Wildflowers basically fall into two categories?annuals (which need planting every year) and perennials (once established they will go on and on). The annual cornflower mix is easy to grow, and will reward you with a spectacular display of reds, yellows and blues, to bring back memories of bygone days when whole fields were ablaze with colour. Even the names conjure up the sort of scene that Constable would have painted at harvest time corncockle, cornflower, corn chamomile, corn marigold and, of course, the ever-present field poppy.
The perennial mix is more expensive and harder to establish, but, once in place, it will get better and better over the years. Start with a cultivated, weed-free area, scatter the flower and grass mix onto the surface, and simply roll flat. In the first year, cut a few times to help the little seedlings get established. From year two onwards, enjoy the different seasons of colour, starting with the yellow of the cowslip, then the white and yellow centres of ox-eye daisies that slowly merge into the summer purples of knapweed and field scabious the whole time accompanied by the flitting of butterflies, who seem to know as if by magic that you’ve created this area specially for them.
Ponds are used throughout the year by an amazing array of wildlife some of which live in the water the whole year round, and others which just pop in for a drink. If you already have a pond, it’s always a good idea to get an expert to tell you what inhabits the area before you start managing it, as it may be fine as it is, and your so-called ‘improvements’ may be detrimental to the wildlife you’re trying to help.
Creating ponds or small wetland areas can be exciting, as water-loving species seem to appear from nowhere, and within a year, the new landscape addition looks as if it has been there for centuries. However, there are a few basic rules to follow to maximise the popularity of your pond. Although the water should be reasonably deep in part of the pond so that species such as dragonfly larvae, which can spend a couple of years in the pond before emerging as an adult, can remain beneath the ice during a cold spell, much of the area should be made up of shallow water and fringe plants, as it is the margins around the edge that most wildlife frequent. By making an irregular shape to the pond with lots of ‘ins and outs’, you create a much longer edge than if the pond was just round it also helps to make it look more natural.
Woodland has been widely planted on farmland in the recent past, and can transform an area, both in landscape terms and for wildlife. Try to imagine the trees you are planting as mature (long after you have moved on to new pastures!) and plant accordingly. Small woodlands planted for wildlife aren’t going to be harvested for timber in the future, so plant the trees with lots of space between them, and even leave areas with no trees at all. In the future, these open glades will be where you sit and watch the wildlife we aren’t the only ones that enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Among the trees, make sure you include lots of shrubs such as guelder rose, buckthorn, wild privet and hazel, which will provide warm cover in winter, good nesting places and a wonderful supply of nectar, berries and nuts for your new inhabitants to consume.
Wildlife seed mixes have been designed by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to feed the maximum number of farmland bird species during the lean winter months, and these plots of seed bearing crops can attract spectacular flocks of birds such as greenfinch, linnet, reed bunting, goldfinch, yellowhammer, and even less common species such as brambling and tree sparrow. Plant as big an area as possible with quinoa (a South American plant which produces large seed heads), millet, corn and kale. The kale will flower and seed in the second year, so you need only replace the mix every other year.
5 POLLEN AND NECTAR
Pollen and nectar mixes bring the ‘buzz’ back to those lazy, hazy days of summer. A mix containing clovers, sainfoin, vetches, knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil will look wonderful, and last for a number of years, attracting bumblebees and insects such as hoverflies, which will, in turn, pollinate crops and help to control attacking aphids.
On many farms, there is a lack of suitable places, such as holes and crevices, where wildlife can safely hide or choose as a nesting site. There is now a vast array of bird boxes to put up for species such as owls, kestrels and tits as well as rarer birds such as the tree creeper, and there are also boxes for bats and dormice and even homes for hedgehogs and bumblebees to use. Maybe the reason you don’t have a ghostly barn owl floating about in the evening is that it has no suitable place to rest during the day.
7 FARM BUILDINGS
Many buildings are being converted into business premises or holiday lets. However, this can mean that the wildlife using the buildings is excluded. A little planning can easily include access into the roof space for little pipistrelle bats or larger barn owls, and specially designed boxes can be placed in porches for swallows to nest in or under the eaves for house martins and swifts. The building can be as full of wildlife after conversion as it was before.
Hedges are a wonderful feature of the British countryside, and are vitally important for shelter, food and nesting sites for a wide range of farmland species. In the past, we tended to neatly trim our hedges every year as this made the farm look tidy. However, farmers are slowly learning to live with hedges that are cut every two to three years instead, because it is the second-year growth onwards that produces blossom and, therefore, berries. Suddenly, we have hedges white as snow with blossom in the spring and bowing under the weight of glistening black and red berries in the autumn, providing lines of food around all our fields.
9 GRASS STRIPS
Many farmers have chosen to place a grass strip next to their hedges or water courses, thereby ‘buffering’ them from some of the fertiliser or sprays that may drift away from the crop itself. These margins are good habitats in their own right, being home to lots of small mammals and providing a safe place for ground-nesting birds such as the grey partridge. During the winter, huge numbers of insects choose to spend the cold part of the year hiding among the grasses, their numbers sometimes reaching up to 1,500 a square yard.
10 GET SOME HELP
Finally, if you decide to try some of the above suggestions on your own land, remember that there is lots of help out there put your bat box up in the wrong place and you’ll be disappointed, but any of these options done correctly should deliver. Also, check out what you already have on your piece of land it may be that in your haste to attract something new to the farm, garden or estate, you might miss the rare and vulnerable species right under your feet. But, most importantly, whatever you try, take some time out to enjoy what you’ve achieved the wildlife will pay you back big time.