How to create a conservation area with children

by Ecology Team at REC. Published Fri 06 Mar 2015 15:08
How to inspire children with nature
How to inspire children with nature

How do we make a wildlife-friendly area out of the smallest patch of land? The Ecology Team at REC explain how you can help create wonderful habitats from even the most neglected areas.

When I was at school we were lucky enough to have a conservation area safely penned off at the edge of our school field. I suspect that it started life as a slightly boggy area with a pond, but at some point an environmentally-conscious teacher decided that the space would make an ideal learning area.

One particular summer, our annual tadpole yield boomed and our playing fields were filled with frogs! Another year, we were finding ladybirds on every surface. Having a conservation area was a fantastic learning experience for us and, from a very young age, we were all left with an appreciation of nature.

With the Easter holidays approaching and the days getting warmer, it’s the perfect time to get outside and introduce children to our indigenous beasts and birds. Everything included here is designed to be easy and requires very little budget, however if you want to scale it up we’ve also included some specific plant life to attract some very special individuals.

Spatial Diversity

Spatial diversity is really a simple concept given a complicated name, it’s all about varying the type of habitats to attract a variety of wildlife. Long grass is ideal for butterflies, moths and their larvae and also attracts small mammals and non-flying insects.

Equally, shorter grass areas are ideal for birds searching for worms, so diversity is the aim here. Aside from utilising grassland you may already have in your chosen conservation area, establishing a pond with varying depths is ideal for attracting amphibians. If you don’t already have trees then rearing an oak might not be a feasible option, but bat boxes and bird boxes can still be brought in, just attach them to exposed walls and make sure you follow some basic guidelines to keep nesting creatures safe from predators.

As an initial checklist for a new space, consider incorporating the following habitats to attract a variety of wildlife:

• Vary the length of your grass. Leave some areas manicured and others wild and unruly.

• Thick bushes can look a little unkempt, but for a conservation area they make perfect nest sites.

• Hollow garden canes make good homes for ladybirds and other insects. Cut them into shorter lengths and place these within shrubs with the end pointing down slightly to drain water. Secure with wire.

• Dead wood makes a great hiding place for a variety of insects.

• Create surfaces for mounting bird boxes and hosting climbing shrubs. A sturdy fence panel is ideal, however most nesting birds require a box positioned between 2-4 metres high, so ensure you have enough height to account for this. Woodpeckers prefer to be higher (3-5m), so opt for a tree mounted box if you would like to attract them to your space.

Creating safe habitats

New housing developments are very restrictive for wildlife; not only do they threaten their existing habitats, but they make it very difficult for animals to maintain their regular routes.

Hedgehogs are one such example of a garden friend which is becoming increasingly rare due to human actions. To attract these prickly critters, don’t make your garden a sealed space, and ensure that any fences have gaps for safe hedgehog passage. While hedgehogs are illusive, you can attract them with a feast of cat biscuits, boiled eggs or chicken or turkey based cat food. Avoid milk or bread, because hedgehogs are lactose intolerant.

While it’s annoying to have slugs damaging your plants, try to avoid using slug pellets or other pesticides too. Small mammals and birds ingest these when they eat the slugs and it generally creates an unpleasant impact on the whole food chain.

If you have the capacity for a pond in your conservation area, think about all the creatures which will visit for a drink. While varying depths are ideal for a range of wildlife, consider creating pond ramps to allow frogs to come and go freely and offer a vital escape if smaller mammals should fall in.

Looking to create a compost bin? Be aware that creatures might have made a home in the warm rotting mulch. Be careful when turning or carrying out garden work in general, areas which need sprucing up to us might actually be a perfect nesting place for small mammals.

It is worth noting that it’s always important to be aware of any security lights installed around your premises/conservation area too as artificial light can confuse bats during hours of darkness.

Opt for the most ‘bird-friendly’ plant life

Ideally, your conservation space will be characterised by a range of plants that flower throughout the year. Plant life is absolutely vital for insects and birds and house sparrows are one such species thought to be in decline because they can’t find enough invertebrate food to feed their chicks.

By filling your space with the most insect rich flora, you can do your bit for nesting birds throughout the year.

• Fruit trees provide shelter and food for birds and badgers. Even sapling trees can fruit.

• Pyracantha (also known as FireThorn) can be planted at any time and it’s a notorious plant for attracting bees. Aside from the bees, it also provides good shelter for smaller birds and
produces berries which they can eat.

• Give honeysuckle a trellis to climb. Aside from smelling beautiful, honeysuckle attracts bullfinches, warblers and thrushes. Opt for the Lonicera periclymenum (native) variety.

• Holly is a great all-rounder. The berries attract a variety of birds and insects and mammals can hibernate in the thick undergrowth underneath.

Really special guests

Sadly, many garden guests are in decline. While many of these declining species are protected, unwittingly we can make it difficult for them to find a haven in our gardens.

While all garden visitors are fascinating to see, there are some species that require special attention.

Amphibians: Great crested newts & natterjack toads

Great crested newts are still widespread, however they are heavily protected due to sharp declines over the past century. They are easy to spot as they are larger than most indigenous newt species (up to 17cm) and during mating season the males develop a distinctive crest.

If you spot one in your conservation area it is very important to record it through Natural England. They will be able to give you advice and officially document your findings. If you spot newts in your area, it is important to not disturb the area in any way. If it is a community project, then make sure everybody is aware of this – it is an offence to harm a great crested newt.

Natterjack toads also have the same level of protection. Natterjack toads can be spotted by the yellow stripe down their backs and the males have a very load rasping call.

Hazel Dormouse

The hazel dormouse is also a protected species and lives in woodland and hedgerows. They are wonderful little creatures and you can create cosy homes for them by securely hanging tubes (opt for plastic instead of cardboard) from tree branches. Mice-specific nest boxes also make safe and secure homes.

You can check for evidence of dormice by looking for evidence of gnawed nuts between September-December, however their presence is generally very difficult to spot!

As with all protected species, ensure that the habitat isn’t disturbed and log your findings with Natural England or your own local authority.

Badgers

When badgers’ natural habitats are destroyed by building work, it is even more important for homeowners to take responsibility for maintaining their routes and providing sources of water.

Consider creating underpasses for fences around your conservation area and take special measures when the ground is covered with frost. Keen gardeners often chastise badgers for digging up their flowerbeds, however this is usually in a desperate search for worms when the ground is frozen hard. Badgers will eat dried pet food and they generally enjoy fruit too.

When you set up your conservation area, you may not know anything about the type of wildlife that frequents your area. But as they say, build it and they will come! Once you’ve forged a few simple habitats, insects, birds and amphibians will soon make your space home. Look out for tracks to give you clues of mammals and persevere – your space could become a lifeline for nature.




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