Here at Willowfield we are very fortunate to have a few acres of ground, and luckily we are able to manage the property as a mini nature reserve, for the benefit of our wildlife. We are delighted that, in addition to over 50 species of birds here, we now have a wealth of other wild animals such as hedgehogs, otters, foxes, grey squirrels and lots of little critters like bees, butterflies and bugs. We also have lots of fish and aquatic creatures in our river and ponds. Here are a few of our projects that help and encourage nature at Willowfield . . .
House Butterfly Garden
We planted out our new butterfly garden in 2020 with insect loving shrubs and trees, and have been developing it ever since. We added a compost heap, hedgehog house, feeding table (with orange slices etc), water bowls, and also during lockdown we made a bee hive style bug hotel. We are hoping the flowering shrubs will fill out and flower very soon and attract lots of vital insects, like bees, hoverflies, beetles, and butterflies of course.
Hedgehog House in the Butterfly Garden
Bee Hive Style Bug Hotel in the Butterfly Garden
Ponds, no matter how big or small, are fantastic for wildlife; whether to live in and around, breed in or to bathe in. And of course they provide a vital source of water to drink. This is especially important in Winter when other water sources may be frozen, as running water in a pond will not freeze. Creatures of all kinds seem to arrive from nowhere into a new pond (‘if you build it they will come’)! Our house pond teams with life now, from sticklebacks to water snails and in March it bubbles with spawning frogs that return year after year (this year we counted 23) and even if we don’t see them we certainly hear them ‘ribbetting’ in the evenings. Then, after a few days, when their job is finished, they disappear back to the land, leaving their tadpoles to continue the cycle!
Wildlife Pond at Willowfield Riverside Cabin
The wildlife pond at the cabin is much larger than the house pond, and was one of the first things we created when we came here in 2003. It didn’t take long to be colonised by all sorts of creatures, including small fish, delivered into it by the river when it flooded, usually once a year. Before lockdown we had local schools visit annually for pond dipping and we discovered a wealth of life, including dragonflies and damselflies and their fearsome larvae, sticklebacks, whirligig beetles, water snails, freshwater shrimp, great diving beetles, water boatmen, pond skaters, and even a water scorpion! The pond has two small islands in it, sometimes used by the wild ducks to nest and as a refuge from the foxes. It has lots of native wild plants with self-seeded willow and hazel shrubs surrounding it, providing cover, and has so much life in it and all around it, and has even attracted other species such as otters. The pond is also a favourite with some cabin guests’ dogs, and our own dog Tara, to swim in, when full enough.
Willowfield Entrance – ‘No Mow May’ runs into ‘No Mow June’!
Allowing the front side lawn to grow uncut through Spring and Summer allows a wonderful collection of wild plants and flowers to thrive and feed our insects and pollinators. From the early Dandelions (vital for emerging bees), to the Clover and Buttercups, Bugloss, Red Robin, Chickweed, Cat’s Ear, and Thistles that the Goldfinches will eventually feed from when they produce seed. As well as providing vital plants for our wildlife it looks much more beautiful and interesting than just plain green mown grass.
Native hedges are wonderful, they provide cover, homes and food for wildlife. When we bought this property there was a mature native hedge along the boundary down to the river. We built what is now Willowfield Riverside Cabin at the river bend and made a gravel path to it, along the hedge. It is a mix of Hawthorn , Holly, Blackthorn and Elder with wild Roses and Honeysuckle winding through it and Hazel trees at the cabin. It is a glorious sight all year round and provides so much for our wildlife. We soon added a Hawthorn hedge along the opposite boundary where there was only a wire fence and, now established (and protected from our naughty goats) it is busy with wildlife and bristling with Hedge Sparrows.
Bird Feeders at the House
Willowfield has several bird feeding areas. We have feeding stations, single feeders and tables, that attract numerous species and we are so thrilled to have recorded over 50 species of birds here to date. We set a new Willowfield record in January 2021 for The Big Garden Birdwatch count at our front house feeders. We had 72 birds over one hour; 11 Chaffinches, 8 Rooks, 8 House Sparrows, 7 Goldfinches, 6 Jackdaws, 6 Starlings, 5 Tree Sparrows, 3 Collared Doves, 3 Great Tits, 3 Blue Tits, 3 Greenfinches, 2 Blackbirds, 2 Long-tailed Tits, and one Dunnock, Robin, Woodpigeon, Coal Tit and Magpie. So chuffed! We feed the birds all year round here and are rewarded with the glorious sights and sounds of our feathered friends, and in the spring, we see their fledglings too!
We have always had nest boxes at the house and have been increasing their number over the years so we have a total of six now. They are used in spring of course for nesting, but are also used at other times of the year as shelter for roosting in colder weather. In June 2021 at least five were occupied when these pictures were taken, we’re uncertain about the log style nest box, but the chirping of chicks could be heard from all the others. And some are used for several broods in a season; no wonder we have a healthy population of Hedge Sparrows here now.
Willowfield Wildlife Aviary
When we added a new shed in the garden in 2021, in the place of an old dog run, we moved it to the hedge along the lane to the cabin and transformed it into Willowfield Wildlife Aviary. We painted it up, cut some larger holes in the mesh for larger birds and added branches and bird feeders inside. It provides a space for the smaller birds to feed, safely out of reach from the local cats and Sparrowhawks. Of course, it too is shared by the squirrels and other small wildlife.
Copse at Willowfield Riverside Cabin
When we came here, as well as digging out the wildlife pond at the cabin, we planted a small copse beside it, consisting around five hundred bare root native trees, including Hazel, Birch and Rowan. Of course, not every tree survived, as the area has been flooded several times, but it has developed into a nice wild area. It is largely untouched, and some fallen trees are left so they can rot down, providing essential cover, food and habitat for many species of insect, which in turn provide food for our birds and other animals.
Flower Garden at Willowfield Riverside Cabin
The flower garden, so named as it is in the shape of a flower, was created as a grassed area, kept relatively short, for cabin guests to sit or have a picnic. It was edged with Hornbeam plants and in 2021 we added three apple trees which, as well as being beautiful, will provide blossom for our pollinators as well as apples for our guests to pick and eat (maybe not the crab apples though!).
We planted out a small orchard beside the goat paddock a few years ago, with apple, pear, plum, cherry, even medlar and mulberry trees. Unfortunately our efforts to protect the trees from our goats (particularly Scooby Doo!) failed miserably. In 2021 however, we have taken extra measures and hope to replace the valuable trees in the years to come. They will feed our wildlife; insects love them, our Jays and Bullfinches will eat the buds, and of course, the fruit produced will provide food for all, including us. They are also very beautiful, they will be flushed pink with blossom in the spring, then lush green with leaves in summer and produce reds and golds from autumn into winter – glorious!
Not very glamourous admittedly, but compost heaps are very important. They are home to many little creatures which in turn feed our birds and mammals. They prevent our waste from ending up in landfill sites and rubbish tips. And they also provide wonderful compost for our gardens. We are lucky enough to have room for four here; one in the Butterfly Garden by the hedgehog house, two in the Herb Garden and one at The Barn at Willowfield.
The herb garden was originally planted as a vegetable garden, but eventually the herbs took over and now mostly the chives and native plants (some call them weeds) have taken over. It has two compost heaps, incidentally they provided all the compost for the patio garden we planted out in 2018. It also houses the chicken coop for our rescue hen Chocolate, and for our goose Bella Betsy a sunken corner bath serves as her very own swimming pool!
In 2021 we undertook the rather large project of creating a wildflower meadow at Willowfield Riverside Cabin. The area designated was around half an acre, so it took a lot of work and resources, and we really hope it will all be worthwhile. When it develops it will be an important source of food for our insects, as well as being a gorgeous sight for us and our cabin guests.