One day Simon sent me a photo of a curious discovery he had made at a landfill site where he works. Side by side amongst the leaves were a smooth-skinned common frog and a darker warty-skinned common toad. These two amphibian companions seemed to be happy sitting side by side despite being of different species. They’re both amphibians so, although they live on land, they still require water or a moist environment. This is definitely the case during breeding season when they produce spawn in water. As youngsters, they lived in water as tadpoles.
Outside the breeding season, both frogs and toads are solitary creatures so it would be unusual to see two frogs together, let alone a frog and a toad. Frogs prefer wet or damp habitats (your garden may have a resident frog if you have a pond) while toads generally like drier land such as hedgerows, woodland, gardens, and grassland.
Other differences are in the way they move, frogs have longer legs and hop while toads slowly walk or crawl. The frog has smooth skin while the toad has dry, warty skin. This type of skin has an advantage for the toad. While the frog’s long legs means it can hop away from danger, the toad’s bumbling movement could make it more of a target. How can it protect itself? By making itself unpalatable… and threatening.
According to the Woodland Trust: “The common toad has foul tasting skin to put predators off eating them. They also puff up when threatened.”
So be warned!
Marianne Taylor’s The Nature Book describes the differences as:
The common frog has ‘smooth skin, usually a distinctive dark bandit mask and a bouncy demeanour’. The common toad is a ‘slower, more bumbling creature, with a blunter nose, warty skin and more inclined to stand up tall and hiss at you when threatened’.
It’s very pleasing to see that my budding camellia a couple of weeks ago has blossomed into the above beautiful flower. It was a housewarming present and I’ve had it since 2012 – it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary this year! For the first few years, it did not flower but its glossy dark green leaves indicated that it was healthy. Then a couple of years ago, it presented its first flower and has never looked back. A lovely splash of colour at the bottom of my garden.
At the start of this year I wanted to get fit (or at least fitter). I also wanted to be more proactive in looking after nature and the environment. So why not combine the two and start litter-picking walks?
This morning I went on my first, only a 10-minute one to start off. I left my house complete with litter-picking gloves, a litter-picker and a reusable carrier bag. (I’d bought the gloves and litter-picker last year when I felt inspired – and then promptly forgot about them until very recently). There are those who take big black bin bags with them and are much more productive but this was my first attempt.
I actually would like to say that I came home with an empty bag with no litter to be seen, but alas, barely a couple of minutes away in a wooded spot, there was a remnant of a child’s toy (too heavy for me to carry in my bag), a blue disposable face mask (I was too squeamish to pick it up even with gloves and litter-picker), a ‘World’s Best Grandad’ badge (that went into the bag) and various drink cans and bottles. The cans and bottles were the most numerous.
This was all in one spot. I have no idea why anyone would throw litter on the ground but I can certainly see why people go litter-picking. It helps you get fit, keeps places – city or country – clean and tidy and it felt productive too.
Litter-picking can be done by individuals or by groups and there may be organised local litter-picks that people can join (something I might look into). Safety should also be thought of too. I’ll use my litter pick and gloves but there are some items I will avoid picking up. In fact Keep Britain Tidy says litter pickers should leave clinical waste such as needles/syringes, instead advising people to make a note of their location and inform the local council. But leaving the potentially hazardous material behind, there are still plenty of other crisp packets and plastic bottles, drink cans and sweet wrappers to pick up.
One Saturday in January I embarked on a wintry morning ramble along the River Idle in Nottinghamshire with Simon. We parked on Chainbridge Lane and headed towards the river. On the map it’s called the ‘Riverside Discovery’ walk and I thought this was all part of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s Idle Valley Nature Reserve at first. It was a sunny, cold day with frost on the ground. Instead of making the ground slippy, it actually made the walk more pleasant as it meant the path was less muddy. As time passed, this frost melted and the ground became muddier.
A couple passing by mentioned a large gathering of siskins further up, adding: “You’ll hear them before you see them”. In the meantime we came across a clearing where many trees – conifers I guess? – had been felled. This was part of the nature reserve so I presume the plan is to plant native trees instead.
We also came across a swan family of varying ages swimming in the river.
I had forgotten about the siskins by the time we heard their calls coming from the trees. The siskins could be seen perched on the branches but the sun blocked out their vivid yellow colour and we saw them as silhouettes instead.
It was quiet on our walk with only a few walkers and dogs but as we entered the Idle Valley Nature Reserve – 450 hectares of lakes, wetland, scrub and grassland – we encountered increasing numbers of people. This particular reserve, run by Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, is both a Local Wildlife Site (LWS) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s largest reserve and one of the largest sites for nature conservation in the East Midlands.
We reached the visitor centre where Simon had a warming bowl of soup and I enjoyed a filling jacket potato. Our table had a very pleasant view of Belmoor Lake. The visitor centre has a shop, toilets and cafe. It is also called a Rural Learning Centre and looks like it’s connected to North Notts College. I also noticed a sign for Muddy Fork – Social and Therapeutic Horticulture. I believe that nature, whether it’s in the form of gardening, walks or voluntary work, can do wonders for our wellbeing. It’s good to know that there are programmes like this out there.
A Willow Tunnel and boardwalk took us back into the reserve, passing a natural playground on the left and Belmoor Lake on the right. Bug arch sculptures were dotted along the path.
We later saw a flock of lapwings flying overhead and goldeneye on the lake.
It was only afterwards when I was reading up about the reserve that I discovered that beavers have been reintroduced here, after an absence of more than 400 years. I also found that Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust offers regular beaver enclosure tours. It would be wonderful to see a beaver!
According to the Wildlife Trust website: “A pair and a family with four kits have been released into an enclosed section of Idle Valley Nature Reserve. We have created one of the largest beaver enclosures in the UK and in November 2021 released eight beavers, including four kits (baby beavers), to this area securely separated from the River Idle and closely monitored.”
The nature reserve was once gravel pits and was known as Sutton & Lound Gravel Pits, which was incorporated with Hallcroft & Bellmoor Pits near Retford. The whole site was bought by Notts Wildlife Trust.
Although there is still greenery in my garden, it lacks colour (except for my vibrant sun-yellow mahonia) at this time of year. But I have noticed a few early signs of spring. My perennial lungwort has started to flower, as it does about this time every year. I have found the plant to be as popular with bees as humans.
My primroses can also always be relied upon to provide a splash of colour at this time of year.
This time of year (start of February) is a turning point in the Celtic calendar with its festival Imbolc marking the beginning of spring, halfway between the winter equinox and the spring equinox. Looks like my garden agrees and I look forward to seeing more glimpses of spring awakening from my currently sleeping perennials over the next few weeks.
The plant got its common name because its leaves are shaped like lungs, and lungwort was indeed once used medicinally to treat lung ailments.
One of the ways we can fight against climate change is to join, support or donate to an environmental charity. Eco-charities may focus on creating and maintaining habitat for wildlife, caring for injured animals, campaigning for better awareness of climate change or an improvement in laws against pollution… There’s a myriad of ways that nature can be helped by the organisations out there, and it’s just as well as wildlife needs all the help it can get.
Personally, I’m a member of The Woodland Trust and the RSPB, two of the largest nature organisations in Britain.
The RSPB has a long history, stretching back to 1889, when it was created by Emily Williamson. It was originally called the Society for the Protection of Birds and its aim was to fight against the Victorian fashion for exotic feathers and plumes; a fashion that meant birds, such as great crested grebes, were heading towards extinction. The society gained popularity and was awarded a Royal Charter in 1904 (so now it was the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and its first big success was celebrated in 1921 when the 1921 Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed. The RSPB’s come a long way since then. It bought its first nature reserve in 1947 (Minsmere) and now manages more than 200 nature reserves across the UK. Leighton Moss, near Morecambe, is the one nearest me and I’ve had several good experiences there.
If you live in the UK, maybe you’ve heard about Big Garden Birdwatch? Well, that annual garden bird count is run by the RSPB and although it may be seen as simple good fun for the family, it also helps the RSPB see how Britain’s birds are faring. One million people took part in 2021 – the largest number ever.
Increasingly, the RSPB has changed its focus from solely birds to birds and other wildlife species. It also looks at the global picture. The RSPB is part of BirdLife International, a network of organisations working together to save nature around the world.
I joined the RSPB nearly 20 years ago because I got a free bird feeder (not quite the most profound reason to join a wildlife charity but that feeder did help the birds!) The bird feeder may have been replaced since then but I still enjoy reading the magazine, which has become brighter and more picture-led over the years. has helped me gain some knowledge of these creatures, and also other wildlife.
The Woodland Trust
I’ve mentioned The Woodland Trust before in a few posts as they manage various woodlands near me (that’s how I found out about them in the first place) and it’s the second nature charity I am a member of. While world leaders pontificate to the world while flying by private jet to a conference about climate change, organisations such as The Woodland Trust actually do the work. They plant trees, maintain woodlands and protect vital wildlife habitat from developers. The Trust was started more recently than the RSPB, back in 1972, and is the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity. They maintain more than 1,000 woodlands, campaign to stop destruction of ancient woodland, restore damaged woods and create new woodland. Only 13 per cent of the UK is covered by woodland compared to the EU average of 37 per cent. I think nature lovers in Britain would agree that this is definitely an area we need to improve on.
Over the years, I have been an on and off member with The Wildlife Trust.
The Wildlife Trust is made up of 46 local Wildlife Trusts, which, altogether, look after 2,300 nature reserves, campaign for laws and policies that help wildlife on land and at sea, carry out research, running targeted conservation programmes to help save water voles etc. My local one, Lancashire Wildlife Trust, looks after 50 sites, around 1,288 hectares of habitat in total. At this time I’m not a member but will rejoin at a later date.
These are just three of the largest nature charities in Britain, but there are many, many more. There are small ones, maybe focusing on a local nature reserve, such as Grimsargh Wetlands Trust, in Lancashire. There are specialised ones focusing on a particular species such as Butterfly Conservation. I feel I may need to revisit this topic later on as there are so many people out there helping wildlife in various ways and it really does give me hope.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is on this weekend in Britain and nature lovers are being invited to watch our feathered friends for an hour, count the numbers of each species and then tell the RSPB our results. The bird watch can be in your garden, but if you don’t have one, the local park or other green space will suffice. I’m not a big ‘twitcher’ but I do like watching birds going about their business.
I have a regular robin visitor who seems to follow me around, looking for mealworms and sunflower seeds. Recently I have even seen two robins in my garden. Robins are not great fans of robins so I assume they are a pair or maybe relatives – a mother and daughter or father and son, perhaps?
Last weekend I enjoyed a close-up view of a bullfinch eating seeds in Simon’s Lincolnshire garden. I hadn’t realised how colourful bullfinches were. The below photo wasn’t taken by me but it illustrates how vivid Simon’s visitor was in its colouring.
And if you want to attract birds to your garden, here’s an idea for a recycled bird feeder…
First, we need an empty plastic milk bottle, two branches, an empty tray – in this case it’s a plastic one, two pieces of twine or string, a scoring tool and a pen knife.
Score or cut four holes into the milk bottle and slide in the branches – this is for wild birds to stand on while feeding. Cut two holes near the top and slide the twine in as seen below. This is to hang up the bottle in your garden. Cut holes above the branches as an opening so the birds can access and eat the seeds.
Then fill the bottle with bird seed. The seed will scatter onto the tray rather than the ground, providing less opportunity for rats. Once the feeder is finished, the same thing can be done again meaning it will be more hygienic, especially when there are cases of bird flu in the area.
Looking at the size and shape of a bird’s bill provides a good clue to its diet. Starlings, blackbirds and gulls have ‘general purpose’ bills that enable them to take advantage of a wide variety of foods.
When I moved into my house 10 years ago (I can’t believe it was that long ago!), my garden was very sparsely planted indeed. A bamboo on the left (which Simon very kindly volunteered to take it out, a difficult task), a laburnum further down, a rhododendron on the right…
The bamboo and rhododendron may be long gone but the bold and dramatic mahonia – a spiky looking shrub with large dark green leaves, displaying yellow flowers in winter and blue-black berries to follow in spring – is still here and I hope for a long time yet. I believe it is a mahonia japonica as it’s about 7ft in height and doesn’t look like it will grow much more. When I was reading about this particular species, it was described as a very hardy shrub (just right for me) and will grow well in most soil types including heavy clay. Heavy clay? I have plenty of that in my garden!
When I learnt about the benefits of the mahonia to me (as well as being a striking plant, it provides plenty of colour in winter) and to wildlife (offering berries, flowers and shelter), I was pleased that this complementary gift came with the house. I noted my parents liked it too, so one Christmas a few years ago I bought them one. It’s not as big as mine yet but it’s growing healthy and strong.
The genus name, Mahonia, derives from Bernard McMahon, one of the stewards of the plant collections from the Lewis and Clark expedition (USA expedition from August 31, 1803, to September 25, 1806, to cross the newly acquired western portion of the country)
Here are five facts about this dramatic looking tree:
It’s also known as the Oregon Grape and comes from the Berberidaceae family.
It’s an evergreen, upright shrub.
There are around 70 species of Mahonia. The charity variety can grow to 10ft while the Mahonia aquifolium only grows to 100-200cm tall (3-6ft).
As well as being a striking, colourful beauty in the garden, it’s a productive shrub. Its flowers provides nectar to bees; its berries can be eaten by birds; and its evergreen leaves can shelter birds, especially in winter.
I walked to a local nature reserve recently and decided to have lunch at its cafe. Until very recently it had just been serving takeaways (because of Covid and the restrictions) but now we could sit inside to eat. I ordered a large cup of tea and was directed to a basket containing tiny plastic cartons of milk.
I’ve seen these containers before, usually for takeaway drinks which makes sense. They’re handy and easily portable after all. But surely when sitting indoors an individual reusable, rewashable milk jug would be more eco-friendly, especially at a nature reserve?
Over the years there has been an increase in plastic use. Sometimes there is no alternative (PPE for health workers) but, too often, it is used as a lazy option that is not really needed. Too often I see fruit and vegetables – even bananas! – in supermarkets in plastic bags. Why not have them loose and consumers could pick them up and put them in paper bags? I see tea bags in cardboard boxes which are, in turn, wrapped in plastic.
I don’t doubt that plastic has its place, it’s an incredibly useful material, but I think it’s overused. Maybe the decision-makers think it makes the products fresher or more hygienic, but at what cost to nature? What cost to ourselves?
Plastic pollution is a massive environmental problem. A lot of plastic ends up in our oceans. Sea creatures such as dolphins, turtles and birds can become injured or entangled by plastic. Or they might mistake it for food – obviously this can have tragic circumstances. Unfortunately these chunks of litter don’t just break down and disappear. When plastic does start breaking down, they end up as microplastics and, as Greenpeace says, “impossible to filter from waste water, they end up in our oceans.” These microscopic pieces of plastic end up in our food chain so we too can become unwitting victims of this pollution.
These miniscule particles are swallowed by tiny creatures such as zooplankton which end up getting eaten by larger animals such as whales. And guess who eats the fish in the oceans – which may also have digested microplastics at some point? That’s right, we humans. It can’t be good for wildlife. It can’t be good for us.
As I’ve said I have nothing against plastic itself as a material but I am against its overuse. If less plastic and more sustainable materials were used, I believe the world would be a healthier place. And a healthier world for animals always translates into a healthier world for humans too.
Happily, change can be done. A few years ago, every time I went to a supermarket or any other type of shop, I was automatically given plastic carrier bags, even when I brought my own. Then the Government banned free plastic carrier bags (a rare environmentally friendly decision by political leaders) and it now costs 5p to buy a bag (since raised to 10p). The use of carrier bags has been cut by 95 per cent. I see far fewer plastic bags littering the streets these days. I can only assume the oceans are seeing less of these bags too.
Another victory in the war against plastic pollution is that two charities of which I am a member of (Woodland Trust and RSPB), which once used plastic as magazine wrappers, have swapped to paper and a compostable potato starch product. The latter is a handy bag for my teabags for when they go into the compost heap.
So what can we do individually? On a personal level, I have decided to think twice before buying anything that seems to be needlessly wrapped in plastic. Of course, I can’t escape it but I can ask myself do I really need this? (The fact that this approach will also save me money is a win win for me!) On occasions when I think the company involved really doesn’t need to use plastic, I will send them a polite email. Maybe now is the time to start tweeting them? In fact, I have emailed the charity running the nature reserve and will wait to see what their answer is.
I have included a couple of video links about the issue below.
Vast quantities (of plastic) pollute our world. Much of it flows into the oceans, turning them into a plastic soup. A truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute.
It’s easy to feel despondent at times of the massive environmental issues which are facing us. For example, wildlife habitat is being lost all over the world, the most notable being the vital rainforests in Brazil (and this destruction is affecting indigenous people as well as wildlife). In Britain too, habitat (aka ‘green belt’ and ‘countryside’) is being taken away from wild creatures every day. But it isn’t just wildlife which suffers – a concrete landscape is detrimental to humans’ mental and physical wellbeing and can increase the risks of flooding and climate change. But there are glimmers of hope in the form of new nature reserves. Land which will cater for wildlife, be protected from developers, and be beneficial for our mental and physical health. Not only that, nature reserves can help tackle the big issue of climate change.
The UN says: “Most nature-based solutions for climate change come from strengthening or restoring existing natural ecosystems. For example, forests don’t just absorb carbon, they also defend us from its most devastating impacts. Carefully planted tree species can act as firebreaks, keeping trees next to farmland can protect crops from the erosive forces of intense rain, and forests can alleviate inland floods due to the sponge-like way they absorb water.” (https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1046752)
The Wildlife Trust describes nature reserves as “places where wildlife – plants and animals – are protected and undisturbed, and this can sometimes mean continuing with or restoring the old-time land management practices which originally helped to make them wildlife-rich.”
So it makes sense to create more nature reserves and I’m pleased to say that new ones have been set up in Lancashire over the last 10 years.
Brockholes, near Preston, off the M6 (Opened in 2011)
Brockholes is owned by The Lancashire Wildlife Trust and boasts 250 acres of nature – and the UK’s first floating visitor centre (it’s actually on a flood plain so the building is perfect for the setting)! It’s very family-friendly with a cafe, takeaway, information centre and shop. There are regular events and weddings are even held here. The last time I visited there was a Meet and Greet Reptiles and Amphibians event which my godchildren enjoyed.
Despite being accessible (just off the M6 and it is also on the Preston Guild Wheel route), there is an abundance of wildlife. It might be hard to believe now, but before it was a nature reserve, it was once a quarry site and the materials were used to build the M6. Various habitats including lakes, reedbeds, pools, woodland, wet grassland and the River Ribble all offer animals and plants a home. Notable sightings I have seen include roe deer and tiny froglets. Longhorn cattle are ’employed’ to maintain the site. The land was bought in 2007 and was opened to the public in 2011 – it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Happy anniversary Brockholes!
Grimsargh Wetlands (2017)
Grimsargh Wetlands is made up of three former United Utilities Reservoirs and, between the 1840s and 1959, provided water to the surrounding area. The location was classified as a Biological Heritage Site in 2003 and was taken over by the Grimsargh Wetlands Trust in 2017. It may be small but it’s vital for wildlife and a very enjoyable stroll.
At a new housing development near me, I was happy to see that over 80 acres of land had been allocated for The Village Parklands. A sign I saw said there will be new ecology areas containing 27 new ponds, a new designated footpath covering five miles and woodland and wildflower meadows. I look forward to seeing how this will progress.
Primrose Nature Reserve, Clitheroe (2021)
I explored this nature reserve a few months ago, while on a trip to Clitheroe. It may be much smaller than the likes of Brockholes but it is still important – it has been listed as a Biological Heritage Site. The location is home to a man-made reservoir, Primrose Lodge, and Mearley Brook, which flows through here. Strange to think it now, but it was once an industrial site and the lodge generated power for the nearby factories. Primrose Mill actually opened in 1787 for cotton spinning. These days it’s a tranquil spot, owned and maintained by Primrose Community Nature Trust. The Ribble Rivers Trust has done a lot of work restoring the site and it only officially opened in March this year. An interesting fact about this reserve is that one of the largest fish passes in England has been installed here, making fish breeding grounds accessible for salmon, eels, trout and other species.
The Fauna Nature Reserve, Lancaster (2011-2012)
This 16-acre site was created by The Fairfield Association, formed by residents of Fairfield, Lancaster. The association started off campaigning to save a children’s play area from housing development in the mid-1990s. From that successful beginning, over the years they have bought or leased increasing amounts of land to form The Fauna Nature Reserve.
There will be other community groups and charities, big and small, who are creating safe havens for nature all around the world. By doing so, they’re saving rare species, giving wildlife a home, protecting habitats, helping people’s mental and physical health and fighting against the worst effects of climate change. I hope that many, many more nature reserves will be set up in the coming years.