A winter wildlife-garden wander

Lemons in the unheated greenhouse supporting the overwintering slugs, Image by Rowena Millar

As we come to the end of 2020, a year in which many of us have appreciated our gardens as a lockdown haven, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's currently non-roving Wildlife Reporter Rowena Millar gives her garden an all-important wildlife check and reflects on the benefits nature has given us in these last 12 months.

It’s late-December, and today it’s time for a wildlife garden check.

Walking anti-clockwise around the garden edge, I go first to the Blackbirds’ feasting corner. They have been visiting Cornus kousa, an Asian dogwood. It’s been doing a great job feeding the blackbirds with its red fruits that taste a bit like bananas, but with bitter seeds. The plump fruits were strewn all over the ground after a windy, rainy night, looking strangely exotic, like a cross between strawberries and lychees. Beak-shaped holes showed where the Blackbirds had been. Next to this tree is an eating apple tree, against the south-facing wall. It had been heavily laden, and there were plenty of spare windfalls left for the birds. Some were not yet rotten and bore deep beak incisions.

The only insects I have seen lately were a little community of Winter Gnats, watched through the kitchen window. They were circling in a whizzy way through the garden air – beautifully in time with each other, yet social distancing in a spherical formation. After grim stories on the news each day, these gnats always make me smile. They strictly come dancing, even in late winter.

The Christmas tree with its own cones and lichen

The Christmas tree with its own cones and lichen, Image by Rowena Millar

Despite the lack of pollinators, our Ballerina rose, planted for our daughter’s birth in 1995, is in bud again – some more cheer on a dreary day. A Hebe and the pretty Fuchsia thymifolia are also in flower, and the fuchsia has a few berries, too. Glossy Hart’s-tongue ferns are glowing glossy green in the damp, and our Christmas tree sits in its pot (where it lives all year round) decorated with a host of its own little blueish white cones. After slow growth from its lower branches this year, it is also festooned with decorative lichen.

At the bottom of the garden, beyond the pond, hedgehog corner is peaceful as usual. I hope the hedgehogs are hibernating safely in or around the hedgehog house hidden in the middle of the big pile of branches. Time to set up the hedgehog camera again (as seen below), to check whether they wake up hungry on a mild night.

Nearby, the pond still has a wire and netting cover (with gaps underneath for frogs, newts and hedgehogs), to stop the tannin-rich oak leaves blowing in to form dense brown layers. Duckweed is growing well, and I can gather handfuls to feed the three ducks in their anti-avian-flu enclosure (aka the fruit cage containing their pond and an old hen house minus its legs). It’s certainly a year for potential disease, and I need to check the bird table to see if it’s clean. It isn’t.

Earlier in the day I noticed a dunnock pecking at the wooden platform, even though it looked bare from the kitchen window. In fact, it had soggy remnants of songbird mix on it. When I wiped it, there was a film of dark green, where algae had formed. It was time (overdue) to take action. I stood in the rain with my hosepipe, blasting the surface of the bird table with a jet of clean water, then towelled it dry, then sprayed it very thoroughly with proprietary bird table cleaner, then towelled it dry again. I thought it best to feed the dunnocks and robins using a clean, new dish. The shallow, heavy ceramic one was nowhere to be seen, and so I filled a clear plastic tray with fresh songbird mix, weighing it down with a heavy rock.

The other bird feeder has been topped up with seeds for the House Sparrows and fat balls for the tits – and sometimes this is also popular with Goldfinches, Long-tailed Tits, a Coal Tit, Blue Tits, a Great Tit, Jackdaws, Starlings, and once a Great Spotted Woodpecker. The weather may be wet, but the birds still appreciate their bath too.

December is a time to reflect and look harder at nature to see the beauty that is still there in bare twigs and dead leaves, but being Cornwall, it’s also still a time to enjoy some fresh green growth and even some flowers. My little kale plants are growing slowly but steadily, there are small lettuces in the greenhouse (and lemons!) and some remaining leeks are standing tall like guardsmen, in green and white uniforms, bravely waiting to be eaten.

There’s a caw from a Rook somewhere overhead. I look up and notice the Rook has gone, but there’s a Jackdaw, hovering briefly above the slated top of the house, hitting a gust of wind that snatches at its feathers and makes its wings tremble before it flies down the other side of the roof.

A winter sunrise view in the distance

Sunrise over the wildlife garden, Image by Rowena Millar

As I squelch through the dark mud that has spread over part of the path down the edge of the garden, I think of all the amazing life within the soil. Even though it’s December, I played tennis this morning, and rescued two fat, pink earthworms from the tarmac court. The earth is alive. As we head out of 2020 a cliché comes to mind: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

By Rowena Millar