Wildlife on our Doorstep

One of our members, Jenny Westmoreland, has written a wonderful article about nature in Stoneygate.

The idea of “home” is very important to us human beings and most SCAS members will probably, at one time or another, have found themselves thinking that Stoneygate is a pretty good place to call “home”.

What is it we like about it? Well, there are the buildings, of course; representing nearly two hundred years of architectural design and development. But I’d guess that almost everyone, and particularly those of us lucky enough to have largish gardens, would also mention Stoneygate’s green spaces and the wildlife they support.

The parts of our conservation area that have deliberately been left undeveloped are also home to a diverse range of creatures and other living things. Knowing that we co-exist with them gives us pleasure and some even become our friends.

One of my first conversations with the new people moving in next door went thus: “How do you like the area?” “Well, we’ve certainly noticed the wildlife; it’s amazing!” It was then that I realised I take the creatures that visit our gardens as part of my everyday life.

I have come to expect the ravages of the fox cubs that romp around in the shrubs (though I was annoyed when they chewed up my gardening shoes), I have long since stopped minding that the squirrels raid the bird table and dig holes in the lawn. I live in hope that one day a hedgehog family will return and I fill the hanging bird feeders daily and do my BTO birdcount religiously.

Although I myself live close to but outside the conservation area, I have been asking members what wildlife they notice. Mostly what is seen on a regular basis is unsurprising, and yet most people are pleased that it’s around. Squirrels, foxes, birds and frogs are commonplace but there are some creatures that we might not expect to see. I didn’t believe the professional naturalist who told me that a fox was unlikely to eat a hedgehog, but that a badger would.

That week, on successive days I had found several sets of empty prickles on my lawn, and was mourning the hedgehog family. Then early this summer across the road from my house on the grass verge we found a dead badger. I obviously have mixed feelings about badgers, considering the fate of the hedgehogs, but nevertheless they are about. I don’t know how many members have a resident hedgehog but those of you who do – cherish it!

Stoneygate certainly supports some interesting birdlife. Members can list around two dozen different birds that are regular garden visitors. The usual suspects include blue tits, great tits, coal tits, long-tailed tits, chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches, bullfinches, dunnocks, robins and wrens.

Among the rarer ones are redpolls and blackcaps, and –a real one off- an eastern rosella (an Australian species)-attracted by prunus blossom last spring. Among larger birds are collared doves, blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares, redwings, tawny owls and woodpeckers (all welcome), also starlings, herons, crows, magpies, pigeons and sparrow hawks (less welcome). I was also amazed to see a largish raptor wheeling overhead recently.

A local bird expert thought it might be a buzzard. There are some successes – large flocks of goldfinches and growing numbers of bullfinches (still positioned at 25.9 in the BTO reporting rate for garden birds)–and some worries, such as the dwindling numbers of greenfinches and chaffinches due to trichomonosis. Sparrowhawks (27 on the list) seem to be on the increase, and tawny owls, a mostly dwindling species elsewhere (35.1) can be heard all over the area.

I’m sorry to report that the common sparrow is now rarely to be heard doing its communal chuntering. As I move about I hear fewer and fewer. This is a bit surprising because in a conservation area, while the hedges and bushes favoured by sparrows are not themselves protected, permission is often required to replace them with walls and fences and replacing front hedges and gardens with block paving to provide car standing always requires planning permission. Still- I try not to spray anything in the garden, hoping to encourage the insect life that sparrows need.

My own little flock of around fifteen left within a week or two of a neighbour felling several small and ancient conifers which were their staging post (a direct consequence of living outside the conservation area where treework requires no planning permission). Sometimes, especially if I put out bread scraps, one or two will appear. Then they vanish again for months.

On the subject of insects: we are told that there is a shortage of bees but, as far as I can see, they are still foraging in large numbers in Stoneygate’s flowerbeds . The number of butterflies this year seems lower than usual, though. The variety has dwindled, too, but I hope one day to see another silver-washed fritillary in a local garden, like the one that astonished me two summers ago.

I do like beetles when they appear and I try to identify them. I’m quite proud to have found another lesser stag beetle this year- I wonder if the larger one will appear some day. There are others I’m not so pleased about such as the bright scarlet voracious lily beetle and the harlequin ladybird which scoffs our native species. These monsters are everywhere in Leicester, I’m afraid, including our patch.

Stories of local wildlife in its many forms are often stories of small, personal triumphs. It would be interesting to record a few of these, if members are willing to share them. Conservation isn’t, after all, just about architecture!