The Orange Tip

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Tag: habitat

New Life in Dead Wood

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This is a picture of the stag beetle I found sitting on my desk two years ago. When I came in from the garden he was upside down, clawing the air with his hooked legs; an enormous insect there on my notebook. It was a bizarre occurrence, not least because of how scarce a sighting of one of these beetles has become; I actually jumped a little at the sight of it, wondering if it might even be a children’s toy.

The truth is that I should have expected to see one, sooner or later. Since I arrived at the garden I’ve been very deliberately leaving piles of stacked wood in tucked away corners in the hope of attracting the various creatures which favour such a habitat. A couple years on I’d already begun to see evidence of field mice, over-wintering hornets, solitary bees, toads, slow worms and even grass snakes. With Richmond park so close by too (with it’s contingent of largely woodland areas), stag beetles were always a possibility.

These impressive, majestic and slightly ridiculous-looking beetles depend fully on the existence of dead and decaying wood. Before the days when woodland floor clearance and tidying was deemed good practice (and more recently thrown out following the development of ecological study and the realisation of the detriment this management strategy had caused), stag beetles were a common sight in the UK. The beetles actually have a surprisingly long life, with only a short amount of it – a few weeks – spent in their completed beetle form. Development rom egg-hatch to winged insect can take between 4-6 years; nearly all of it therefore spent buried inside rotting wood or underground as larvae. This is why it is so crucial that any nesting site must be left completely undisturbed for such a long period. In a natural ecology of time gone by, fallen trees slowly decaying on the wood floor allowed for exactly this environment, and the beetles flourished.

Going back to the garden then – there’s a very small collection of two or three logs that I’ve left alone and surrounded by lawn for about four years. It’s a tiny wooden island in a sea of grass. Accidentally knocking one of the stumps over while mowing last week I was amazed to find that the inside had completely rotted away AND it contained three little stag beetle larvae. They appeared to be at differing stages of development (known as ‘instar’s), with the largest at least a year away from pupation. It’s such a good sign of the changing times therefore, that even a very small collection of wood left alone can potentially provide a home for growing stag beetles – small enough to be included in any garden no matter what the size.

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I few years ago I wrote a post on the provision of habitat in a garden here.

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An integral part of working in gardens is in the provision of habitat. It’s common courtesy, as a gardener, to look out for the greater ecology of creatures in their millions that work even harder than we do to maintain the borders, plants and soil. As simple a thing as a patch of un-mown grass or loosely stacked logs can form all the necessities with which a whole world can be created; a practice now familiarly advised in all our nature-related media. As gardeners, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly how far to take this advice, and how to balance gardening and conservation. Some may argue there is a line between the two, but if so, for me it’s a blurry one.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Pam Lewis of Sticky Wicket gardens giving a talk at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London. After hearing her describe, along with images of the various meadows and plants in her garden, the nature of her gardening approach, I realised something enormously important about my own ‘horticultural’ development. It seems that the more one strives to learn about the habits of the creatures and plants encountered while gardening, the deeper an irreversible connection is made with them. In just the same way as it is much harder to consume an ethically unsound product once it’s formation is learned, it becomes very difficult to knowingly sacrifice the needs of certain insects, birds or amphibians for the sake of a brighter flower or neater appearance.

In the case of Sticky Wicket, from what I understand, Pam is a (very good) example of the resulting extreme end; slowly shifting in favour of how best to serve the ecology of her landscape, rather than any pre-conceived aesthetics. It was clear in the way she spoke that such a shift only came about through a continued interest in the creatures she observed and stumbled upon while at work, a process that can be wonderfully  symbiotic with that of gardening itself.

Of course such a menial thing as leaving a few logs on the ground won’t dictate the mortality rate of a particular species of insect; they’ll make their own homes regardless. After an extensive study of the habitats found in our gardens, Ken Thompson writes of some interesting and conflicting results in his book, ‘No Nettles Required’. Often where measures were taken to provide areas in which certain creatures could theoretically flourish, very low numbers were sub-sequentially recorded.

Making conscious room for our wider garden ecologies may not therefore be a matter of life and death, but an awareness of their needs and importance is definitely a good, and ultimately mind-altering thing.  Pictured below are a few of the very basic gestures I have added (or left) in the garden here.