How to… Identify UK Butterfly Species

A flash of colour flitting by in the heat of the summer sun. Twisting this way and that, showing off amazing aerial acrobatics above a meadow of long, waving grass. A butterfly, small but standing out against a backdrop of browns, yellows, reds, blues and whites. Floating like a leaf down to a flower, the butterfly stops, flicking its wings before coming to a stop, wings outstretched in the sunshine. What could this beauty be?

Butterflies come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and can be found in a variety of habitats, from big cities to more remote areas. They are also a popular cultural symbol across the globe, with symbolism ranging from rebirth and transformation to representing the human soul. Along with their long history of capturing the mind and imagination of people, in nature, butterflies are great indicators of the health of habitats and are an important part of the food chain. As is the common story right now, butterflies are unfortunately threatened by habitat loss and degradation, as well as climate change, pesticide use, and invasive species. They need our help!

To be able to help butterflies, we need to understand them better. In the UK, we have 59 species, with only 2 being migrants. Though butterflies are more noticeable for people to identify, most Brits can only name but a handful of species. As we ease into summer, now is a great time to brush up your knowledge of what species you can identify. Here’s 13 to get you started!

Butterflies

Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

  • Family: White and Yellow butterflies
  • Size: Large (60-74mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Look like veined-leaves with pale-yellow undersides and an orange dot on each wing. Uppersides: Males= sulphurous yellow; Female= paler in colour
  • Caterpillar food plants: Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn
  • On the wing: Can be seen throughout the year, but most commonly during spring
  • Winter: Hibernate as adults in wooded areas
  • Distribution: Common in England and Wales, less common in Ireland, and very rare in Scotland

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

  • Family: Brush-footed butterflies
  • Size: Medium (45-60mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Bright orange wings with a black pattern, white patch close to each outer top edge, and a border of blue half-moons. Underside dark and light brown
  • Caterpillar food plants: Nettles
  • On the wing: March-October
  • Winter: Hibernate as adults in sites, such as tree hollows and sheds
  • Distribution: Widespread throughout Britain

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

  • Family: Brush-footed butterflies
  • Size: Large (64-78mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Black wings with red bands and white markings. Underside is similar, but paler and more mottled
  • Caterpillar food plants: Nettles
  • On the wing: March-October
  • Winter: Hibernate as adults
  • Distribution: Widespread throughout Britain

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

  • Family: Brush-footed butterflies
  • Size: Medium/Large (58-74mm)
  • Butterfly appearance: Orange wings with black and white markings. Underside is similar, but paler and more mottled
  • Caterpillar food plants: Thistles and sometimes nettles and mallows
  • On the wing: March-October
  • Winter: Migrate from Africa each spring
  • Distribution: Widespread across Britain

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

  • Family: Brush-footed (brown) butterflies
  • Size: Medium (37-48mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Orange and brown wings on top with a black false eye on each wing. Males are smaller and richer in colour than females, with distinct dark band across the forewing. Underside of the forewing is largely orange and the hindwing yellow and brown
  • Caterpillar food plants: Fine grasses, such as fescues
  • On the wing: June-September
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars
  • Distribution: Most common in southern and central England and Wales

Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)

  • Family: Brush-footed (brown) butterflies
  • Size: Medium (53-58mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Distinctive black and white chequered wings that vary in pattern between individuals. Undersidesnot so brightly marked with eye-spots and grey or yellowish bands
  • Caterpillar food plants: Grasses, such as red fescue and sheep’s-fescue
  • On the wing: June-August
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars
  • Distribution: Southern and central England and Wales

Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus)

  • Family: Brush-footed (brown) butterflies
  • Size: Medium (42-52mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Begin velvety with deep blackish brown wings bordered by white. Iconic rings on wings vary in number, size and shape. Females larger with more pronounced markings
  • Caterpillar food plants: Various grasses including cock’s-foot and tufted hair-grass
  • On the wing: June-August
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars
  • Distribution: Everywhere apart from northern Scotland

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

  • Family: Brush-footed (brown) butterflies
  • Size: Medium (46-56mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Dark brown with cream spots, though the female’s are larger. Forewings have a false eye and hindwings have three false eyes. Undersides mottled brown
  • Caterpillar food plants: Various grasses including false brome, cock’s-foot, Yorkshire fog, and common couch
  • On the wing: March-October
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars or a chrysalis
  • Distribution: Throughout England (except the far north), Wales and Ireland, and in northern Scotland

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

  • Family: Brush-footed (brown) butterflies
  • Size: Medium (40-60mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Male= dark brown with dark scent patch on forewing and faint orange smudge; Female= lighter brown with more orange on wings. Underside is largely orange with mottled brown hindwing
  • Caterpillar food plants: Wide range of grasses from fine fescues to coarse cock’s-foot
  • On the wing: May-September
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars
  • Distribution: Widespread across Britain

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

  • Family: Brush-footed butterflies
  • Size: Medium/Large (50-64mm)
  • Butterfly appearance: Orange wings with brown patterns and scalloped edges to wings. Mottled underside with white, comma-like mark on hindwing
  • Caterpillar food plants: Nettle, elm and hop
  • On the wing: Spring after hibernation; Summer brood= June-July; Autumn brood= August-September
  • Winter: Hibernate as adults, camouflaged as a leaf
  • Distribution: Widespread across England and Wales, rare in southern Scotland and Northern Ireland

Peacock (Aglais io)

  • Family: Brush-footed butterflies
  • Size: Large (63-75mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Red wings with four large false eyes. Undersides almost black
  • Caterpillar food plants: Nettles
  • On the wing: Spring after hibernation, and June-September
  • Winter: Hibernate as adults in hollow trees and buildings
  • Distribution: Widespread across Britain

Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)

  • Family: Skippers
  • Size: Small (25-34mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Orange on top with a black edge, and paler undersides. Male= dark stripe in centre of fore-wing. Antenna tip is orange below
  • Caterpillar food plants: Yorkshire fog and other tall grasses
  • On the wing: June-September
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars
  • Distribution: Widespread up to North Yorkshire and Scottish border

Large Skipper (Ochlodes venatus)

  • Family: Skippers
  • Size: Small (28-36mm wide)
  • Butterfly appearance: Wings rich brown with orange patches, but male has a dark bar in the centre of the forewing. Underside mottled orange
  • Caterpillar food plants: Cock’s-foot and other tall grasses
  • On the wing: May-September
  • Winter: Hibernate as caterpillars
  • Distribution: Throughout England, Wales, and in Dumfries and Galloway

How to… Identify British Tree Species (Part 2)

A holly.tree shining bright with red berries and prickly green leaves in the grey of a wintertime woodland. An ancient evergreen yew standing watch over the final resting place of our ancestors. A colour-changing spindle cream flowered and glossy green in spring, turning to psychedelic pinks and oranges in autumn. Trees come in all shapes and sizes, often differing wildly from each other, but all can be found embedded in the landscape and culture of Britain.

In the last chapter of my How to… Identify British Tree Species guide, I focussed on 10 tree species that can easily be found across the UK, from the majestic oak to the graceful silver birch. These are but a few of the now 80 odd native and non-native species that can be found in the UK. From providing food to flood prevention, from the countryside to the city, trees can be found playing important roles across the country right now.

Following on from my last guide, part 2 covers 10 more tree species that can easily be found across Britain. This handy guide of facts, drawings, and photos is here to help you to identify these species at any time of year. Here’s to learning something new everyday!

Tree Species

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

  • Family: Rose – related to fruiting trees such as cherry and plum
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Large shrub, occasionally small tree, up to 4m, forming impenetrable thickets
  • Stems and Twigs: Young twigs downy, maturing to dark brown bark, that shows orange beneath, with thorns
  • Leaves: Small, oval, alternate, tapering to a point, toothed margins, dull above and hairy beneath
  • Flowers: Flowers are white with 5 petals and red-tipped anthers. Flowers appear late March-April, before the leaves, often alongside cold weather known as Blackthorn winter
  • Seeds: Produces round, blue-black fruit (sloes) with a single seed (stone)
  • Range and Habitat: Grows on the edge of scrub woodlands and in hedgerows

In Winter: Twigs are dark and not shiny, with thorns at least 2cm long

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced in the 17th century from Europe and Asia)
  • Shape and Size: Shorter and more slender tree, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is grey with many small fissures (not flaking), and twigs are slender and brown with tiny white spots
  • Leaves: Thin, light green leaves, opposite and have long pointed lobes
  • Flowers: Erect clusters of pale yellow flowers, before the leaves (April-May)
  • Seeds: Winged keys in opposite pairs
  • Range and Habitat: Increasingly planted and self-sown in parks, gardens, and hedges

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark, and individual buds that are green and red

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

  • Family: Aquifoliaceae – holly trees
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Narrow-crowned, conical tree with regular branching, reaching up to 20m
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is green when young, becoming smooth and grey with age
  • Leaves: Alternate, long, glossy, spiny teeth, and waxy on top, matt and pale green beneath
  • Flowers: White, 4-petalled and in close clusters, with male and female flowers on separate trees (May-August)
  • Seeds: Red berries with small seeds, only found on female trees
  • Range and Habitat: Can be found everywhere across the British Isles but prefers drier soils

In Winter: Evergreen spiky leaves and red berries, a symbol of Christmas

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

  • Family: Cornaceae – dogwoods
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Tall and deciduous sending out suckers to form dense thickets (up to 10m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark grey and smooth with shallow ridges, giving off a fetid smell when bruised, attractive to insects
  • Leaves: Opposite, long, oval, pointed, hairy on both sides, side veins curving forward, and no teeth. Crimson colouring in late autumn
  • Flowers: Greenish-white 4-petalled flowers (June-July)
  • Seeds: Round, bitter, black berries in clusters (sometimes called ‘dogberries’), ripening in August or September
  • Range and Habitat: Frequent in Midlands and South, grows chiefly on chalk soils, but also found in woodlands, scrub and hedges

In Winter: New twigs are bright red

Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)

  • Family: Mallow family – related to trees such as cotton and cacao
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Tall tree with long slender branches that start near the ground (up to 40m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Young bark is smooth and grey, whereas old bark is fissured
  • Leaves: Long and heart-shaped with small teeth and tapering to a point. Dark green and hairless above, whereas undersides are paler with white or buff hairs in the vein junctions
  • Flowers: Greenish-yellow 5-petalled flowers that are sweet smelling (late June-July)
  • Seeds: Encapsulated in small round hanging fruits, hairy, faintly ribbed and with pointed tips
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread in rows or avenues in streets, parks and also hedges

In Winter: Red, hairy twigs and shoots

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

  • Family: Adoxaceae – previously in the honeysuckle family , but now reclassified in moschatel
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Bushy shrub with many stems or growing into a small tree (up to 10m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Light brown bark is thick, corky, fissured, and strong smelling
  • Leaves: Long, dark green, and opposite, with leaflets in pairs, rounded, stalked and with teeth
  • Flowers: Creamy-white, small, and sweetly fragrant in flat-topped clusters with yellow anthers (May-August)
  • Seeds: Produces a juicy, edible, purplish-black berry
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, particularly flourishing where nitrogen content high

In Winter: Pungent, hollow-stemmed twigs and often dotted with light-brown bumps

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

  • Family: Rose – related to fruit trees such as apricots and apples
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Quick growing, becoming a dense shrub or single stemmed tree (up to 15m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is hairless and greyish-brown, with many small scales and sharp spines
  • Leaves: Alternate, long, toothed, shiny, lobed, and roughly oval-shaped
  • Flowers: Showy white and fragrant (sickly sweet) with 5 petals, and pink or purple anthers (late April-June). Become deep pink as they fade
  • Seeds: Fleshy fruits (haws) turn dark wine-red and contain a single seed
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, in hedges, scrub or woodland margins

In Winter: Spines emerging alongside buds on the twigs

Beech (Fugus sylvatica)

  • Family: Beech – includes chestnuts and oaks
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Older trees have a massive, many-branched dome, whereas young trees are slimmer and more conical in outline (up to 36m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Smooth grey bark may break into small squares
  • Leaves: Long, wavy margins, alternate, hairy leaf edges, and shiny green on both surfaces
  • Flowers: Young leaves appear with yellow long-stalked male flowers on tassel-like stalks, and greenish white female flowers (May)
  • Seeds: Four-lobed husk are two triangular nutlets (mast)
  • Range and Habitat: Native in woods in the south, but widely planted elsewhere

In Winter: Often hold on to leaves and have sharply-pointed buds

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

  • Family: Staff-vine
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Small tree or big bush up to 6m
  • Stems and Twigs: Young, smooth, greenish bark later turns grey
  • Leaves: Light green leaves are opposite, thin, oval-shaped, and pointed, with small finely toothed margins. Turn pinkish-red in autumn
  • Flowers: Small greenish-yellow flowers with 4 narrow petals (May-June)
  • Seeds: Four-lobed seed capsules, which turn a deep pinkish-red when ripe.
  • Range and Habitat: Grows throughout England and Wales, most frequent in the South, but rarer in Scotland and Ireland. Found in woods, scrub, and hedgerows, in particular on lime

In Winter: Buds and twigs are angular with four sides

Yew (Taxus baccata)

  • Family: Yew
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Round-headed tree with dark foliage, often has many trunks (reaches up to 20m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Smooth, light brown bark flakes to red patches
  • Leaves: Needles dark green on top and matt yellow-green on underside
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers are found on separate trees. Male flower is yellow, and tiny female flower is green (February-April)
  • Seeds: Bright red ripened fruits, much enjoyed by birds, partially encloses a single seed that is poisonous to humans
  • Range and Habitat: Found in woods, scrub, screes, downs and often on lime

In Winter: Evergreen needle-like leaves present all year round

Drawings are my own work

How to… Identify British Tree Species

A majestic oak standing tall in the landscape, watching as centuries pass it by. A silver birch with drooping branches, embellished with leaves, slowly blowing in the breeze. An alder leaning over the edge of a river, spreading its branches to shade the bank beneath it. From capturing the imaginations of children to symbolising strength and life for adults, trees in all their forms are an important part of the landscape and culture within Britain.

With over 70 species in the UK alone, trees come in all shapes and sizes, and can be found anywhere from our highlands to our cities. Trees colonised Britain following the last glaciation, and have since become intertwined with our very own history. They provide us with so much, including resources, such as medicines and building materials, improved air quality, homes for wildlife, and even cultural services, such as therapy through forest bathing. Thus, they are a very important part of our environment!

Now, as our reliance on trees grows and the threats to them increase, it is surprising how little people know about trees in general. For example, the average Brit is unable to name more than five tree species, and a third even believe a money tree is a real species! With two thirds of the public now wanting to learn a little more about the trees in their area, here’s my handy guide to help you identify 10 common tree species that can be found in the UK.

Tree Species

1. Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur)

  • Family: Fagaceae – related to species such as beech and sweet chestnut
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Up to 40m tall, upward-reaching and broad crown
  • Stems and twigs: Massive rugged grey-brown trunk
  • Leaves: 10-12cm long, oblong, and lobed, turning brown in autumn
  • Flowers: On the same tree and flowering April-June. Male flowers= yellow-green catkins; female flowers= pinkish and on short stalks
  • Seeds: Produces the familiar acorn, with scaly cups and clusters carried on long stalks
  • Range & habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, found in habitats ranging from deciduous and mixed woodlands to open grassland and hedgerows

In Winter: Look for rounded buds that have overlapping scales and are found in clusters at the end of each shoot

2. Sessile oak (Quercus petraea)

  • Differs to Pedunculate Oak in that the leaves taper to an unlobed base and have long stalks.
  • Buds in winter have more scales (more than 20).
  • Also, the clustered acorns are almost stalk-less with downy cups.
  • Narrower in shape, prefers more acid soils, and is more common in the West of Britain.

3. Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

  • Family: Oleaceae – related to olive trees and lilac
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Tall and domed with widely spaced branches, growing up to 35m
  • Stems and twigs: Bark is pale brown to grey, becoming rugged with age
  • Leaves: Opposite and toothed, with 9-13 stalked leaflets that have long tips
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers typically grow on different trees, but both have purple flowers growing in clusters before the leaves
  • Seeds: Single seeds with a long wing (known as keys)
  • Range & habitat: Woods and hedges, in particular flourishing on a lime-rich/well-drained soil

In Winter: Smooth twigs with distinctive hairless black buds, and ridged bark on adult trees that resembles a diamond pattern

4. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and maples
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced in the 1500s from the Balkan peninsula in southeastern Europe)
  • Shape and size: Arching branches, usually turned up at the ends, growing up to 35m tall
  • Stems and twigs: Bark is scaly and red-brown or dark grey-brown
  • Leaves: Five to seven large, thick, stalkless leaflets with pronounced veins and a long, tapering base
  • Flowers: Showy spike (candle) of white flowers with a yellow to pink spot
  • Seeds: Spiny fruit contains one or more shiny conkers
  • Range & habitat: It has now become a widespread and common sight across Britain, tolerating a wide range of soils

In Winter: Smooth bark and sticky buds

5. Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

  • Family: Betulaceae – related to hazel and birches
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Regular branching and conical shape, growing up to 25m
  • Stems and twigs: Dark brown bark that is often rough and sprouts young shoots
  • Leaves: Alternate, rounded, sometimes notched at the tip, and dark green
  • Flowers: Male and female catkins grow on the same tree, before the leaves. Male catkins= lambs’ tails; female catkins= small and egg-shaped
  • Seeds: Female catkins turn into a small cone, drying from green to brown, releasing the seeds. The seeds have corky outgrowths that keep them afloat on water
  • Range & habitat: Thrives in wet ground and is often seen lining the banks of rivers and streams across Britain

In Winter: Appears dull purplish due to purplish buds

6. Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

  • Family: Betulaceae – related to alders, hazels and hornbeams
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Erect with pointed crown and drooping branches, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and twigs: Young bark reddish, maturing to black and papery-white bark. Twigs smooth with small dark bumps
  • Leaves: Alternate, triangular and shiny, on slender stalks. Edges are ragged, with smaller teeth between larger main teeth
  • Flowers: Male catkins= purply-brown; female catkins= smaller and pale green
  • Seeds: Two winged and wind-borne, released in winter
  • Range & habitat: Form natural woodlands on light, dry soils throughout Britain

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark

7. Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to maples and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced from Europe either in the 1500s or by the Romans)
  • Shape and size: Massive domed outline, with dense foliage and heavy lower branches, growing up to 35m
  • Stems and twigs: Grey fissured bark ages to pinkish-brown
  • Leaves: Opposite, five-lobed, and upper side dark green
  • Flowers: Greeny-yellow flowers in hanging clusters appear with the leaves
  • Seeds: Hairless keys in right-angled pairs
  • Range & habitat: Grow vigorously in all parts of Britain, being widely planted on their own for shelter or in woodlands and hedgerows

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark

8. Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

  • Family: Rosaceae – related to roses
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Pyramidal shape, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and twigs: Shiny, red-brown bark peels in horizontal strips
  • Leaves: Alternate and oval with long points and regular, forward-pointing teeth, and two conspicuous red glands at the top of the stalk
  • Flowers: White flowers (blossom) appear before the leaves in small, loose clusters
  • Seeds: Produces round, red cherries
  • Range & habitat: Native throughout the UK, being found in woodlands and hedgerows

In Winter: Distinctive bark

9. Common Hazel (Corylus avellana)

  • Family: Betulaceae – related to birches, alders and hornbeams
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Many stems rise from the ‘stool’, which if left uncut can reach 9m
  • Stems and twigs: Bark coppery brown, smooth and tending to peel
  • Leaves: Alternate, almost circular with sawtooth edges, hairy, and soft to the touch
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers found on the same tree. Male= lemon-yellow lambstail catkins; Female= tiny buds with red tassels
  • Seeds: An edible nut encased in a thick-green husk, ripening in autumn
  • Range & habitat: Grows throughout Britain, often found in woods, scrub areas, and hedges

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark, accompanied by the male catkins from December

10. Field Maple (Acer campestre)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Round-shaped tree with branches that droop at the end, growing up to 26m
  • Stems and twigs: Bark is grey or light brown and twigs downy, later corky
  • Leaves: Emerging leaves have a pinkish tinge, turning dull-green, and are opposite and small, with three main, round-tipped lobes and two smaller basal lobes
  • Flowers: Small yellow-green flowers form erect clusters
  • Seeds: Each pair of seed wings lie in an almost straight line, are often tinged with pink
  • Range & habitat: Frequent in England and East Wales in woods and hedgerows

In Winter: Sinuous trunk and distinctive shape

Drawings and photos all my own

How to… Bring Nature Into Your Home This Christmas

Christmas for me, alongside being all about family, friendship and feeling grateful, is deep rooted in nature. This is not unusual though, as people have been taking direction from nature during mid-winter celebrations for thousands of years. From the Romans decorating their homes with greenery to the Victorian Christmas tree, from pagans to Christians, the inspiration for how Christmas looks today has often come from the world outside our doors. For me, every year during December, I also bring nature into my home in the form of plant life. But why and how?

Plants and Christmas

During the winter and Christmas period, it’s popular for evergreens to be brought into our homes to be used as decorations. This practice has been observed for thousands of years, evolving but often holding the same symbolism and meaning. Evergreens are a traditional symbol of everlasting life due to their longevity, and were worshipped by pagans as symbols of immortality and everlasting light, being used to ward off illness and evil spirits. The bright natural colours of evergreens have also long provided inspiration for many, and still do during the cold, dark days of winter. They are a symbol of celebration and remind us that the days of spring will return in time.

Some Christmas examples include:

Mistletoe – A long history in Britain from being sacred to the druids and warding off evil spirits during the Middle Ages to symbolising healing, shelter and fertility. It was once banned from Christian churches due to its pagan links. The Victorians gave the plant its modern tradition of being hung in a doorway to kiss under, though the exact reason why we do this is still unknown.

Holly – Long associated with fertility, protection and eternal life in Britain, due to being able to withstand harsh conditions. It was originally brought into people’s homes to ward off witches and malevolent spirits during the dark months, before being adopted by the Church to symbolise Jesus’ sacrifice (prickles= thorns and berries= spilt blood).

Poinsettas – Native to Mexico and brought over from America, the flowers have become a meaningful symbol of Christmas. Their star shape is thought to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, and the colours either purity or the spilt blood of Christ. For some, Poinsettas also symbolise new life.

Ivy – Symbolises everlasting life, resurrection, rebirth, and the coming of spring. During Christmas time, Ivy is closely associated with Holly, being once considered a female plant whereas Holly was the matching male plant. It was said that whichever of these two species was brought into the house first during the winter, would predict whether a man or woman would be in charge of the house for the next year. Now popular at Christmas, Ivy was once banished from homes by the Christian church due to its ability to grow in the shade, giving it associations with secrecy and debauchery.

How to make your own Christmas decorations

Bringing nature into your home is a great way to brighten things up and add a bit of colour to your Christmas festivities. Though it is understandable if you feel daunted by the prospect of turning your hand to making your very own decorations for the first time, such as a wreath or centrepiece, it is actually a simple and a great way to create decorations personal to you. Using natural materials can be a fun and easy way to do this, so why not try something new and have a go! For a little inspiration and some tips, here are some of the decorations that I put together for my family home each year, including this year.

Popularly Used Species

  • Holly – With and without berries
  • Ivy
  • Rose hips
  • Teasels – Some sprayed with non-toxic paint

Centrepiece and Mantlepiece Decorations

For my centrepiece and mantelpiece decorations, every year I simply use a couple of small metal buckets with a bit of oasis in them. My squares of oasis are reused again and again each year, so if you are starting out it is better to use a non-toxic, biodegradable alternative that will not harm the environment.

To begin putting together one of my Christmas arrangements, I start with placing a candle at the centre (though it is simply for decoration). I then build up from there, beginning with a few Teasels around or behind the candle, then adding Holly with and without berries, Rose hips, and Ivy. You can arrange the greenery however you want and add what you like. It is a bit of fun of course!

Basic Wreath

A wreath’s circular shape has long been seen as a symbol of eternal love and rebirth. They can first be traced back to early Roman times, where wreaths were made and given during the festival of Saturnalia each year (check out my blog post: The Twists of Christmas Traditions for more information).

To begin my wreath, I use a basic wooden wreath as my base and work from there. I usually start by wrapping Holly around the base and adding extra Holly with and without berries. This year I was happy with just Holly, but other years I have added Ivy and other greenery, and decorations such as ribbon. Less is more though, and watch out for the Holly’s spiky prickles!

Vase Arrangements

To finish my Christmas decorations, I like to use whatever greenery I have left to create some simple vase arrangements in fun vases. Teasels and Ivy are a great mix for this, adding a little colour and decoration to any room.

Warning

When collecting your greenery, pick only what you need, especially when picking plants with berries, such as Holly. These berries are a source of food for animals during the winter, so it is important that we leave some for them too.

Stay safe and Merry Christmas!

How to… Make Your Own Bird Nest Box

As our summer visitors, such as Swallows and Willow Warblers, leave us for sunnier shores, and we wait for our winter returnees, such as Redwings, the world outside our doors is slowing down and wildlife is preparing for the colder times to come. Autumn is a time for extraordinary spectacles, storing up food and changing colours, but also a time for us to do our bit, to help our wild neighbours with their preparations, and to prepare for a new year to come. This can range from cleaning ponds and putting out food, to planting trees and creating wood piles. It is also importantly a time to provide new homes for nature.

Previously, in spring/summer I posted on my blog about how to make a home for nature in the form of a bee hotel (see How to… Make Your Own Bee Hotel). A bee hotel is aimed at providing solitary bees (90% of UK bee species) with a place to nest, and for my blog I made a bee hotel that has now had some success. There are other forms of homes that we can make for wildlife though, for example for different species of bird.

In the UK, more than a quarter of all bird species are of the highest conservation concern, with a decline in breeding birds (44 million) between 1967 and 2009. This means that conserving and creating habitat for birds is an important issue, and something we can all get involved in. One example of an easy way is to put up nest boxes, which mimic natural habitat. They create an effective artificial cavity for birds, providing an accessible alternative for species that are currently experiencing the loss of breeding habitat and winter roosting sites.

Nest boxes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs, which will depend on the species of choice and the purpose they need to fulfill. Though you can put up a nest box at any time of year, the best time is right now, ready to be used as a roosting site throughout winter and for breeding in the spring. This way you can increase the chance of your nest box being a success next year. There are no set rules though, so why not try making your own today!

How to Make a Bird Nest Box

What you need:

  • A plank or offcuts of untreated wood, about 15mm thick for insulation
  • Tape measure & pencil
  • Hand or power saw
  • Drill & different sized drill bits
  • Sand paper
  • Hammer & nails
  • Screws
  • Sealant, a piece of rubber or something similar
  • Optional: Hole plate

Step by Step Guide:

  1. Decide on your nest box design. Your nest box will most likely be aimed at a certain species, such as Robins or House Sparrows. You can also choose particular design features, such as a flat or apex roof. For the purpose of this guide though, I will provide instructions to make a standard Tit nest box.
  1. Use a tape measure and pencil to mark out the wood you need, either by creating templates out of paper or cardboard, or by drawing straight onto the wood. For this design you will need 6 pieces: a back (45cm x 15cm); a base (11cm x 15cm); a front (21cm x 15cm); a roof (20cm x 15cm); and 2 side panels (25cm high at the back, 20cm high at the front, and 11cm wide). Use a hand or power saw to cut the wood into the 6 pieces needed.
  1. Next, take the front panel and use a wide drill bit to make a hole towards the top of the panel, at least 125mm up, which the birds will use to enter the nest box. The size of the hole will vary between different species, but for my nest box I made a 25mm hole, aimed at Blue Tits and similar Tit species.
  1. Use sand paper to sand down any rough or uneven edges of the wood, that otherwise could cause problems for birds using the box.
  1. Use a hammer and as many nails as you need to make the back, base, sides and front fit together forming the main body of the nest box. It is often best to mark where the nails will go first and partially drive each nail through the first piece of wood first (e.g. the back), which will make nailing the pieces together easier and help avoid splitting the wood.
  1. Attach the roof to the box using screws that you can later remove when needing to clean the nest box out. Seal the gap between the roof and the back of the nest box with either flexible sealant or an attached flap of recycled rubber.

Optional editions: Add a nest box hole plate to the front of the box to prevent predators from enlarging the nest box hole and larger bird species using the box. Also, you could apply a water-based wood preservative product to the outside of the box to prolong its life and help to repel water.

Tips on putting your nest box up

  • Unless there is shade during the day, position the nest box facing between north and east to avoid strong sunlight.
  • Choose a location which is 2-4 metres above ground level, out of reach of predators, and away from constant disturbance.
  • Make sure there is a clear flight path to the entrance of the nest box and that there is shelter from bad weather.
  • Place your box away from the location of any other nest boxes to reduce the chances of competition.
  • Avoid using nails to attach the box to a tree, as they may cause harm. Instead try to tie the box to the trunk or hang it, or otherwise use stainless steel screws or nails that do not rust.

Enjoy!

How to… Make the Most of Autumn’s Bounty

Leaves rustling beneath my feet, golden, russet, auburn. Crisp, dewy mornings, adorned with misty tendrils and spider’s webs. Hedgerows hung with bright berries, and woodlands dotted with fantastical fungi. Cosy nights in, whilst the night comes alive with Tawnys and foraging mammals. Lazily buzzing insects, murmurations, Red Kites soaring, waders and wildfowl, and endless wonder.

Autumn means different things to different people, but it is deep rooted in the natural world around us. A season of reflection and change, it is the favourite season of many. Some people celebrate turning a new leaf, some the drop in temperature and cosiness that comes with it, some the festivities, and others celebrate the little things, from migrating birds to reconnecting with nature. To all though, it is a bountiful season, marked with plentiful food and the first whispers of winter.

Historically, autumn is associated with harvest time and bringing in the food of the land before winter. From corn dolls to harvest festivals, autumn is symbolic in British tradition and culture. It has been inspiration for poets and writers alike including Keats (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’) and Jane Austen (‘the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn’). It is an important time of year to check in with the status of wildlife, whilst also being a time of spiritual significance for many.

As temperatures begin to drop and the leaves begin to change, it is time for us all to get out there, watch amazing sunrises and sunsets, forage for food, and stay connected with mother nature. With autumn being deep rooted in what lays outside our doors, here’s a guide to just some of the important species flourishing in autumn.

Autumn Species

Unless you are 100% sure of what something is and if it is edible, then do not eat it! Also, harvest only what you need and leave the rest for wildlife!

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

  • Fruit: The popular hazelnut, an edible nut that begins with a thick-green husk, before ripening to a brown in autumn
  • For Wildlife: A favourite food of Grey Squirrels, Dormice and Wood Mice, amongst other species, often being cached for winter
  • How to Identify: Circular-shaped leaves with toothed edges and tapering to a point; coppery brown smooth to peeling bark; lemon-yellow catkins and tiny red bud-like flowers in spring
  • Autumn Facts: Until the First World War, Holy Cross Day on the 14th September was traditionally a school holiday, where children would go nut gathering

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

  • Fruit: The familiar edible blackberry that begins green, then turns red, before ripening to purple-black in autumn. Blackberry picking is a favourite part of autumn for many!
  • For Wildlife: The berries are a valuable food source for mammals, such as badgers, and small birds, such as Blackcaps
  • How to Identify: Oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges and tapering to a point; prickly and half-evergreen stems; white or pink flowers from spring onwards
  • Autumn Facts: Folklore in Britain dictates that blackberries should not be picked after Old Michaelmas Day (11th October), as the Devil has by then made them unfit to eat

Recipe:

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

  • Fruit: Hawthorn berries, sometimes known as haws, are edible but their single seed is toxic to humans. They ripen to a bright red, is likened to over-ripe apples in taste, and are used to make jams, jellies and wines
  • For Wildlife: Important source of food during autumn and winter for small mammals and birds, including Blackbirds and Redwings
  • How to Identify: Shiny leaves that are oval-shaped with deeply cut lobes; thorny stems and twigs; white fragant flowers with 5 petals fading to pink
  • Autumn Facts: One of the main uses of Hawthorn is to treat high blood pressure, widening blood vessels and increasing blood flow 

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

  • Fruit: Produces edible, but tongue-numbing, sloes which are small blackish plums with a bluish powdery surface. Popular to flavour gin!
  • For Wildlife: A feast for birds in autumn and winter that help to disperse the plant’s seeds
  • How to identify: Oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges and tapering to a point; blackish, thorny stems and twigs; snow-white and 5-petalled flowers with red-tipped anthers in the centre
  • Autumn Facts: Sloes are rich in vitamin C and have been used to treat stomach disorders, blood purification, teeth whitening, and even gum problems

Recipe:

Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur)

  • Fruit: Produces the familiar acorn, with scaly cups and clusters carried on long stalks. Contain tannins that are toxic and bitter to humans, but can be leached out to make edible
  • For Wildlife: An important rich source of food for species such as Jays, Mice, Squirrels and Badgers, often being cached for winter
  • How to Identify: Large, oblong leaves, broader at the base and lobed, turning brown in autumn; massive rugged grey-brown trunk and broad crown; yellow-green catkins in spring
  • Autumn Facts: The most important texts in British history, such as the Magna Carta, were written in Oak gall ink

Apple (Malus domestica)

  • Fruit: Though not native to the UK, domestic Apple trees produce the popular apple which is now cultivated across the globe
  • For Wildlife: Apples are not just for humans, being a popular food source for wildlife too. Birds, such as Thrushes, and mammals, such as Badgers, feast on the fallen and ripening fruit
  • How to Identify: Dark green and typically oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges, and hair underneath; flowers are five-petalled and pink to white in colour
  • Autumn Facts: Most apples are still picked by hand and the world’s top apple producers are China, United States, Turkey, Poland and Italy

Recipe:

Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

  • Fruit: Berries known as hips, that are edible, egg-shaped and bright red. Popularly used for a wide range of food and drink
  • For Wildlife: The hips are eaten by fruit-eating birds, such as Fieldfare and Waxwings, and small mammals, such as Bank Voles
  • How to identify: Dark green and oval-shaped with toothed edges and tapering to a point; arching stems with broad-based strongly hooked prickles; flat and fragrant white or pale pink flowers with large petals and hairless stalks
  • Autumn Facts: It is a valuable medicinal plant, with the hips being made into a vitamin C rich syrup for children (20 times the amount that is in orange juice)

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

  • Fruit: Juicy edible purplish-black berries, known as elderberries, that are used to make a variety of wines, juices, jams and jellies
  • For Wildlife: The berries are eaten by both birds and small mammals, from Whitethroats to Dormice
  • How to identify: Long, dark green oval-shaped leaves with finely toothed edges and tapering to a point; strong smelling bark that is corky and fissured; white, small and fragrant flowers in flat-topped clusters
  • Autumn Facts: One of the most commonly used medicinal plants across the world, from Native Americans using it to treat infections to the Egyptians using it to improve their complexions and heal burns

Recipe:

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

  • Fruit: Spindle berries are toxic to humans, with a laxative effect. They are highly distinctive, with 4-lobes and being bright coral-pink
  • For Wildlife: Provide food for a variety of species including mice, birds and even Foxes
  • How to Identify: Shiny oval-shaped leaves with finely toothed edges and tapering to a point that turn distinctively pinkish-red in autumn; deep green 4-sided twigs darkening with age; greenish-white 4-petalled flowers in clusters
  • Autumn Facts: Spindle is at its best and most colourful during autumn with warm leaves and berries

How to… Identify Chalkland Wildflowers

Colourful, radiant, buzzing with life, a piece of paradise in the summer sunshine. All words to describe a small piece of chalk habitat nestled within the heart of my family’s farm in Dorset. Amidst a clay-dominated landscape, this small creation aims to emulate the approximately 41,000 hectares of lowland chalk grassland that can still be found across the UK. This super rich habitat contains over 40 species of flowering plants in every one square metre, giving chalk grassland its reputation as the tropical rainforest of Europe! Sadly though, 50% of chalk grassland has already been lost in Dorset alone since the 1950s.

In 2017, my Dad made the decision to transform a small triangular area of land on our farm into our very own chalk paradise. Though we do not live immediately on chalk downland, it can be found to the North and South of us. This makes our location ideal to create stopover habitat or a wildlife corridor, for the myriad of species that rely on these diverse plant communities. Following bringing in 40 tonnes of quarried chalk and lots of wildflower plugs and seeds, we now have a thriving 10m by 3m and 2m in height chalk mound.

Though my family’s chalk habitat is still in its relative infancy, over time it is transforming into a wildlife haven. From Grasshoppers and Marbled White Butterflies to blue Butterflies and Carder Bees, new species are popping up each and every year. This mini habitat has also been a great place for my mum to teach me all about the plant species that call chalkland grassland home. With her inspiration, I have put together a simple guide to identifying just some of the many wildflower species that are appearing on our mound.

Chalkland Wildflowers

Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare)Wild Marjoram

  • Family: Mint
  • Lifespan: Perennial (lives for several years)
  • Size: Short to medium height (30-60cm)
  • Stems: Erect, dark-red, downy and either round or square
  • Leaves: Oval, often slightly toothed, stalked, and 1.5-4.5cm in length
  • Flowers: Dark purple buds in loose clustered heads, opening to pale purple 6-8mm long flowers. Strongly aromatic. Flowers July-September
  • Range: Found throughout the UK (particularly in the South), but scarcer in Scotland
  • Fun Facts: This culinary herb is a symbol of happiness descended from Roman legend, with Origanum meaning ‘mountain joy’

Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)Kidney Vetch

  • Family: Legume
  • Lifespan: Annual (lives for one year) or perennial
  • Size: Sprawling and medium in height (up to 60cm), but very variable
  • Stems: Silkily hairy, round, and often greyish
  • Leaves: In pairs, they are silky white below and green above, and are 30-60mm in length
  • Flowers: Yellow, orange or a fiery red, and downy-white below. They are found in single heads (12-15mm across) or sometimes pairs. Flowers April-September
  • Range: Found throughout the UK, especially around the coast
  • Fun Facts: In the Middle Ages, it was known for speeding up wound healing, with vulneraria meaning ‘wound healer’. It was also once used to commonly treat kidney disorders

Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus) Wild Thyme

  • Family: Mint
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Low to the ground, forming a mat of non-flowering rooting stems (up to 10cm in height)
  • Stems: Square with erect flowering stems
  • Leaves: Evergreen, short stalked, very small oval 4-8mm leaves in opposite pairs
  • Flowers: Faintly aromatic with pink-purple flowers in round and dense heads. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Widespread in South East England, but scattered distribution elsewhere
  • Fun Facts: Long regarded as the favourite flower of fairies, and associated with love. The Greek thumon though means ‘that which is included in a sacrifice’

Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum)Lady's Bedstraw

  • Family: Madder/Bedstraw
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short to medium in height, often sprawling (up to 100cm)
  • Stems: Four-angled, almost hairless stems
  • Leaves: Dark green, long, narrow, shiny leaves in whorls of 8-12. Said to smell of new-mown hay
  • Flowers: Bright golden yellow, 2-4mm wide, in clusters, with a sweet honey-like scent. Only Bedstraw species in the UK with yellow flowers. Flowers June-September
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: Associated with the story of the Virgin Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, leading to the belief that a woman lying on a mattress of Lady’s Bedstraw would have a safe and easy childbirth

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)Viper's Bugloss

  • Family: Borage/Forget-Me-Not
  • Lifespan: Biennial (flowers in its second year before dying) or perennial
  • Size: Medium to tall in height (up to 100cm)
  • Stems: Roughly hairy and spotted (red-based bristles)
  • Leaves: Narrow, oval-shaped lower leaves
  • Flowers: Flowers in drooping clusters of pink buds that open to become erect, blue, trumpet-shaped, open-mouthed flowers, 10-20mm long, in branched spikes. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Scattered distribution across the UK, being most common in the South
  • Fun Facts: The plant’s name comes from a time when it was believed to be a cure for snake-bites, reinforced by the dead flower-heads resembling a viper’s head

Rough Hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus)Rough Hawkbit

  • Family: Daisy
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short to medium in height (up to 60cm)
  • Stems: Very hairy, unbranched, leafless, and slightly swollen at the top
  • Leaves: Form a rosette of bluntly lobed leaves at the base of the flowering stem
  • Flowers: Golden-yellow, though often orange or reddish beneath, solitary and 20-40mm wide. Forms seed heads that look like dandelion clocks. Flowers late May-October
  • Range: Widespread and fairly abundant across the UK, apart from in the far North
  • Fun Facts: In Greek, Leontodon means ‘Lion’s tooth’, referring to the toothed leaves. The flowers are also rich in nectar and smell sweetly of honey

Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa)Greater Knapweed

  • Family: Daisy
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Medium to tall in height (30-120cm)
  • Stems: Erect and grooved
  • Leaves: Lobed, where the lobes are positioned in pairs either side of the leaf centre. The leaves are 100-250mm long
  • Flowers: Purple, solitary and 30-60mm across. Flowers July-September
  • Range: Scattered across the UK, but predominantly grows in England
  • Fun Facts: Commonly used to treat wounds, bruises, sores and similar conditions

Common Bird’s-Foot-Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)Common Bird's Foot Trefoil

  • Family: Legume
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short or medium in height and sprawling (up to 50cm)
  • Stems: Solid not hollow, and trailing
  • Leaves: Greyish-green, downy or hairless, and oval-shaped tapering to a point
  • Flowers: Deep yellow or orange, often partly red, and 10-16mm long, often 2-7 per flower head. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: It has more than 70 common folk names including Eggs and Bacon. The name Bird’s-Foot-Trefoil reflects the resemblance to a bird’s foot, and is a larval food plant of Green Hairstreak and Dingy Skipper Butterflies

Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)Ox Eye Daisy

  • Family: Daisy
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Medium in height (20-75cm)
  • Stems: Round, angled or square, erect, and slightly hairy
  • Leaves: Long-stalked, dark green, spoon-shaped, toothed and in a rosette around the base of the flowering stem
  • Flowers:  White, 20-60mm across, solitary and on sparsely leafy stalks. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: In past times, an extract was obtained by boiling the plant down, that  was used in salves and medicines to cure a variety of ailments from liver disease to runny eyes. Largest native daisy species

Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)Common Toadflax

  • Family: Plantain
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short to medium in height (30-80cm)
  • Stems: Erect, grey-green, and hairless
  • Leaves: 30-80mm long, very narrow, untoothed, and spirally arranged up the stems
  • Flowers: 15-35mm long, yellow with an orange bulge and long straight spur, forming stalked spikes. Flowers June-October
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: Most common Toadflax species in the UK, getting its name from previously being considered as useless, fit only for toads

Meadow Crane’s-Bill (Geranium pratense)Meadow Cranesbill

  • Family: Geranium
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Medium to tall in height (30-100cm)
  • Stems: Hairy, erect, and often reddish
  • Leaves: Have 5-9 lobes, cut nearly to the base
  • Flowers: Soft violet blue, petals not notched, 15-30mm wide. Flowers June-September
  • Range: Found throughout the UK, but rarer in South West England and East Anglia
  • Fact: With lesser known names such as ‘Jingling Johnny’ or Loving Andrews, it is a horticultural favourite dating back to before the Elizabethan times

Black Medick (Medicago lupulina)Black Medick

  • Family: Legume
  • Lifespan: Annual or short-lived perennial
  • Size: Low in height (up to 60cm), and sprawling or erect
  • Stem: Round or square and hairy
  • Leaves: Trefoil, downy, and 5-20mm in length, with minute teeth
  • Flowers: Bright yellow and small, with 10-50 to one short-stalked rounded head (3-8mm wide). Flowers April-October
  • Range: Widespread across the UK, but sparser in Scotland
  • Facts: Name means ‘plant of the Medes’, referring to an ancient Middle Eastern people, whilst lupulina means ‘hop-like’, due to similarities with Hop Trefoil

 

Now get out there and see what you can find!

 

Drawings and photos all my own

How to… Be a Barn Owl Pellet Detective

Floating above the ground on silent wings. A white ghost standing out against the murky dark of dusk. Swooping to a stop on a standing post. Watching, waiting, listening for a rustle in the grass, before moving on. The reticent guardian of twilight – Original piece, September 2019

Though they can be found in a variety of habitats, the majestic Barn Owl (Tyto alba) traditionally conjures up the image of a ghostly shape floating through a farming landscape. Excitingly, they have now made their return to the farmland I call home, and we are lucky enough to have regular sightings of these birds. Previously, they have featured multiple times on this blog, with the last time being in my post ‘Barn Owls in the depths of Dorset’ from September last year. Now as part of my popular ‘How to…’ series, it is time for them to take centre stage once again, and for us to take a look at one of their more unusual sides.

Hunting on silent wings, the Barn Owl can be found at the top of the food chain, feeding mainly on rodents and shrews. Like most other birds, Barn Owls naturally produce pellets, thumb-length ovoid or sausage-shaped masses, that are regurgitated and ejected from the beak. It takes a Barn Owl about 6 to 8 hours to produce a pellet, with 1-2 being produced per day. As Barn Owls tend to swallow their prey whole, these pellets contain the parts of their diet that cannot be digested, such as bones, and are encased in softer material, such as fur. As pellets do not pass through the intestines like droppings, they are in fact odourless!

Pellets are one incredibly important source of information for the naturalist and scientist. They can tell us what a bird has eaten, how many different prey species and individuals have been caught, an individual’s hunting habits, and even information on its habitat. In this way, they allow us to play detective, giving us a really amazing insight into the world of the Barn Owl.

Dissecting Barn Owl pellets is an unusual but fascinating activity, in which you never know what you may find. Previously pellets have featured on my blog in a 2016 post called ‘Barmy about Barn Owls: Owl pellets’, where I took a brief look at the Barn Owls now living on my family’s farm and had a go at identifying the species that the Barn Owls had been eating. Now I want to pass on what I have previously learnt and help you to play detective too, dissecting and analysing your very own pellets. Read on to find out more!

Dissecting Barn Owl pellets

  1. To begin with, you will need to find some Barn Owl pellets. You can interestingly buy Barn Owl pellets online, but I think that it is more fun to go out and find your own. The best place to find pellets is either at a nesting or roosting site, such as a barn or old tree. The pellets are uniform in colour, black drying to grey, and are usually a couple of inches long. Fur and bones will also be noticeable within them.
  2. Once you have found yourself at least one Barn Owl pellet, it is up to you to decide if you soak them first before dissecting. I find soaking them makes them easier to tease apart and extract bones intact, but it makes the job a little messier too! If you choose to soak them, place them in a pot of water for half an hour to a couple of hours before dissection.
  3. Next, take a pellet and blot the excess water off its surface, before placing it on a hard surface, such as a tray. Now you can begin to tease the pellet apart using tweezers, taking care not to miss any bones. As you find one, carefully remove it from the pellet, and place it separate from the main mass. Do not be worried if you come across grubs in the pellets, as these are simply the larvae of Clothes Moths that feed on the softer material of the pellet, such as the fur. 13_06_20_Farm_Chalk_Barn_Owl_Pellet_Dissection_2
  4. Once you are sure that you have removed all the bones, carefully clean them using water with a bit of mild disinfectant,

Analysing Barn Owl pellets

Identifying types of bones

To begin with, take a look at all the bones from the pellet together. Some of the bones will be easily recognisable to you, like the skull or lower jaw, but others will look a little more odd. Once you have an idea of some of the bones, try to identify the more obscure with some help.

Here’s a general example of some bones, Vole to be precise, to give you an idea of where each bone may be found in the body. In different species though, such as shrews, be aware that the bones may vary in size, shape and detail to these.

Vole Bones

Identifying species

Now you have a good idea of the bones that can be found in your pellet, it is time to take a look at the skull and lower jaw bone halves in more detail.

You will tend to find 2 groups of species in Barn Owl pellets: the insectivores and rodents.

For an insectivore, all the teeth are small and pointed and are found in a continous row. This is because they feed on insects, and need teeth that are able to break up their prey’s tough chitinous bodies.

A rodent on the other hand has two main types of teeth – the gnawing teeth (incisors) and the cheek teeth. These are separated by a notable gap.

Insectivore vs Rodent

If you find the skull or jaw bones of an insectivore, it will most likely be that of a Shrew, or even possibly a Mole. You can work out if it is that of a Shrew by taking a look at the colour of the teeth, as they will have red tips. This is from iron found in the enamel that adds to their strength. There are then 3 British shrew species that you could find (Water, Common and Pygmy), which all vary in their jaw size and shape of the lower end tooth (the incisor).

Insectivore Jaws

If you find a rodent skull, then there are a few more choices. Take a look at the cheek teeth of the lower jaw bone and see if there are grooves on the sides of the teeth and if there is a zigzag pattern across their top surface. If so, then this is most likely one of 3 species of Vole.

For a Water Vole, the size of the lower jaw bone is a give away, with the species being the largest of the 3, otherwise you will need to extract one of the cheek teeth from the jaw. Bank Vole cheek teeth have a more rounded zig-zag pattern, with two small roots, and grooves that do not run all the way down the teeth. Field Voles on the other hand have a sharper zig-zag pattern, grooves running to the base of the teeth, and no roots at all.

Voles

If the rodent’s cheek teeth look more ordinary with cusps (knobs), then the lower jaw or skull belongs to a Rat or Mouse. A large lower jaw will belong to a Brown Rat, whereas a small jaw will belong to a Mouse.

If you have a skull for a Mouse, then you can also attempt to identify the exact species. First, extract the front cheek tooth of the skull and then take a look at the number of holes (sockets) left behind. Five sockets means Harvest Mouse, four means Wood or Long-Tailed Field Mouse, and three means House Mouse.

How did you get on?

For some extra help analysing the contents of the pellets, you can find some other great ID guides and matrices online. For example head over to either the RSPB or Barn Owl Trust websites for more information.

22_07_20_Farm_Gill_Hill_Stile

Important:

  • Make sure you always ask a landowner’s permission before entering private land, and be careful.
  • Do not disturb Barn Owls at their breeding site, as they are protected by law making it illegal to do so.
  • Always wash your hands after handling pellets or their contents, or consider wearing gloves.

How to… Help The Planet One Small Step At A Time

Currently there are approximately 7.8 billion people living on this planet, and so it is not surprising that humans have had a significant influence on the environment. For example, 1.76 planets a year are now needed to meet resource and waste absorption demands. Over time, this has heavily impacted our natural world, from massive deforestation and loss of species to large scale pollution and global warming.

Though it can feel like a losing battle, there is still time for us to try and make a difference. By making small and often easy changes within our own lives, then this could be the start to making a big difference on a larger scale. For this to work, to preserve our planet for future generations, we all need to do our bit now.

To help make this seem a little less daunting, I wanted to put together some examples of small things that I have changed in my own day-to-day life or I am now inspired to do. This could be thinking about where your food comes from, giving your old clothes new lives or even volunteering your time for the environment. It’s your life, your world and your choice, but reducing your footprint on this planet is important and a rewarding thing to do now moving forward.

This does not mean you need to do all the things I suggest, but why not see what you can do to do your bit! By making a positive change, you could reduce waste, save money and help the planet. So be active, think globally and act locally!

Food and Drink

Food and drink is an important part of all of our lives. Vital for our survival, it has a major influence on our society and more significantly, the environment. Therefore, your choices can make a real difference to our planet, which could include considering what you are eating and where your food actually comes from.

Food & Drink

Home

There are lots of small things you can change in your own home that can reduce your footprint. Often involving the reduction of energy and water usage, some changes will even save you some money in the long run.

Home

Travel

Getting from a to b is an essential part of many people’s lives in today’s world, so these choices can have a significant impact on the environment. By being smart with the choices you make each time you travel, in the long run it could add up to making a big difference, such as to pollution and resource usage.

Travel

Reduce, reuse and recycle

One of the easiest ways to try and help the planet is to reduce how much waste comes out of your own home. This could either be by disposing of items properly or more importantly by thinking before you buy.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

General Life

As well as making small changes in your own home and on the move, it is important to be aware of the environment in general. By being informed about what is going on in the world, by being active in what you do, and just by being connected, this can make the greatest difference of all

General Life

All photos and drawings are my own

How to… Make Your Own Bee Hotel

As the planet continues to experience the loss of plants and animals on an unprecedented scale, it is now increasingly important that we all try and do our bit for nature. Though it can be disheartening and tough to know what to do sometimes, making one small step could be a real start to making a difference. For example, one easy thing you could do, is to provide a home for wildlife, such as a wildflower area, pond, or even a bee hotel.

The increasingly popular bee hotel is a home that is made for solitary bees, which include Leafcutter and Mason bees, and are those that live on their own rather than in colonies, make up about 90% of UK bee species, and are very important pollinators. With the loss of 97% of wildflower meadows since the Second World War, along with other factors such as pesticides and intensive farming practices, solitary bees are now heavily under threat, with less suitable habitat currently available to them.

One way we can help, is to produce nesting sites in the form of bee hotels. These structures are made up of a frame filled with tubes mimicking the natural cavities solitary bees use to nest in, which are typically tunnels in dead wood or hard soil. From spring to summer, different species will build inside these tubes, lay their eggs, add a supply of nectar and pollen, and block up the entrance. The eggs will then hatch, feed, and pupate, before emerging the following spring.

Though spring is the best time to make and put up a bee hotel, you can make one anytime you wish. There are also no set rules on how to make or use a bee hotel, as they are a relatively new phenomenon and advice on them is changing all the time. For now though, here’s some guidance I can give to help you make your very own bee hotel. They can take some time to make, but are very rewarding, and are also a great activity to currently do as part of your 30 Days Wild challenge!

Cherry Blossom

How to make a bee hotelWooden Planks

Examples of considerations include:

  • Simple or aesthetically pleasing and complex design?
  • Vertical or horizontal?
  • Sloped or flat, overhanging roof?
  • For your garden or a small space e.g. a window sill?
  • Use only recycled and reclaimed resources?

Always think of the bees when making your decisions though!

What you need:

  • Offcuts of planks of untreated wood, about 1.5cm thick
  • Tape measure and pencilSaw
  • Saw
  • Hammer and nails
  • Sand paper
  • Tubes varying in size from about 2-12mm, with a length of at least 10mm, though ideally about 16mm. For example: bamboo canes, hollow plant stems such as sunflower stems, or bespoke bee tubes
  • Chunks of untreated hardwood or Hammerlogs
  • Drill
  • Bits to hang up the bee hotel e.g. T bracket, screws, screw driver, Rawlplug wall plugs

T Bracket

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step by step guide:

  1. Decide on your bee hotel design. Bear in mind, that smaller is better to be able to easily move the bee hotel around and to encourage bees to nest at lower densities
  2. Use a tape measure and pencil to mark out the pieces of wood you need; the most simple designs have 5 pieces. Then use a saw to cut your wood, and sand paper to sand down any rough or uneven edges

  3. Use a hammer and as many nails as you need, to create the frame of your bee hotel
  4. Cut your chosen tubes to the right length to fit into the frame of your bee hotel, and sand paper off any rough ends. By using several different sizes of tubes, you increase the chance of attracting a wider range of bee species, due to variation in their preference for nest tunnel size. You can also drill holes into chunks of untreated hardwood or logs to create some more variety in your bee hotel
  5. Carefully build up your frame with your tubes and drilled wood, until it is filled. I suggest lying your bee hotel on a tilted surface to make this easier to do

  6. Decide on a suitable location for your bee hotel. It is important to place it in full sunlight, for example facing south or south-east, at least 1 metre above the ground, and not covered by vegetation
  7. Hang your bee hotel up. For mine I used a t bracket, screws, screw driver, drill and rawlplug wall plugs to attach it to the south side of my house
  8. Then wait for the bees to come to you!

Tips

  • The smaller the bee hotel is, the more effective it will be!
  • Create an overhang to give the bee hotel tubes some better protection from the rain
  • Every autumn take down your bee hotel and store it in a cool and dry location, to reduce risks such as of fungal infections
  • For best results, clean the bee hotel out every year, including removing, cleaning and preparing any pupae for release the following year