Wildlife Gardening and Photography for April

Wildlife Gardening and Photography for April

Hate insect puns? They always bug me.
(Expect more…)


Although the odd cold and crisp morning can linger in early April, Spring has well and truly sprung. The vibrant green of new growth on the Hawthorn bushes, and seeds emerging from a long Winter slumber are exciting signs of its return. For a wildlife gardener, this is where we, too, need to brush off the dust and get stuck in. And for a photographer, this is our chance to get out and document it all!

Where to start? Well, there are a few jobs and projects to get you underway and keep your wild neighbours busy. (No, not Doris at number 87!) First up, set up your very own bug hotel in a sunny patch of your garden. Next, you can tidy up some of the tree growth and start sowing some seeds, as well as dedicate an area to a compost heap, that will benefit you and the local wildlife. As the late, great Robin Williams once said Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’


How to make a bug hotel?

Now, we’ve all seen a bird box but what about a bug hotel? A bug hotel, bug box or maybe even a bug pub! Whatever you want to call it, these little insect havens have been creeping onto our garden centre shelves for a while now and while you could buy one, they’re easy enough to build at home. And, they’re perfect for encouraging a host of invertebrates into your garden which in turn, benefits other local wildlife.

Newer Bug Hotel 1

This is a great activity for the kids - to get them outside and involved in this special time of the gardening year. All you need to do is nail, screw or glue a wooden frame together (say, 8 by 8 inches), then pack lots of bamboo sticks inside. You can add a back, although this is optional. Make sure to cut all of the sticks to the same width as the box and stack them so they’re tight and don’t move. And, that’s it!

Old bug house


The name ‘bug hotel’ can be a bit misleading because pretty much anything small enough will call this a home - including spiders, flies or woodlice. But there’s one particular visitor most gardeners want to play host to and that’s the Solitary Bee. No, these aren’t bees that have simply left their hive. Unlike their honey-making cousins, solitary bees live alone and look for a readymade hole to set up shop (although in truth, they often nest close to one another). Where better than your brand new bug hotel, which has lots of cosy bee-friendly holes to choose from? You’ll see them buzzing in and out, and eventually, they will lay their eggs inside and plug the hole up with soil. These are non-aggressive insects and are one of the thousands of types of pollinators that are responsible for around a third of all the food we eat!

sealed bamboo bee


Out with the old, in with the new!

By April, many of the earlier spring bulbs will have stopped flowering and at this point, you need to go around with scissors and cut away any flowerless stems. I do this in my garden to stop any plant matter from dropping into the soil. This would add unwanted nutrients to my wildflower patch which prefers lower nutrient levels.

Cutting old bulbs


You can also use this time to collect seeds and dry them out for sowing later in the year. With the warming temperatures, many plants will start to go into overdrive and this is a good time to get on top of weeds. However, the word ‘weeds’ is somewhat distasteful as all plants have their value to nature. Daises, Dandelions and Nettles (to name a few) are fantastic for insects and other creatures. So, I tend to leave some in my garden but control the number so less-dominant plants have a chance to grow. And, never use pesticides. Do your best to pull them out by hand and add them to your compost heap. 

It’s also time to be thinking about what’s going to be coming next. While last month I suggested some using wildflower plugs, now is a good time to sow any wildflower seeds that don’t need a frost to germinate them (like Poppies, Cornflower and Oxeye Daisies).


Flower plugs


Whether you’ve bought the seeds or harvested them, it’s a good move to mix them with some sand to help spread them out so they don’t all clump together. This will also help you remember where you’ve sown them. Wildflower seeds need sunlight to germinate, so don’t be tempted to bury them in the soil too deeply. Crumbly soil is best, as you want the seeds to get into the nooks and crannies of the soil, where they can get plenty of warmth and fresh air. Patience is key - some plants may take a couple of years to flower but many will bloom in the first year like Corncockle, Scabious and Wild Carrot.


Get composting

Aside from the obvious source of compost for your plants, composting offers a multitude of benefits for a wild garden. Compost bins are readily available at pretty much any garden centre and come in many shapes and sizes. I have two in my garden. 

Covered compost


One is a closed compost bin that is most commonly used for kitchen waste like vegetable peelings, eggshells etc., but these can even be used to compost shredded paper and cut-up cardboard. While I’m a pretty ‘
live and let live' kind of person, I keep this ‘all-you-can-eat buffet’ closed to reduce the risk of rodents in the garden. I also have a dog who is quite partial to vegetables, so it’s a constant battle to keep her out of there! Finally, I have heard people ask ‘how to get rid of rats in my garden?’ - It’s simple. Don’t use this heap for meat, fish or dairy products as that will definitely attract rats; it will smell and there’ll be a risk of disease. Oh, and you’ll have to sort through it when using it in your garden.

My other one is a compost heap, and is open and used for garden waste like leaves, grass cuttings, sticks and unwanted plants. This will rot down on its own, and because this offers little food for rodents, it will attract a whole range of garden-friendly critters like frogs, slow worms and insects. Many creatures will hibernate here during winter and this means you reduce your waste going to landfills. Everyone’s a winner!

open compost


You could, of course, mix the two heaps depending on what room you have in your garden and what you want from the heap. And, in all honesty, I’ve never used mine for compost - it’s more of a way to get rid of waste and help the wildlife.

Pond Tank Shoot

I spend most of my time as an underwater and wildlife cameraman. And yet, based on my portfolio, it surprises people that I artificially create my scene in a tank. There are many reasons for this, but it’s mainly that a tank offers far more creative control and I don’t have to rely on our ‘ever-reliable’ British weather. (I also don’t have to spend thousands on an underwater camera kit.) The tank can be set up outside, but I prefer to have one set up in my shed, ready to go. 

Firstly, I’d suggest a glass tank - the thinner the glass the better to avoid lens distortions or aberrations. I then add any props like stones, sand, wood or plants into the tank, placing them as naturally as possibly. Then, I add the water. I avoid using tap water as it can be harmful to some species, so rain or pond water is best. Once full, I’ll pop a filter in and attach an LED light to the side of the tank. Once left to settle for a day or so, the water should be nice and clear. If I’m happy with how it looks, I’ll then go look for some species to put in. 

tank shoot


I have the luxury of my own garden pond. I’ll get my trusty pond dipping net and tray (my preferred tools), and just keep scooping until I find some interesting species to photograph. I like to photograph one species at a time but you could put more in if you wish. Make sure you do your research first though! It's important to keep some species separate as you may end up with a massacre with Dragonfly Larvae and Diving Beetles munching their tank mates.

For lighting, an LED light is my preferred method as I’m working in a darkroom (a.k.a. my shed). This helps me avoid reflections and see what I’m doing. I sometimes wear dark gloves and will attach a lens hood to stop the camera from showing up in the glass. You can also use a magical lens hood which is really handy for keeping outside reflections from appearing on the glass. But as a rule of thumb, the closer you are to the glass, the less of a problem reflections will be.

With the filter running, you can keep most species for a few days with no issues. During this time you can capture beautifully natural shots of anything that will comfortably fit in the tank - like tadpoles, newts (see below), or even fish - whatever calls your pond home.

Smooth Newt

Frogs and toads often get most of the attention for pond lovers but newts are a sign of a truly biodiverse pond. Build it, and they will… eventually make their way to your pond.

Male smooth newt


The most common type is the Smooth Newt - although depending on where in the country you live, you may also get a Palmate or even a Great Crested Newt - if you’re lucky. Smooth Newt males can be identified by their small crest, orange belly and spots on the flanks. Females are similar but lack the same colouration. The female newts lay their eggs singularly on plant leaves - Water Forget Me Not, Starwort and Curly Pond Weed make for an ideal egg-laying platform.


Crafty in nature, newts appear in ponds a little later than frogs and toads, and this is so they can fatten up on tadpoles. And, although people don’t like the idea of their beloved tadpoles being eaten, it’s nature. And, if all of the thousands of frogs survived, a lot of them would starve and die due to the lack of enough food in the pond. So, such is the circle of life, some being eaten in the pond is beneficial overall.

Bluebells

The image of a luscious Blueblue Wood is synonymous with Springtime. And you can easily create and enjoy your own little slice of this by planting some Bluebells in your garden. They look best en-masse, so don’t be shy in getting a few. They can also work well in borders, around trees or pots. 

Idle Bluebell


Make sure you get hold of the British Bluebell as some garden centres may sell the Spanish variety that hybridises with ours. If you are lucky enough to have a large patch of them, definitely try photographing from a high angle to showcase the numbers and make the most of the colour. But don’t stop there, whack on your macro lens and capture a low, tight angle to isolate the ground to make the blue/purple of the flowers really pop.


Muntjac

Finding Deer in your garden might be something you’d expect in the countryside, but increasingly they are popping up in urban areas. If you have seen something that’s around the size of a dog but looks like a deer, you have seen a Muntjac deer.

Muntjac in Thetford


These are small deer about the size of a spaniel and were first introduced into the UK in the 1800s. Male muntjacs have short, unbranched antlers that slope backwards, and a pair of long canine teeth. They have gingery-brown fur, a pale underside and darker stripes on the face. 

My village supposedly does get them, but I am yet to see one in my garden. Perhaps Doris at number 87 has…? Anyway, East Anglia is a stronghold for Muntjac, but they have been reported to have become established in the Midlands as well. Whether it’s a male with those striking stripes on its forehead or a female with a calf in tow, Muntjac deer make for very photogenic subjects. 

Conclusion

So, there you have it. Spring is a hustling, bustling time of the year when many species are breeding and are generally more active, so it’s a great opportunity to see and photograph, as Robin said, the ‘Party’.

For your plants, this is the time to plan on what you want to grow and flower later on in the year, and how you want your garden to look. And, if you have a pond, I do highly recommend the tank shoot. I may be biased, but it’s a fantastic way to glimpse a hidden world in your garden and capture some new and interesting images. So why not dive in!?

Jack Perks

Jack Perks is a freelance underwater and wildlife cameraman, based in Nottinghamshire. He has written two books on freshwater wildlife, and has worked for multiple wildlife and angling tv programmes, including Springwatch, The One Show, Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing and The Great British Year. He has also presented films for Countryfile. jackperksphotography.com