March 2018: Nature Watch

February 23 2018

One night in early February we were woken up by hooting.

One night in early February we were woken up by hooting. This time it was not an unseemly traffic incident but the genuine “Hooo... hoo-hoo-hoo hoooo!” of a tawny owl calling hopefully into the night. It is always exciting to encounter something associated with “real” countryside when you live in the city. But tawny owls do breed in Bristol, near the Downs for example; they simply require a reasonable number of good-sized trees. We’re still listening, hoping that they will breed in Bishopston this year.  

In fact gardens, even in the middle of the city, make a huge contribution to nature conservation. Tawny owls eat frogs and small birds as well as rats and mice - and gardens provide these prey items in good quantity. We love our urban blackbirds and robins but blackcaps and sparrowhawks have healthy urban populations too and swifts completely rely on buildings for their breeding sites and are perfectly at home in the city. Butterflies such as the holly blue and the speckled wood are reliable members of our garden fauna but in the countryside you might have to cross acres of ground before you find them. Speckled and oak bush crickets thrive in our garden but not in intensive farmland. Even Mrs Tiggywinkle is struggling to manage in the countryside whereas in the town hedgehog numbers are remaining steady.

The gardener’s liking for year-round colour provides valuable nectar for butterflies and bumblebees that overwinter. The sweet-smelling shrubs and climbers in our densely planted gardens are ideal for breeding birds. Structures such as sheds and log piles shelter foxes, hedgehogs and, of course, huge spiders (think of them as food for the birds!). Compost heaps provide breeding habitat for beetles and worms (again, food for the birds). Windfall fruit is a valuable supplement to the diet of many animals, including birds and insects. And ponds - well, I could go on all day! There was a time when these habitats were frequent in the countryside but major changes began after the Second World War: so dramatic are the losses that have resulted from modern farming that it is not unfair to say that a typical British cornfield or meadow is of about as much value to wildlife as a car park or a football field. Heavy applications of modern chemicals mean that invertebrates are largely absent and the grass or wheat will be one single species where once 50 species of grassland flowers or cornfield weeds would have thrived.

Of course, some parts of the countryside are still good for wildlife (and thank goodness the Avon Wildlife Trust are looking after many of the best bits in and around Bristol) but consider the view from your bedroom window and imagine instead that you gaze out upon a modern wheat-field, perhaps with one closely-shaven hedge in the distance. I think you will agree with a lot of wildlife – the urban dweller can have the better view!