies. Sustainably managed cattle like Emma’s, actually draw atmospheric carbon deep into the soils with the help of dung beetles, worms and other beasties. And best of all, these 100% grass fed cattle, produce tasty and healthy meat that is good for the environment.

If the project is successful, we hope to inspire other landowners to restore their wetland meadows and bring them and the wildlife that they support back on the road to recovery.

Sophie Cunnington, Yellow Wagtail Project Officer
sophie@wildoxfordshire.org.uk
www.wildoxfordshire.org.uk

Nature’s Recovery – How will we bring the wild to everyone, right outside their doorstep?

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Nature’s Recovery – How will we bring the wild to everyone, right outside their doorstep?

We want everyone to experience the wonder, joy and peace which our natural environment provides, and step out of our front doors into a buzzing, fragrant, heady space full of the noises, colours, textures and fragrances of the wild.

We know what needs to be done to achieve this – we need to build on the principles established by the Making Space for Nature report by Lawton et al in 2010. We need more and bigger spaces, which are richer in wildlife and connected within a well-functioning ecological network. Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre (TVERC) have led the mapping of the Nature Recovery Network in Oxfordshire, and the nature conservation community is working together, coordinated by Wild Oxfordshire, to set out a strategy to build on the policies to accompany it.

So how can we bring this map to life and bring the wild to everyone?

Firstly, we will continue to actively encourage the brilliant and dedicated individuals and organisations dedicating their working lives to our environment in Oxfordshire to work in partnership to unlock opportunities. We currently coordinate the Biodiversity Advisory Group, the Conservation Target Areas, the Evenlode Catchment Partnership (ECP) and are a lead member of Oxfordshire Environment Board.

Secondly, we will inspire and empower volunteers in the community to make a difference and deliver Nature’s Recovery on the ground. Our Community Ecologist provides bespoke ecological advice on habitat and species management to local communities, and we pilot innovative projects including citizen science water quality monitoring, Natural Flood Management with local famers, Bee Healthy Borders at local doctor’s surgeries, and the Yellow Wagtail project.

Thirdly, we will raise awareness, facilitate action and showcase examples of how we can all work together to achieve nature’s recovery. The stories we share demonstrate that the aspirations in the strategy are possible to achieve.

And what can you do? If you’re interested in joining a local wildlife group, then check out our Directory to find out if there is one near you (https://www.wildoxfordshire.org.uk/directory/) – if there isn’t then you could set one up! We also have information on our website about creating
wildlife habitats, and on sources of funding (https://www.wildoxfordshire.org.uk/communities/resources/). You are very welcome to join us at this year’s virtual ‘Local Environment Groups Conference’ – there will be weekly online, interactive talks Wednesday 11th November – Sign up for the email Bulletin, check our website page or follow us on social media for more details!

You may also be interesting in learning more about recording the wildlife you see when out and about, in which case you should check out the TVERC website which has a wealth of information. TVERC is a not-for-profit organisation which collects all the information for Berkshire and Oxfordshire in one place to help people make sound, effective decisions about how to develop and manage land sustainably and where to direct wildlife conservation. Even the common and widespread species are important to record so that we can develop a picture over time and across the region of what is happening to our wildlife, particularly in time of changing climate and policies. The easiest way to make sure your records are used in local-decision making is to submit your records direct to tverc@oxfordshire.gov.uk. Your wildlife records will help protect and enhance our environment by increasing the quality and quantity of data TVERC hold.

If your interest lies in reducing waste and carbon emissions, then Community Action Groups (Oxfordshire) can provide you with support and funding (https://cagoxfordshire.org.uk/, whilst Community First Oxfordshire supports community-led planning and action, with a focus on health and transport https://www.communityfirstoxon.org/. And Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment provides funding for community environmental projects https://www.trustforoxfordshire.org.uk/about-us.

Another way in which you can help is by writing to your local politicians and responding to planning consultations to remind decision-makers of the importance of Nature’s Recovery. There are some great tips on the RSPB website about how to do this most effectively. Why not sign up to our
monthly Bulletin and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? We will ensure that you hear about pivotal environmental issues affecting Oxfordshire’s wildlife, in a balanced, independent, and inspiring way. This will enable you to take action if you wish, using the carefully curated information we have provided.

Wild Oxfordshire is a very small independent charity and we are reliant on the generous contributions of our supporters to continue our work to provide a co-ordinated and strategic approach to conservation in Oxfordshire, which is difficult to fund from traditional sources. Through providing support and encouraging environmental organisations and volunteers to work together, Wild Oxfordshire is the catalyst for solutions that benefit wildlife within our rich and vibrant county. You can support us in several ways, from doing your online shopping through Give As you Live which will cost you nothing, to becoming an individual Friend or organisational Member of Wild Oxfordshire, corporate sponsorship, or larger personal donation. We are also reviewing our Board of Trustees so keep an eye out for opportunities to volunteer which might suit you.

Together we can deliver Nature’s Recovery in Oxfordshire – let’s get going!

Camilla Burrow, Wild Oxfordshire Director