Category Archives: Social distancing blog

blog posts to keep people entertained throughout period of social distancing 2020

Welcome back, TameForce!

We’ve recently been able to welcome back our volunteer team, TameForce.

We weren’t able to hold sessions for four long months due to Covid-19, but we’re happy to say that TameForce have now returned (of course, with social distancing measures in place) and we’re so pleased to have the team back.

Last week TameForce spent the day taking care of the walled garden at Hams Hall Environmental Centre. We had a small bonfire to burn some of the excess brash.

If you would like to get involved or find out more about the TameForce volunteer team, click here for further information or contact us by email at enquiries@tamevalleywetlands.co.uk.

Hedgehogs in your garden

Have you seen any hedgehogs in your garden this summer?

Over the summer months, hedgehogs will have been active from March when they first emerged from hibernation. Now, from August to September, is typically when second litters of hoglets are born. Compared with the litters born earlier in the summer, it is often more of a struggle for these late-born hedgehogs to build up their fat reserves enough before hibernation – their natural diets of insects, slugs and worms begins to diminish.

It’s a good idea to put out food and water for hedgehogs all summer long, but often particularly important during these last summer months when other food sources are harder to come by.

You’re most likely to spot hedgehogs at dusk, whilst it’s not daylight, but there is just enough light to be able to see. The hedgehog in the picture above appeared just as the light was starting to fade, out in search of sustenance!

If you see a hedgehog that looks like it needs help, for example if it is injured or out during the day and not moving, it’s a good idea to contact British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

What can I feed the hedgehogs in my garden?

Cat biscuits, meat-based cat or dog food, and specialist hedgehog food are all great to leave out for hedgehogs. Make sure to also leave out a shallow bowl of clean water so the hedgehogs can stay hydrated in the warm weather.

Avoid leaving out milk, which hedgehogs are intolerant to; bread, which is of little nutritional value for hedgehogs; and mealworms, which can be harmful if eaten in large quantities.

Let us know if you’ve seen any hedgehogs in your garden! If you manage to take any pictures, we’d love to see them too. Email enquiries@tamevalleywetlands.co.uk to get in touch.

Action for Insects

The Wildlife Trusts have recently published a new report ‘Reversing the decline of insects’, showing how we can each contribute to helping the insect population.

Evidence from around the world has shown that many insect populations are declining, and we are facing the risk of species extinctions. It’s widely known that insects are depended on by much of life on Earth: they play a vital role in pollination of wildflowers and crops, they act as food sources for other animals, many plants depend on them for seed dispersal, they are important in nutrient cycling, and they can often get rid of pests.

Where would we be without insects?! It is essential that their populations are restored.

Insects need a ‘recovery network’. They need more good quality, linked-up, pesticide-free habitats. The Wildlife Trusts have called on the Government to help reverse the decline of insects by taking actions such as reducing pesticide usage, encouraging insect-friendly farming techniques and working towards this recovery network.

Common blue butterfly, photo from Stephen Powell

There are a few simple actions you can take to helping reverse insect decline:

  • Stop using pesticides
  • Create insect-friendly habitats in your garden, such as ponds, long grassy areas and areas of nectar-rich flowers
  • Reduce your frequency of lawn mowing to create more food and shelter for insects
  • Build a ‘bug hotel’, or simply leave a small pile of rocks or logs to create habitats
  • Try to shop more consciously, maybe by buying local food that isn’t grown using pesticides, or choosing environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

Click here to receive a copy of an Action for Insects Guide from the Wildlife Trusts, with more information and guidance about how you can help insects at home.

Nature Spots 4.0

Windier and rainier weather this week might not have welcomed you outside, but there’s still so much nature to appreciate even when the sun isn’t shining! Thanks again for sending in your photographs.

This photo of a green veined white butterfly (Pieris napi) shows brilliant detail of the texture of the wings and the scales, which appear similar to hairs, covering the body. These butterflies usually prefer areas of damp and lush vegetation but can be found in a variety of habitats. Its food plants consist of members of the cabbage family and caterpillars of this species are bright green, camouflaging well on leaves.

Submitted by Stephen Powell, Whitacre Heath

This juniper shield bug (Cyphostethus tristriatus) was spotted on a Lawson’s cypress. Although traditionally they feed on juniper, these insects have adapted to be able to also use Lawson’s cypress, which has enabled them to extend their range across the UK.

Submitted by Debra Starkey

Wildflowers can be grown really easily in your garden and are a fantastic way to help insects and other wildlife in your local area. Here is a wonderful picture of some ‘cornfield weeds’ planted from a seed packet.

Submitted by Stephen Powell, Nether Whitacre

A walk through Whitacre Heath Nature Reserve was rewarded with an array of wildlife and this tawny owl feather found on the path. It took a while to identify it, looking very similar to a buzzard feather! The wildflowers, including ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil and thistles are welcomed habitats and food sources for insects and birds. The Wildlife Trusts have recently released their report ‘Reversing the Decline of Insects’, and maintaining an abundance of insect habitats is essential for contributing towards reversing their decline. You can read more and download a free guide explaining how you can help the ‘Action for Insects‘ initiative on the Wildlife Trusts website.

Wildlife you didn’t know was interesting

The world is full of under-appreciated wildlife. Here are four species that, despite their mundane reputation, have fascinating characteristics.

Houseflies

House fly on a plum. Image credit: Jon Dunkelman via WildNet2 -WildNet

Houseflies… yuck, no thanks! Wait – actually, the common housefly has incredible capabilities.

Like most insects, they can walk upside down thanks to pulvilli, pad-like structures covered in tiny hairs on the bottoms of their feet. The importance of their feet doesn’t stop there, however, as houseflies also taste with their feet. Chemoreceptors, organs which detect taste, are located on the lower legs, allowing the fly to taste as they walk over food materials. You might have seen flies rubbing their legs together – this is them cleaning their legs to ‘reset’ the chemoreceptors before a new meal.

Their intricate compound eyes allow houseflies to see in an almost 360° field of view, allowing them to watch out for predators whilst flying. They can process images seven times faster than humans, which is why flies can always get away so fast when someone tries to swat them. Studies have shown that male houseflies’ eyes also contain a ‘love spot’, a region important in detecting female flies to mate with.

Houseflies are adapted to an exclusively liquid diet. Their mouthparts are modified to form a proboscis which acts as a straw with a sponge on the end to efficiently suck up liquids.

We should be jealous, really. However, they can spread some pretty harmful disease-causing bacteria, so make sure they don’t land on your food!

Snails

Image credit: Jon Hawkins via WildNet

Perhaps interesting to some, but to many snails are another commonly overlooked garden-dweller.

Snails have ‘teeth’. Not the type of teeth we have, though. Their radula, an internal feeding organ which acts like a tongue, has thousands of tiny ‘teeth’ arranged like a conveyor belt along its surface. In different species of snail, these teeth are adapted for different diets. The teeth are also constantly replaced as they are worn down, ensuring snails can always feed effectively.

Most snails are hermaphroditic, meaning they can mate with themselves if needs be. From an evolutionary point of view, this gives species a better shot at continuing the family line if no mates are available.

Snails also grow their own homes. Well… their shells. Shells are made of calcium carbonate, a strong substance which gives snails the protection they need. Sclerites are the plates making up the shell, and are secreted by the snail itself.

Grass

Image credit: Emily Reilly

If you have a garden with a lawn, you might value grass for its aesthetic properties. Or maybe you appreciate its softness during a picnic in the park. Or its smoothness on golf courses. But did you know that across the world, there are 11,400 different types of grass?

All grasses belong to the Poaceae family, which is one of the most species-rich families in the world, and the 4th largest flowering plant family.

Grasses leaves are arranged in special patterns to optimise photosynthesis. Optimal photosynthesis requires maximum light capture, so leaves tend to be spread out to avoid being shaded by each other.

Most grasses can tolerate grazing, or mowing in the case of lawns. This is because their apical meristems, the part from which shoots and leaves grow from, is at or below ground level. New growth can always continue if grasses are cut – something which isn’t true for many other plants.

Finally, the Poaceae family provides around 80% of global food supply, containing over 1/3 of the most important food crops such as rice, wheat and maize. However, typical lawn grass has undergone so much artificial selection and forced evolution that it is unrecognisable from its food crop relatives!

Dandelions

Image credit: Eddie Asbery

Are dandelions a weed? They grow prolifically, and usually exactly where you don’t want them if you are a gardener. However, they boast unique and useful properties that might make you reconsider their reputation.

The name ‘dandelions’ is derived from the French “dent de lion”, meaning “lion’s tooth”, like the tooth-like serrations on their leaves. Their bright yellow flower heads are actually formed from many many tiny individual flowers, called florets.

Every part of a dandelion plant has a use to humans, whether that be for food, medicinal properties, or dyes. Dandelions are thought by many to have possible healing properties, although their effectiveness is debated.

Dandelions can make clones of themselves without the need for fertilisation. This is in fact a feature shared by a number of other plant species, but is the reason why their growth seems so prolific.

They also adopt the widely-used technique of nyctinasty, involving the closing of petals at night. Dandelions ‘go to sleep’ at night as a response to an ‘internal clock’. Photoreceptors, structures which detect light, have the important job of ensuring the the internal clock is set in time with levels of light in the environment.

Finally, dandelions are important flowers for pollinators such as bees. They have a long flowering season, so are depended on for consistent nectar production. Letting dandelions grow is an easy and effective way to make your garden more environmentally friendly.

Simple moth trapping for beginners

There are around 2500 species of moths in the UK. Compared to the 60-ish species of butterflies, this is impressive. The great diversity of moth species makes for some fascinating findings from moth trapping – all possible within your garden.

Despite the huge number of moth species living here, we don’t often see them unless we are actively looking, because, of course, most moths are nocturnal – hiding away in the day and coming out when it is dark. Moth trapping is a simple and humane way to identify and take a closer look at moths by attracting them to a light source. The method is harmless to the moths, allowing them to be safely released or free to fly away.

Traditional moth traps can be bought or made at home if you are more serious about recording and identifying moths, however for beginners a simple and effective methods is to create a light trap using a sheet and a torch.

Tips:

  • Make sure it is dark when you use your moth trap – turn off nearby lights too.
  • You can also create a similar trap by spreading a sheet out on the ground and placing a standing lantern-style torch in the middle.
  • Moths will be most active on warm nights with a little breeze.
  • Avoid touching the moths, especially on their wings, as this can damage them.
  • Avoid setting up your trap every night as this can disturb behavioural patterns of moths and other insects.

It is National Insect Week this week (22nd to 28th June 2020), so this is a great way to get involved and celebrate the most diverse and ecologically important group of land-living animals! If you have a camera, why not take some pictures of the moths you find – send us your photos at enquiries@tamevalleywetlands.co.uk. You can even enter them into the official National Insect Week photography competition if you’re feeling extra artistic!

From Lawn to Meadow

‘No Mow May‘ was an initiative by Plantlife, encouraging people across the UK to reduce their mowing frequency to encourage wildflower growth and nectar production in their gardens.

A citizen science survey revealed that lawns cut just once a month had the highest production of flowers and nectar, whilst areas that were kept completely unmown grew the widest variety of wildflowers. This is more proof that an unmowed lawn is fantastic for wildlife. You can read more about the findings of this research and the background behind the No Mow May regime on the Plantlife website.

One resident of Nether Whitacre, Debra Starkey, has been letting part of her garden go to meadow over lockdown and has kindly shared the results with us. Read about Debra’s experience and findings of growing a wildflower meadow below.

Nature has always been important to me but I knew it would play a more crucial part during lockdown. It has given my comfort and hope at this anxious time. The thing I’ve noticed the most, as I’m sure others have, is the peace and quiet. No planes or road noise to drown out the birdsong, and wildlife has prospered as a consequence.

At the start of lockdown I made the decision to let part of the garden go to meadow. I knew it would help my anxiety over this crisis, if I could walk around the meadow watching it change and looking for wildlife and photographing it. It’s not a huge area, around 30m x 30m, but I have been rewarded already! The sight of a kestrel hovering over it for about 30 seconds, coming down a few feet then dropping to the ground was amazing. What a moment!

The meadow is still mainly grass with a few wildflowers but is filled with butterflies and day flying moths. I’ve also had a common spotted orchid growing in the meadow which was special too. There were 20+ black-headed gulls circling the meadow for about 15 minutes, presumably catching insects, but it looked like a choreographed dance. It was a delight to see.”

– Debra Starkey
Debra’s wildflower meadow, June 2020

Many thanks to Debra for sharing a wonderful story with us.

If you are inspired to start your own wildflower patch in your garden, it’s as easy as stopping mowing! You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make to wildlife.

If you would like to share your own wildlife story with us, please send an email to enquiries@tamevalleywetlands.co.uk. We’d love to read them.

Nature Spots 3.0

After a spell of heavy rain in the Tame Valley Wetlands, we have welcomed back the glorious sunshine this week. Here are some lovely wildlife pictures from over the last few days.

With fewer people around at Hams Hall Environmental Centre and less opportunity for maintenance of the walled garden, the plants are thriving. There is an abundance of nettles, of course (which are inconvenient for people but do act as an important habitat and food source for insects such as butterflies), but also there are many beautiful wildflowers such as this field poppy and a group of orchids.

Field poppy at Hams Hall Environmental Centre
Early purple orchids at Hams Hall Environmental Centre

We have also been sent images of wildflowers from around the Tame Valley wetlands, such as this Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis).

Pyramidal orchid spotted in Nether Whitacre, submitted by Debra Starkey

This time of year is peak season for caterpillars, often spotted munching away on leaves or trying to stay hidden from predators. Here is a peacock butterfly caterpillar (Aglais io) spotted at Whitacre Heath Nature Reserve, and a fantastic image of a Mullein moth caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci) resting on a buddleia.

Peacock butterfly caterpillar
Mullein moth caterpillar submitted by Stephen Powell

Finally, the butterflies have again made beautiful photos this week. Here is a comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) – you can see how its wings, with their scalloped edges and cryptic colouring, give the butterfly strong camouflage – especially useful when hibernating in piles of leaves during the winter months.

Comma butterfly submitted by Debra Starkey

Nature Spots 2.0

Thank you to everyone who sent in wonderful photos capturing nature and wildlife around their local area! We will share the latest here…

Please keep sending your pictures! You can contact us via email or Facebook.

A cockchafer beetle, colloquially known as a Maybug or a doodlebug. Cockchafers have characteristic feathery antennae, a feature which greatly improves their olfactory ability to sniff out food or mates.

Photographed by Debra Starkey.

A heron (above) and a common roach (left) at Ladybridge in Tamworth. Who knows… this fish might have had the unfortunate fate as the heron’s dinner!

Photographed by Angela Streluk Rodgers.

Lichen on a gravestone at St Giles Church, Nether Whitacre. Lichen is not a single organism, it is instead the product of a symbiotic association between an algae and fungus. Within the lichen, algae grow between masses of fungal structures. The algae photosynthesises whilst the fungus provides a root structure, so the two work together to form a symbiosis.

Photographed by Debra Starkey.

A beautiful peacock butterfly feeding on nectar from an apple blossom flower.

Photographed by Debra Starkey.

This is a burrow dug into the side of an island at Ladywalk Nature Reserve. It could be the burrow of a water vole, but further observation will be needed to conclude this!

Photographed by Neil Adkins.

This fascinating fungal formation is a bracket fungus growing on a dead tree stump. These fungi can cause decay and rot in old trees, and can lead to their breakage and fall. There are many different types of bracket fungi, which cause varying degrees of damage to trees. These plate structures have many pores which are lined with spore-producing cells called basidia. The spores are released to germinate and grow into new bracket fungi.

Photographed by Debra Starkey.

Otters on the River Blythe

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous sightings of otters, which is great news and usually an indicator of a river having fairly clean water and enough good-quality habitats.

Otters are not often seen by people as they are largely nocturnal. The most common indicators of an otter population are tracks or spraints (droppings). Otters often leave their spraints in conspicuous places along their territory, as a warning for other intruding populations to stay away.

Despite their elusive nature, Nick, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Wetland Project Officer, has managed to record some fantastic footage of otters on the River Blythe.

In the video below you first see a mink cross the river. Mink are an invasive species and are a considerable threat to UK native species such as the water vole. Towards the end of the video however, three otters come swimming up the river. This group is likely a mother and two large cubs.

Otters communicate with whistles and twittering sounds, often heard at night when they are active and their surroundings are quiet. Click on the video below to hear an otter calling.

This video shows another otter on the Blythe, possibly the father of cubs. The male otter parent is known to play no part in rearing the cubs, leaving that to the mother.

And finally, here is a quick clip of an otter swimming along the river.