Find an earlier version, ‘It’s a June Jungle out there (2020)’, at www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/blog/rowena-millar/its-june-jungle-out-there
June is a great time to abandon any lingering thoughts that gardens should be neat and tidy places. Embrace the joyous growth and the wildness of it all. Spend June discovering abundant nature and new species in your garden.
The warm weather, the flowers, and the dense, rampant vegetation (it’s certainly rampant around here in East Cornwall, anyway) bring out an abundance of new birds, new minibeasts, and the occasional larger animal too.
This week I have been doing some wildlife investigating, not only by day, but also in the dark with the help of my ‘hedgehog cam’. This June (2021) I have seen a bouncy wood mouse or two, a vole (distinguishable by its blunt nose and small ears), a thirsty grey squirrel, blackbirds (you can still tell the black males from the brown females in black and white on the night-time setting of the trail camera), fledgling robins (still speckled) and their parents – and two domestic cats – down in the ‘hedgehog corner’ of our garden behind the pond, as well as the hedgehogs themselves. Interestingly, all these creatures have been attracted to a small, sunken water bowl (this is what you can do with a no-recyclable black plastic bowl from a bought-in curry), even though they are close to the wildlife pond and bird baths.
By day, exploring the detail of life in a garden is a great way to relax and slow down. Better still, if you are wildlife watching in your own garden or along your nearest undisturbed verge or hedge, you can go indoors again if there’s a downpour on the way.
This June I have spotted pied wagtails (away from water) and grey wagtails (fluttering busily around water) out and about, hunting insects.
During the day during June last year, we spotted fledgling blue tits, great tits and robins being fed by their parents in the garden. As large as their mum or dad, these little bundles of joy were fluffing up their feathers and opening their beaks wide to make themselves look like babies in need, rather than sub-adult birds ready to start fending for themselves. Perhaps one or two of them are this year’s parents.
This week a lot of fledging has been going on once again, especially among the robins and house sparrows. Somewhere close by, a sparrow’s nest was lined with some of my hair, which I put on the bird table after a long-awaited haircut.
In the evening, it’s lovely to look up to see groups of corvids flying overhead towards their roosts, cawing as they go.
One morning last year we had a bit of a surprise when a young jackdaw fledged down the chimney instead of into the garden. Thankfully, this year the jackdaws have finished nesting, as the chimney pots need repair.
Until the sudden wet weather arrived, 2020 had been a fantastic year for bees and hoverflies in our garden. They included a variety of bumblebee species on fruit flowers in particular, as well as many varieties of solitary bee that especially loved the flowering ground elder, and what seemed like a whole hive of honeybees that joined bumblebees visiting countless red flowers for a few days at the height of the crinodendron’s (Chilean lantern tree) flowering period, proving that some non-native trees and shrubs are good at attracting insects too. They created quite a hum.
Our cavity-nesting solitary bees, such as red mason bees, began stopping up the tubes in the bee nests we put up in our sunniest corner, which means that our fruit bushes were pollinated and we had a new generation of interesting and attractive bees to watch later.
This year (2021), while putting up a new trellis on the wall, we found a bumblebee nest in the hottest corner of the garden, under a big wodge of wool that I had been using as winter root protection for pot plants. Small worker bumblebees were flying and crawling around after having been disturbed, but a bit of bee watching and some high-pitched humming emanating from under the piece of wool insulation plus to-ing and fro-ing of the workers over the next several days showed that we had neither damaged the nest nor blocked the entrance. One of the trellis posts will have to wait before being installed, though …
Last June, walking along the narrow path down to our pond, with a hedge on one side and fruit bushes on the other, I met what looked at first like a swarm of mosquitos dancing around in the air. I took a closer look and saw that each apparent mosquito was waving what looked like two extremely long whips high above its body. That was strange. Could they be some sort of caddis-flies with extra-long antennae hatched from the pond? One or two landed, and I was surprised to see that they looked like moths. It was indeed a cloud of yellow-barred longhorn moths. Typically found in wooded lanes and along hedges, these little day-flying moths are a wonderful shiny gold, but their crowning glory is the extraordinarily long antennae of the males. Apparently the males do dance in groups together, as if they are midges or mosquitos. The larvae eat leaf litter, so there’s been plenty for them to eat in my garden jungle.
You can learn about the health of your soil by digging up a spadeful of earth and looking for worms. There are around 16 varieties to find in British gardens. Their presence is not only a sign that your soil is healthy – they are actually responsible for soil health, by processing decaying matter such as leaves and turning them into soil, like tubular soil factories. They also improving soil structure with their tunnels, providing vital aeration. There is a handy earthworm ID key here: https://www.opalexplorenature.org/earthwormguide
Extremely solid, wet or acidic soils may have fewer worms, which means less food for birds and hedgehogs, and so it’s a good idea to add mulch and leaf litter to the ground in gardens (although poor, stony soil can be a basis for starting a wildflower meadow and wet, acidic soil can be the basis for a lovely bog garden).
We are also host to some non-native worm-eating flatworms, imported in plant pots probably before we moved in. See my earlier blog ‘Invaders’ https://www.naturalword.co.uk/2020/02/15/invaders/
By far the largest density of worms in my garden occurs in the compost heaps, where the distinctively pink-banded ‘tiger’ or ‘brandling’ worms eat decaying organic matter. These compost specialists aren’t found so much in normal garden soil, but I have noticed them under bags of compost or old planks of wood. Finding them in abundance and knowing they are at work, converting veg waste and garden trimmings into rich, crumbly compost, warms my heart.
Amphibians and reptiles
Last June, in the pouring rain, I found a large frog trying to find its way out of the fruit cage. Fortunately, such a large amphibian could easily be shown to the doorway, where it hopped out without a fuss. Newts and toads also wander around the garden, the newts sometimes finding their way into the greenhouse. I once picked up a dark-coloured toad on the veg patch, mistaking it for a rotten potato!
There was a lizard on a sunny bank in the local woods before the rain set in, but so far, no reptiles have been seen in our garden this year. There are warmer places nearby and further from human civilization, perhaps, but I live in hope that we’ll have some hot days later in the summer to tempt them in. Early spring 2021 was hot and a fantastic time for adders and their young on Kit Hill, across the valley. I hope the subsequent cold spell didn’t harm them.
Taming the jungle (a bit)
This June (following on from No Mow May) I did make inroads into the jungle by mowing a path so that it’s possible to visit all areas of the bottom garden without having to trample down tall vegetation. I also mowed the lawn in the walled section of the garden for us and the ducks, although it is surrounded by very bushy flowerbeds and vegetation, including a mini meadow for bees and other insects. The front lawn is a meadow until autumn, still waiting for the bird’s-foot trefoil to flower. Last year it had begun to flower in May. What a difference the weather makes.
Outside the garden
If your garden is tiny or non-existent, non-jungly, in a built-up environment, or you don’t have permission to allow it to become a June jungle, don’t despair. In Cornwall (and in a great many other parts of the world) we are spoilt for choice when it comes to finding wild places nearby. Wait for the sun to come out or choose a warm evening, find an untamed hedge, an unmown verge or a piece of scrubland, and take a while to look long and deep and to listen intently.
In the woods and wider countryside, you can feel stems and tree bark – hairy or ribbed, rough or smooth – and find creatures camouflaged on and in the trees and tall grass (but watch out for ticks at this time of year). You can even taste the jungle if you know it’s safe to do so (you can suckle from a honeysuckle flower or nibble on the petal of a dog rose, an oxeye daisy or a violet).
Wherever you are, I can pretty much guarantee that if you immerse yourself in nature you will discover something new and unexpected this and every June, and that it is worth investigating, admiring and protecting.