Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Overdue Maintenance

Overdue Maintenance

We're constantly being told to leave bits of the garden wild for wildlife. I do that, it comes in as a handy excuse for not maintaining parts of the garden. It certainly helps attract and keep wildlife, there's absolutely no doubt, but like all messages given over to the public from organisations, such as the Wildlife Trusts, the message has been simplified so much, that when taken literally it doesn't work as people would expect. This then leads to people giving up on that message and it becomes a fad that no one repeats. 

The problem the Wildlife Trust faces, in my opinion formed over the last 3 to 4 years since I have been volunteering for them one day a week, is that the simple messages they give over suffer from being over simplified when really people need to be given a lot more information and educated properly about conservation. The problem with educating people to the required level is that people don't want to put that much time and effort into it. The simple message put over gets through to many many people and the Trusts can justify their grants and the money they spend by pointing out that their message is working, at a superficial level, and that many people support them and know what the message is. When they want volunteers to help that number drops dramatically, especially in the area of site maintenance that I am in, and when a much more hands on educational day is put on, a day where you can meet and talk to an expert in a particular field, such as insects or pond creation, the number of people that turn up is in single figures. Sometimes 3 or 4. There are many different reasons for this obviously.

The example of making a pond to help wildlife, my pond, is a good example, and I think highlights the gulf between the simple messages that get given over and the realities of putting the messages into practice. Especially the reality of maintaining a good wildlife habitat.

The pond when dug is about 19ft by 11ft, a deep section of about 2.5ft with the rest of the depth varying between 1ft and 3 inches. Margins are shallow and sloped. The mounds around the pond were to be wild flowers with the expected odd bit of grass.

I went on a course for designing and building a pond and the things that were stressed were to leave space around the pond to go wild, which would be good for wildlife and don't routinely clean out the pond, not even in winter, because you'll kill and destroy so many little creatures. It sounded good, I took it all in and to this end tried to let nature to it's bit. It worked fantastically well. Frogs, Toads, Newts, Diving Beetles, Pond Skaters, Dragon Flies, May Flies, Leeches, various segmented water worms, mites, water fleas, Shrimps and of course Mosquitoes and Midge larvae , you name it, it appears to now be there.  

The immediate surrounding area has been planted with Willow, Dogwood, some fruit trees and a lot of wild long grass, piles of wood, piles of rocks, drainage channels and some small banks of earth. Lots of places for lots of things to hide. This is bordered by a big hedge on one side. This wild and semi wild area for wildlife is around 50ft by 30ft, maybe a lot bigger, the size is a pure guess.

I'm actually very pleased with the whole area but the reality of how much time it takes to maintain is starting to hit home. The problem with nature is that everything keeps competing with everything else. It's only a problem because I have an idea in mind as to how I want it to look and how much time I want to spend on it and what species of plants that I want to be there. I want diversity, colour and various heights of plants throughout. It's the same with wildlife conservation. We are trying to conserve, keep, something that isn't natural. Paths aren't natural, the amount of different flowers isn't natural, the hedge isn't natural. Nature is constantly taking what I have done and keeps trying to change it. Wildlife is certainly enjoying what I have done.

The simple message of Wildlife groups is keep a wild area. They don't tell you that you'll need to constantly keep it in check.

Within 1 year I could see succession taking place. The big hedge has Blackthorn within it. Blackthorn spreads via its roots underground and new trees spring up all over the place as it tries to spread. I have had dozens of small trees appear within the grass along that hedge to such an extent that although I kept cutting them all down I missed one that appear next to the pond, 20ft away from the hedge. This small tree, which was hidden by long grass, has punched it's way through the edge of the pond liner and come up next to the pond. Another one has appeared at the other end of the pond. From nowhere one of these is now nearly 3ft tall and the damage to the pond liner can't be fixed. In this case it doesn't matter but how many more of them are trying to punch holes in the liner? If I let this area be wild within one or 2 years the whole area would be small Blackthorn. The hedge isn't natural and Blackthorn is very dominant. These types of hedges need constant maintenance. You can't let it go wild unless you just want Blackthorn to spread.

The grass in between the hedge and pond has been seeded with wild flowers many times but the grass just crowds it out. I've even dug up that grass area, turned the turf over and then seeded but one warm winter is all it took for the grass to out compete the flowers. The only thing that has beaten the grass is Dock, Dandelion and Bristly Ox-Tongue - they are doing fine. I'm OK with the Dandelion but not the other two. You can see how this wild area of grass would look over the next few years. Small Blackthorn bushes with increasing numbers of Thistles, Ox-Tongue and Dock etc slowly crowding out the grass until the Blackthorn finally crowds out and blocks the sun leaving the Dock etc at the margins.

The pond is facing the same problem. Grass is colonising the margins of the pond. The grass has now crept in and is growing in the margins. After 3 years the grass is thick and has shrunk the pond by about 2 feet in all directions. The pond is looking tiny.

In the photo you can see that I've already done a lot of work re-exposing the right hand side of the pond but the left hand side is yet to be done. This is within 3 years from the start of the pond. The bottom right hand corner shows the young Blackthorn bush.
This picture is after clearing both sides. You can now see the pond liner on the side where the grass was. 6 full wheel barrow loads of grass was taken out from the margins of the pond. Had it been left, 5 years from starting the pond I think there would only be 1ft wide of water showing in the centre.

I initially tried clearing out the pond in March but realised frogs were spawning so I stopped. I couldn't wait for next winter for several reasons, one being that the pond was now ugly and not so nice to sit next to, as I had hoped and the other being that it would have been a bigger job with more growth. Another reality that has hit home after spending a couple of hours over the last year dealing with is the introduction of Duckweed and Azolla (a floating water fern). Attracting wildlife also brings in unwanted plants. The first year of the pond saw a Moorhen make the pond it's home. Not only did the bird take almost all the water plants and make a nest with them, it also brought with it, I believe, Duck weed. The Azolla has just appeared this year, presumably from another bird or perhaps even stuck to my canoe after a day's paddle and found it's way into the pond.
It might be hard to see in this photo but it shows Duckweed and Azolla. This photo was taken after I spent half an hour in one sitting removing as much of both of these plants as I could. I made little in road even after that time. The two plants both cover the entire pond and the blanket they produce just gets thicker and thicker. They block the light from reaching the pond plants beneath the surface, stop the exchange of gasses and oxygen from getting in and out of the water and rapidly kill the pond. They also stop diving beetles from being able to break the surface and grab air. Scraping this stuff off of the surface also means that many many snails get caught up in it and removed. Many little tadpoles are also just under this and they too get caught up in the net.

The idea of the simple message I was given on the pond training course, don't try cleaning out your pond as it kills and disturbs lots of creatures, even in winter, over looks the more complicated need for management of a pond. Left to it's own devices this pond would be almost totally dead had I not intervened. I still have a lot more to remove and this will now be a constant battle each year. I had a good example of this the other year while canoeing a local drain (man made drainage river to those outside of Lincolnshire). While canoeing I came across a slow flowing stretch which was so full and covered with Duckweed and Azolla that it was very very difficult to paddle through it. The bow of the boat was pushing it's way through the weed causing it to bunch up many inches thick. Just before entering this stretch I noticed a huge amount of fish and had spent many minutes watching them and wondering why there were so many. These fish had swam away from the weeded area and congregated. They were having to move due to the lack of oxygen in the stretch I was about to enter.

While paddling the weeded stretch the boat was causing hundreds of young eels and other fish that hadn't managed to escape to literally jump as they were disturbed and land on the blanket of weed. They were hanging as close to the surface as possible getting some of the little oxygen that there was left in the water (which was at the surface). When I peered through the blanket of weed I could see that all other plant life under the water was gone. The stretch before this weeded area was full of many different plants. This stretch was a good half mile and had become a dead zone. The Environment Agency came out, within the hour of me calling them. They tested the water for oxygen and confirmed there was almost none within the water. Their action also showed how conservation of wildlife is a fashion guided by how prominent the area is. This stretch can not be seen from a road, doesn't have a path along side and is almost never visited by anyone. I was probably the first and only visitor for a year or two.

Had it been else where they would have either taken a boat up it and dragged/ scraped the weed off allowing oxygen and light back in or they would have added oxygen through a chemical in which produces large amounts of oxygen allowing the creatures to breath. The bloom of weed would have only been a temporary thing and would have died away after the summer but not before killing many creatures. The environment needs maintaining if you want to keep diversity. The drain / river here isn't natural, it's man made surrounded by fields pouring in nutrients and fertilizers which cause the bloom. The drain, just like my pond, is or was an area that had introduced diversity and many different species simply by digging and putting it there as is much of what we see around us.

As our modern life changes and destroys natural ponds, rivers and various different habitats with farming, road building and housing, we need to maintain the man made new habitats if we wish to keep wildlife, because in many or even most cases, the diversity won't be there without us constantly working on it. That's the same as my pond. The simple message of leave areas to go wild, just add a pond to your garden, just sow wild flowers, doesn't work on it's own. Left to it's own devices nature will use succession to remove diversity, allow dominant species to take over and then natural selection over years, hundreds of years, may or may not create diversity in that area.

Nature is only diverse and wonderful and very interesting when taken as a whole, over the whole country, or the whole world. Any one little area will see nature destroying life and diversity and going closer to  a monoculture of the most dominant plants in the short term as succession resets everything. This is why as we constantly destroy the natural world, displace nature and force it into ever decreasingly smaller areas we need to constantly maintain diversity and manage those areas that are left. Diversity can't happen naturally in a small area within the time frame of our lives. If we want to see nature and wildlife we have to make it in the areas which are left and then keep tending to it, just like my pond.

This is what I do at the Wildlife Trust as a volunteer, I constantly pull weeds, cut grass to allow flowers room to develop help moving sheep and cattle around the site so they can graze, tread in seeds and dig up the top soil. Conservation is a fashion, we are trying to maintain the fashion of meadows and farming that used to exist 100 to 1000 years ago. The idyllic idea of wild flower meadows and buzzing bees in the country side with pretty little ponds full of frogs was man made. This country was a big wood with areas of marsh, we changed that and nature's succession was reset.  When modern practises stopped grazing animals in rotation on small fields, stopped hay meadows from being needed, stopped hedges from being used to enclose animals as the norm we needed to start to re-create that. It used to be economical to farm that way which is why those habitats formed. Now that it isn't economical to work and live like that, the habitat, which never was natural, now needs the time, money and effort to make it look like that but it's far from easy and the little simple messages that get put out are but pin pricks as to what is needed. It was easy to maintain that period's environment when it was part of our natural life but now it has become something extra, extra work, extra money and extra time it isn't quite so easy to tame nature and produce an idyllic habitat.

We have always fought nature but now it costs money. Maintenance is now the biggest job for wildlife conservation. Conservation is a fight against nature, the idea of letting nature do it's thing doesn't produce what we understand to be diversity and idyllic habitats when looked at on a small scale such as a few acres or a garden or even an entire county.    


  1. I'm not sure where to start replying to this since it's so long! But of course you're right, very little of Britain is natural now. Take heath, for example: a lot of people deem it worth of protection, but it's a completely artificial habit maintained by people who like shooting things.

    Another big problem for diversity is excess fertility. You already mentioned fertiliser run-off in streams, but heavily fertilised soils are also a problem. The deliberately added fertiliser and also nitrogen from car emissions favour a small number of fast growing species (aka "weeds") over a large number of species adapted to more difficult conditions.

    That's why it's almost impossible to grow a true meadow in your garden - many traditional meadow flowers are slow growing stress-tolerators, but one thing they're not tolerant of is getting all their sun cut off by fast growing grass and weeds. My neighbours garden is a good example: they leave the bottom alone, but there's nothing there but long grass and brambles. Anything else of interest can't compete.

    If you want a wildflower meadow you have to actually deliberately lower soil fertility - apparently sugar works well, since it causes an explosion of bacteria who get busy using up all the available nutrients.

    In my garden I've worked hard to replace the grass with more interesting things. When we moved I started sheet mulching, and it's kindof worked over several years.. but it's so much work to stop the grass invading again. Grass is my number 1 weed, even worse than the ground elder and creeping buttercups.

    1. My posts are mainly a memory aid for me to look back on what my thoughts were. I also have to get thoughts out of my head otherwise I can't stop thinking about them. Once I've dumped some thoughts I can concentrate on doing something else.

      Our soil had been trampled by a horse for 14 years. We now have impenetrable compacted clay on the surface and then just clay going down feet. The first year when I let the grass grow for the 1st time in 14 years it was amazing how many types of grass there were, and vetch, clover and butter cup. I think our little field was a grazing meadow or hay meadow in the distant past.

      At the Wildlife trust we cut grass and spend hours raking it off helping to reduce the fertility. I also helped seed a flower meadow, which has taken years to establish but we still have to cut back dominant species like cow parsley from spreading inwards from the hedge line.

  2. Hi Andy, this is very thought provoking .... one thing I did think though is that in effect we gardeners are working to eradicate things (like grass and weed trees and shrubs) that would in other circumstances be grazed. If farmed then by domesticated animals, if more truly wild, then perhaps by deer and other animals.

    I had a quick browse and found this article about goats being used to keep down weeds in New York parks, I don't know if any variation on the theme might work for you??????