The Greatest Outdoors

Category: Our Local Wildlife Page 1 of 2

The week it has been!

We have had some spectacular weather and enjoyed some memorable afternoons in Hillsbrough and the Quarries.

Here are some highlights. But before we go any further a big shout out to Laura Laffin to thank her for stepping on over the past two Tuesday with us!

Also our little band of Elementals at Hillsbrough grows!

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We have also experienced a really high demand for the Summer Scheme. Can’t wait to get it going!

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This week we practised our whittling skills by whittling little spears. Or litter pickers. Jonathan gave an impromptu Physics lesson and I told the Australian Aboriginal story The Flower Seekers.

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Here we are checking out a fungi on a log.

Because we now have art classes, weekly sessions, a summer scheme and birthday parties, we have a single booking form for you to register your interest. Fill it in and Jonathan will get back to you… or you CAN email Or call 07140411840.

The cycle of life

This week our regulars at the Quarries were given the lesson of the cycle of life when we found a dead buzzard which had become entangled in the brambles. We were able to talk about how everything returns to the Earth and how we all are part of the same cycle in a gentle way. After that we buried the bird – we gave it a star burial – where it lay beneath the skies.

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We used some of its feathers to decorate our walking sticks. Only a few feathers were taken, as you can see from the photograph.

Water for birds

A birdbath will transform your feeding station into a bird spa.

We continue our series on making our gardens great for wildlife.

Water is really important at this time of the year. You may think that because we live in a wet place there is lots of water for birds available, but of course it is also really cold – especially this year – and birds will find puddles frozen and they cannot drink seawater so anything you put out for them is a huge plus.

The best thing to put out is a birdbath. Here are the important characteristics of a birdbath. It is so simple you will have one up in not time at all.

  1. Shallow enough for birds to bathe in.
  2. Clean water – rainwater is best, but if not, you can fill it from the garden tap.
  3. Finally, not frozen. To defrost your birdbath, pour hot water into it every morning. DO NOT ON ANY ACCOUNT PUT IN ANTIFREEZE OR SALT. you can also float stick in the bath. This helps to keep the water moving and not get frozen, so they say. I just put the kettle on and do it as part of the morning ritual as I make coffee.

That’s it, sooooo easy.

You can use any contained or create a small pond using pond liner. My first birdbath was the old baby bath which was no longer used for the boys when they outgrew it. You can fill it with stones to decrease its depth. I also use old bowls, dishes, etc, as long as it is large enough for a bird to have a splash in.

Often people have birdbaths which are placed a little higher in a predator (cat) proof place, so the birds can have a peaceful bath.

Clean the bird bath regularly.

Enjoy watching your feathered friends enjoy themselves.

For our wildlife friends

This article was written by me, Stephanie Sim. I worked in the RSPB for ten years and have worked as a Steiner teacher for almost nine. Together with Jonathan McMurray we both have almost 20 years of educational and forest school experience between us. If you are interested in finding out more about the Forest School sessions we run for your child/ren, school, organisation or club, please contact us at

You can also book a session here.

Snow bunting, photo by Anthony McGeehan, painting by Stephanie Sim

It is a tough time of year for anyone. Our wildlife friends have found it more and more difficult over the passing years as fields are gleaned for every seen and hedge thrashers remove any sustenance from the edges. Urban gardens are increasingly oases for animals to survive over the winter as the very forests are also decimated to be replaced by coniferous plantations which don’t do any awful lot for biodiversity.

So you want to help… what can you do? Even if you have a very very small garden or no garden at all, here are some simple things which won’t cost you a lot of £££. Remember that once you start KEEP GOING. Don’t disappoint the animals who have come to rely on you.

  1. Leftovers:
🍎🍏 Thrushes love apples so leave some... - Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife  Trust - BBOWT | Facebook

Fruit which is about to go off or which has been sitting in your bowl for an overly long time is a good offering. Share apples, pears and berries. I’ve heard that birds are partial to watermelon as well!!!

You may cut them in half or just chuck them out. Thrushes are mad for them. You could have blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and song as well as mistle thrushes flocking to you garden.

Breadcrumbs and scraps of cake, etc are also good. If you have a birdtable so much the better. You can make one as a gift for a friend or as a gift for the wildlife in your garden. You could also just SET UP a birdtable. All you need is a tallish structure which is rat proof (think plastic), and a little flat surface. Take your bits of cheese and bread from your breakfast table and put them there. You can also buy bird food for birds which find it hard to hang off feeders like blackbirds and robins

The best way to clean bird feeders

2. Birdfeeders

This is the most ubiquitous image of wildlife care. If I have any advise to give you regarding beginner level bird feeding, it is the following:

a. A simple feeder is just as good as a fancy feeder. Birds have no idea what you paid for the feeder. Just get a simple one if you are starting off. You can get a peanut feeder and a seed feeder. The above is a seed feeder. A peanut feeder looks like this.

Buy Bird Lovers Peanut Feeder online from Living with Birds

b. The important thing about feeders is that you must keep them CLEAN. So a simple feeder is much better than a fancy feeder. Please resist the tempation to buy a fancy one until you have found your birdfeeding groove.

Wash them every two weeks with a bottle brush, just hot water and the brush. No need for soap, etc. If you don’t keep them clean they become ground for breeding the botulism bacteria especially in the summer. Birds that die from the botulism bacteria die slow painful deaths as their organs shut down. So wash your feeders. (Incidentally it is also the same bacteria which is used in botox. So, now you know.)

c. A bird table is a good idea if you want to feed birds that cannot cling to feeders – anything which isn’t a tit or finch. Robins can just about do this. But anything else, apart from the acrobatic jay and enterprising squirrel will be unable to use a feeder.

2. Feed

BirdFeed - Home | Facebook

And now the vexing question of feed. There is no two ways about it, if you are putting out 5 kg of feed a day the birds will eat 5 kg of feed, so don’t try and keep up with them or you will be very broke. There is a reason why sparrows were considered vermin (actually, criminally, they still are.)

Put out what you can but do it daily.

Here are some other top tips:

a. Do not, and I repeat NOT, buy birdfood with wheat it in. It a waste of time and money, unless you are planning to grow wheatfield in your garden. The birds will either poop it out or just throw it out. I spent many an amusing morning watching the tits chuck out the wheat grains and just take the other seeds. Also the rats wait under feeders for their wheatfeed.

b. Sunflower seeds, mealworms, etc are all good. All birds love this. You can also get them fatballs and bird ‘cake’.

c. Nyger seeds are the next level of birdfeeding. Only get this if you have goldfinches in your garden. They will need their own biredfeeder.

3. Where to set it up

For the best out of your birdfeeder do the following:-

a. Place your bird feeder at a convenient height so you can reach it to change it. Make sure your cat can’t get at it. So there should be good lines of sight for your birds. I have a cat btw, it has learned there is no point chasing the birds because they will be long gone by the time he gets there.

b. If you have a shrub like a buddleigh or a medium sized tree, this is quite good because the birds can skulk in the shrubbery until they feel safe enough.

c. Put the feeder near enough to a window so you can observe the birds. There are even feeders you can buy that ATTACH to windows. Watching them is the BEST THING EVER!!!!

d. Finally, be patient. It can take up to a week or more if birds don’t know about the feeder. It can take a while to establish itself. However, once it gets going they will be there everyday and if you don’t put food out they will come along and wait until you do!

Next installment: Water and birds

Nettles and Oak

Making beautiful things out of the wild.

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One of the skills we teach in Elements is resilience. Not just through being in the elements and outdoors, but also being able to be a part of the natural world and use what we have around us.

This week we focused on nettles, how they were great for wildlife, excellent as a tea – lots of Vit K and iron, a great blood purifier – and of course what we REALLY focused on, making nettle cords.

Twisting nettles to make cords and testing their tensile strength
It was a revelation how tough these fibres are
We completed our oak gall odyssey

We ended the session doing land management – cutting the dead branches of trees to let light in a give more access to everything. This was my favourite part – to know that they have contributed to making this tiny part of the world a better place.

Hedgerows and Soil

Our Third Session!

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This time we learned how to forage and make teas… and the vitamins found in our hedgerows

Our sessions are always filled with activities pertaining to the time of the year. This time we looked at the riches of the hedgerows and collected and made fruits and leaves to make hedgerow tea. These fruits are filled with Vit C and other minerals and trace elements. Collecting them at this time of the year to dry would have been something added to the medicine cabinet back at the house. It would have been beneficial for the long winter months to ensure that we were able to remedy a cough or cold.

Gathering hawthorns
Why soil is important

One of the elements is in fact, Earth and today we studied the magic of soil. A substance to which we owe our entire existence. Barely a few metres on the surface of the planet, it is a marriage of minerals and plants. It is what we depend on – the forests, our food, the animals – everything depends on the soil and today we looked at how we could look after it.

Checking the composition and PH of soil
What are the contents – what lives in soil?
Fungi, the secret network
Watching the soil settle out
Big thank you to Claire our lovely volunteer who helped out with the session.

Will we see for REALS dragons?

To book a forest school session go here.

Part of our mission is to do some serious Citizen Science – this consists of ordinary people taking part in data gathering or helping scientists do things like figure out complex and puzzling problems. This has been used for everything from doing wildlife surveys to spotting new black holes.

Tomorrow we will be counting the Frogs and hopefully spotting a Smooth Newt or two, in order to start a record of the wildlife on the site.

Smooth newt | The Wildlife Trusts
This is a smooth newt… I’m sure we can all agree it looks much like a dragon… but much smaller

However, we aren’t JUST doing Citizen Science. We are also doing habitat restoration. This will consist of pruning ivy off trees which are being strangled by the creepers. As lovely as ivy is, it is not great for the trees. So we will be out with pruning saws to give our beautiful trees a chance.

Pruning Invasive English Ivy From Tree Stock Photo - Download Image Now -  iStock
Pruning Ivy

And we will also be lighting a fire in the Main outdoor area and perhaps even giving it a name. It is all go for our first day. Yes it is fun to be outside, but it is also satisfying to be giving back. I do hope you will be able to join us.

To book a forest school session go here.

Every tree has a story

To book a Forest School session go here.

The Belvoir Oak is thought to be between 500 and 600 years old. It is almost certainly the oldest tree in N Ireland, possibly all of Ireland. It is a magnificent ruin but is still alive. I have watched this tree teeter on the brink of collapse and then, a few years ago, appear to start to come alive once again.

The Belvoir Oak has seen much. 500 years ago it was 1520. It was the height of the Renaissance in Western Europe. In Ireland, things were coming to a head. The Ming Dynasty in China saw an unprecedented period of exploration and culture. The first age of globalisation was well underway.

It was during this time the Belvoir Oak was a seedling. A youngster. Since then it has seen empires rise and fall, kings come and go, wars, society undergo unrecognisable transformations, and it is still here. To stand beside the Belvoir Oak is to feel its unfathomable presence.

This is the magic of being in the forest. This September, in addition to being with dragons, we will also be with trees. Whether we are at the Quarries or in Hillsbrough, we will be identifying three native Irish trees: the oak, the rowan and the willow. We will accompany the trees, learn about them, learn how to be with them and how to care for them.

Because our Forest School is also about learning how we are the warp and weft of the fabric of the cosmos and the guardians and caretakers of this wonderful planet.

To book a Forest School session go here.

Going native

Top 8 Native Irish Plants That You Really Should Know
This tree is going to be too large for an average sized suburban garden
Think about how large it needs to be before you go out and get an oak, chestnut, etc…

It may be too late to plant a wildflower meadow, but you can think about native plants. And you usually put them in late winter, so you can start planning for where you want to put your new friends.

We start with trees because they are the structural bit of the garden. It is like having a frame to then hang things one. Trees are that frame.

Shrubs/Hedges/Small Trees

Hazel (Corylus avellana) - British Trees - Woodland Trust

If you have a regular sized suburban garden whatever you do, do not put in a proper tree. Think beech (which isn’t native anyway but naturalised), oak, chestnut, etc. That is a tree. Do not put one in unless you are prepared to keep it in check.

Instead go with more modest plants like hazel, elder, rowan (the elements’ tree!), cherry, hawthorn, birch, etc.

Try and get a tree which bears fruit.

Shady Trees

Black Alder - The Grove 3D Trees

Trees which grow in the shade or in watery type habitats are alder, willow and blackthorn. I mention these because they aren’t too large.

These trees also produce leaf litter which are great for mulching and insects.

Fruit trees

You discover something new every year. So this year I discovered that my overripe fruit was being used by insects and when they fell on the ground, worms, etc would eat them. Having a native fruit tree is such a pleasure.

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Here is the cherry tree in my garden
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Here is the fruit it gave (some strawberries mixed in there!)

Where to put them?

  1. As far away from the house as possible. A tree’s roots grow as far as their crowns. So think about what your tree looks like and if it has a huge crown, it will have a massive root system. It makes sense right – except for beeches. I have seen innumerable numbers of beeches upended in storms because of very shallow root system. So be careful when choosing your tree – just stay away from very large trees.
  2. The smaller shrubs can be used to make an interesting hedge that bears lots of fruit. A fantastic planting to try is: dogrose, hawthrown, blackthorn, hazel and elder. The elder can get out of hand so make sure you keep it control at all times. This hedge will give you a lot of beautiful flowers through the year, smell amazing in the summer and give the birds and insects plenty to be happy about until the dog days of winter.
  3. Fruit trees like cherries and plums can be the centre pieces of a garden. Use them to ‘anchor’ plantings. you could have two fruit trees (no more) in a regular sized suburban garden, and then have a pond and some smaller plants amongst them. The fruits then can be shared between you and your wildlife.
  4. Remember trees give shade – so think about the amount of shade you can live with.

Where to get them from?

You can contact local garden centres to ask them about their native tree stock. You can also ask Conservation Volunteers, although I have heard that they tend to order their stock from abroad. But ask around. I got my trees from a garden centre and friends!

Good luck! Never too early to start planning for what trees/shrubs you are planning to put in over the winter!

Tomorrow: Tree Lore!

Lawns vs Wildflowers

Plants to consider

So now you should have figured out what your garden does through the year for sunshine and shade, AND you know the type of soil which you have. Unless you invest heavily in infrastructural changes, then you are going to have to work with what you have. This is yet another great thing about native plants. They already have this place sussed out!

Do not worry if you have only concrete – you can still have a garden that attracts wildlife. I’ll talk about that right at the end.

All Categories - Wildedges
A field of common wildflowers

Rethink the lawn

I really want you to rethink the lawn. The idea of the lawn came from the 18th century when people had too much money and time – made from usually very questionable sources (think sugar plantations in the Caribbean, just sayin’). The time for the lawn is now past. It is a green desert, a waste of space. It is also full of chemicals, sprayed on to keep plants which are good for bees, spiders, butterflies, away. WHY???!!! There is no reason apart from it is ‘tidy’.

If you do have a lawn, and cannot bear to let the entire thing go, then you could do it in small spaces and create ‘artistically wild’ spaces. So let it grow out in patches. You can now see this in the more enlightened councils where they let the grass verges grow out to host a plethora of grasses and wildflowers such as cuckoo’s flower and corn marigolds.

The flowers we have in them are so important for wildlife – dandelions and nettles are also edible for us and really good for us too (although if you are planning to do this, make sure your land has been free of chemicals for a few years.) But there is nothing lovelier than seeing the once barren and tired lawn now covered in clover, buttercups and daisies buzzing with bees.

Also, they are way easier to maintain. Just cut it two or three times during the growing season. Put a sign in your lawn saying it is an Ark.

Ark Wildlife Limited (@arkwildlife) | Twitter

Wildflower meadow

Bees & Butterflies Wildflower Seed Mix No Grass
Beautiful and costly but well worth it

If you really want to go the whole hog, then you could replant the laws as a wildflower meadow. Or you could do just the edges, or again in patches.

Before I get into this, you must know that the time for planting wildflower meadows is past. You need to do this either in late winter but I much prefer doing it in early spring. Around March. This is because I once planted it in the autumn and we had such a rotten spring that all the seeds rotted and we had next to nothing.

So, plant it around March/April. Nothing later.

Here is how you get a foolproof wildlife garden.

  1. Rotivate the soil. This is the hard part. You can dig it with kids as well. I have found that if you don’t do this, then you don’t get nice seeds. If you are a no dig philosophy, then wildflower gardens will have to come naturally for you.
  2. Get a good wildflower mix. Ecoseeds is a great place to go to. Make sure they send you native Irish mixes. They are expensive because they are tedious to collect, but Eco Seeds’ mixes are more or less foolproof. However, once you have put them in, you don’t mow the lawn for the entire season. Think about that. It pays for itself and it is so very very pretty. Whatever you do, do NOT buy them from those cheap discount stores. They are mostly sawdust.
  3. Make sure you have the right soil. Many wildflowers are for arable soil – that’s how they started anyway. If you have wet, clayey soil, it is not going to work. Much better you think about having a pond instead. how do you find out what kind of soil you have? Walk out into the garden on a dry day. If you socks start filling with water, you have clayey soil. Grass does badly in clayey soil anyway. You cannot get it to grow.
  4. Make sure you have loads of sunlight. You cannot plant a wildflower garden in a dark shady place. Opt for plants which thrive in the shade e.g. comfrey, borage and alkanet. I’ll talk more about these tomorrow.

How to put in a wildlife garden

  1. Between mid March and April, rotivate (till) the soil.
  2. Remove all the grass and weeds. The soil needs to be nice and clean. Yes, it is a real hassle, but if you have an army of children, or even one or two, they will enjoy doing this.
  3. Make sure the soil’s texture is nice and crumbly – you may need to sift the soil. Mulch it, etc.
  4. Scatter seeds. They will come with instructions about how much per sq metre. Then, using a straight rake (borrow one, or buy one, it is a worth while investment), gently rake the seeds into the soil. It should only go down like a little less than an inch. Do not rake them in too deeply… they will struggle to get out.
  5. Get a board out – like an old plank and place it on top of the soil and step over it. Or you could let the kids jump on the plank – they love this bit. This helps the seeds to bed in and stops them from flying away. Or eaten by birds.
  6. Water it. Keep it moist, but not soaking. Never let seeds dry out when they are growing. Once they are established, they are a little hardier.
  7. Now, you just WAIT. The first shoots should be out in two weeks time and in a month’s time you should see them come up about three inches or so. They will grow like the proverbial weeds over May and by June you should have some flowers.

If you want to mix out own mix of wildflower here are some you can get in a garden centre and DIY it yourself.

Cornflower, nastursium, sunflowers, calendula, poppies, foxgloves (these are poisonous, so be careful).


So I have to say something for the nettle. It gets so much of bad press but it is hands down one of the best plants to grow for the garden. You just need to keep it in check. You can also use the leaves for mulch. It is full of great good things for the garden. plants like the nettle bring up the nutrients in the soil to the surface where you can reuse them.

Plus all kinds of insects love them. If you have them growing in your garden, consider yourself lucky. Just create a good corner for them – they love the shade. Let them live there. Sure what were you going to do with it anyways?

Red Admirals, an endangered species of butterflies, loves them.

OK, that’s how to destablish a lawn, grow a wildflower meadow and become an advocate for nettles.

You can then do flower ID, and insect ID with the kids. Press flowers, make pictures, create presents using resin, etc…


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