Britain’s 15 million gardens comprise over one million acres of land. So it stands to reason that if those one million acres are being treated with harsh chemicals and stripped of their natural flora and fauna, it will have a fairly big impact on the eco-system. Here’s how to embrace green gardening and do your bit for the environment. See “How to Make Your Garden Eco-Friendly” for more information.

Ditch the chemicals

There are plenty of ways to control pests other than chemical pesticides. Sprays may kill pests but they also kill their natural predators which upsets your garden’s ecology.

Biological controls involve one tiny organism killing another and are effective at tackling everything from slugs to vine weevils. Alternatively, use old-fashioned barriers and traps such as ‘beer pubs’, where slugs fall into a puddle of beer.

Enrich your soil

Healthy soil means healthy plants, which can stand up to pests and diseases. Improve your soil by digging in well-rotted manure, leaf mould or compost. This will increase its fertility and improve its structure – important for aeration and holding water. It will also help stop weeds stealing nutrients from your plants.

Make your own compost

It couldn’t be easier: just throw in household waste such as cardboard, teabags, peelings and eggshells and then dig it back into your garden. Packed with nutrients, it’ll do your garden a whole lot of good.

Protect the peat

Britain’s peat bogs are valuable wildlife habitats but in the last 50 years over 90% have been destroyed or damaged. You can easily garden without peat. Check for the words ‘peat free‘ on compost packaging. Ideally, it’ll be organic and locally-produced too.

Choose your plants carefully

Plant ‘ecologically’ by selecting plants whose natural habitat resembles your garden: they’ll be much more likely to thrive. Check the label for details. Try to plant some native species too as so much of their natural habitat has been lost. Beware of imported plants which may bring in imported pests and disrupt the ecosystem.

Save water

The best time to water is in the evening; it’s not as effective during the day because of evaporation. It’s also much more economical to collect rainwater in a water butt and use a can instead of a hose.

Attract wildlife

Our gardens are becoming important havens for wildlife. A pond is one of the best habitats you can provide, as is a wildflower area (buy wildflower seed packs from your local garden centre). The birds, insects and butterflies that visit your garden will not only give you pleasure, they’ll munch on the pests that munch your plants too!

Making little changes in your garden can significantly benefit its productivity. Eco-fitting is the updating of existing elements of your garden space and the addition of new ones to make it more self-sustaining and less wasteful. The eco-fitting ethos is to reuse and recycle to transform a dull and lifeless garden into a productive and planet-friendly area. It enables the garden to become a self-sufficient space, reliant on renewable sources of energy and a friendlier place to wildlife.

Small Changes

It is important to remember that you do not have to undertake an eco-fit all at once; you can start off small and let your ideas grow as your eco-friendly garden begins to blossom. Simply growing more flowers to attract pest-controlling insects can give immediate results and boost biodiversity within the garden.

Flowers Garden

Strategic planting can help to ward off pests. Companion planting, where two or more plants are grown close together, can prevent one crop being destroyed by pests or disease. The implementation of a vegetable plot can revitalise the lawn into a decorative kitchen garden.

Wildlife & Habitats

Encouraging wildlife is a fundamental feature to making a garden eco-friendly and adding habitats creates a beneficial garden ecosystem. Welcome friendly bugs, such as ladybugs and lacewings, which eat insect pests that destroy crops. To achieve this, plant bright flowers such as sunflowers and marigolds to attract the bugs and create places where they can shelter and lay eggs. Invite birds which eat slugs, snails, grubs, caterpillars and other pests that destroy plants into the garden by putting up bird feeders and nesting boxes.


Sunlight is a practical way of turning a garden into an eco-friendly space. For example, a lean-to greenhouse warms up as it absorbs sunlight energy, in turn creating a space to grow edible and decorative plants. Using solar panels can charge batteries to operate shed and landscape lights. Judging by the ever-changing weather, it is also important to harvest rainwater and use it resourcefully. Rainwater from the roof of a greenhouse or shed can be stored in attached recycled plastic water butts.

Controlling Pests

There are a variety of products available on the market, but it’s also a great opportunity to get inventive and create your own. Deterring formidable pests, such as slugs and snails, from entering a garden space will ensure it is kept productive and flourishing. Use a band of copper, water-displacement spray or petroleum jelly around containers or slug pellets that are not harmful to wildlife or children as reliable methods of control. Setting up traps is an effective way of catching garden pests. Sticky yellow sheets are great for flying insects. To catch slugs, sink yoghurt cups filled with milk or beer into the ground.



Composting is another efficient way to make your garden more eco-friendly. When setting up a compost bin, it is important to make sure it’s in a warm, partly sunny site on top of some soil. All garden and kitchen waste can also be composted in recycled wooden bins and then returned to the garden to improve the soil.

Recycling Materials

Using recycled materials is a really important attribute of an eco-fitted garden. Not only is it environmentally friendly, it’s also cost-effective. All kinds of everyday packaging and old plastic and wooden containers can be recycled into pots for plants.

Did you know that bird feeding is the second most popular hobby aside from gardening in the United States? In the United Kingdom, it doesn’t appear that many people consider it a hobby or even partake in it at all for that matter…

Why should you care though? The economic climate makes it tough enough to feed ourselves at times, let alone putting food in the mouth of creatures that make little to no difference in our life.

Whilst that’s one way to look at it, the flip-side of it is that having a bird feeder in your garden could in fact save hundreds of little-birdie lives every year.  You might be surprised to know that the majority of bird species rely on bird feeders to make up a significant portion of their food supply. Now you’re feeling guilty for not having one aren’t you? All those tiny little birds starving because you were too mean to put out a little bit of grub.

If it makes you feel any better, for many years my family didn’t do it ‘properly’ either; we just chucked leftovers outside or cut-up slices of bread and threw them on the grass. Whilst we thought this was good and beneficial to the birds, in fact, the majority of time we’d spend shooing cats, squirrels or other animals away. The birds it was intended for rarely got a chance to devour any of it…

That’s where bird feeders come into a league of their own, and if I haven’t done a good enough job of explaining why you need one above; let me recap:

  • You’ll potentially be saving a lot of bird’s lives – especially in winter when food sources are much harder to come by.
  • You get more birds frequenting your garden which can make it a much nicer place; especially if you have young kids, as they’re always intrigued by things like this.
  • Keen bird watchers will be able to use this opportunity of birds feeding to get a closer look and really observe what they get up to.
  • If you decide to track numbers and other information, you will in fact collectively be helping out birds by providing statistics to scientists and others in the field that can really make use of the data for conservation purposes.

The downside of this is if you park your car outdoors you may find it becomes a bit more of a ‘target’ for bird droppings. They’re really appreciative like that; you give them a helping hand with food and they return the favour by digesting it and dropping it back on your car – lovely.

We will be back soon to explain the different types of bird feeders you can get and what type of food you should be looking to provide to your garden visitors. As well as this there will be a whole host of tips, explanations and more analysis on why you really should have one.

Wood Warblers in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

This is the largest and brightest of the three common leaf or green warblers. It is distinguished from the Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff by the bright yellow stripe over the eye, dark green stripe running through the eye, its yellow cheeks and throat (more extensive on the male) and gleaming white underparts.

However. it is most easily encountered in its breeding habitat by its characteristic call – a short metallic tick that accelerates into a trill that is reminiscent of a coin spinning and falling to rest. Despite this, it is a difficult species to actually see because of its habit of feeding within trees, where its combination of colours blend with dappled sunlight on leaves. A little patience is worthwhile, as a singing bird is fascinating to watch as it vibrates its whole body as it gives forth its trill.

It is a species that has suffered worrying declines in recent years, for reasons that are not well understood, and all records should be reported. It has the very precise breeding requirements of tall trees with open spaces and dead leaf litter on the ground (see photo from the southern tip of Grizedale Forest). It builds its domed nest amongst the leaf litter and is badly affected if the ground scrubs over. Incubation takes up to a fortnight and the young are feed for a month, so only one brood is raised, making the species vulnerable to poor spring weather.

Cumbria still has quite good numbers of Wood Warblers in its Oak and Beech woods. Although never widespread, it occurs in good numbers in Lakeland valleys when the habitat is most suitable. Strongholds are the mature woodlands around Loweswater, Nether Wasdale, Elterwater, Torver and Grizedale.

In autumn Wood Warblers migrate (like Lesser Whitethroats) via Italy to central and east Africa.

Waxwings in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

There are scattered records of Waxings Bombycilla garrulous in Cumbria in most years, most frequently from town areas, with large numbers seen in irruption winters such as 1995-6 and 2004/5.

In 2004, several flocks of over 1000 had been sighted by early November in eastern Scotland, making it probably the largest irruption for over 50 years. Flocks appeared in Cumbria soon after; around 30 were seen in Ulverston and around 200 in a car park in Kendal on the 14th November.

These unusually colourful, starling-like birds have travelled from Scandinavia and western Siberia to spend the winter here in search of berries. Their favourite food in their homeland is rowan; if warm conditions exist when rowans flower, it produces a heavy crop and the survival rate of waxwings increases through the following winter, so the waxwing population is high in the next breeding season. Since a poor berry crop usually follows a heavy one, there are then far more waxwings searching for fewer berries and they are forced to move south and west.

The Waxwing is an elegant bird, a well-dressed, but not too gaudy, Georgian gentleman, as the image alongside demonstrates. His sleek and sheeny plumage has softly blended shades of grey, brown, and russet and is neatly trimmed with white, yellow, black and a touch of red. The whole is topped off with a delightful, silky, reddish-brown crest that flutters in the breeze. The amazing red tips of the secondary wing feathers, looking like blobs of sealing wax, give the bird its name. Their purpose is something of a mystery. I am indebted to Martin Ridley (see for providing the photograph from which the image was taken.

It is sometimes said that Waxwings “feed like a parrot and fly like a Starling”. I watched a flock of 30 settle into the upper branches of a tall tree near my home. Several birds would shuttle down to the source of berries in a nearby garden and when they returned another group followed, and so on. This typical behaviour is quite different to the chaotic competition so common in other bird species. Whilst waiting their turn, the birds in the tree adopted many different postures, often with wing tips held away from the body. The odd one even flew up to take an insect, flycatcher style, which is characteristic of their summer feeding routine. When taking berries they were surprisingly acrobatic, hanging like a tit, stretching with elongated body to reach out of the way berries or dropping their head below the body with tail spread for balance like a small parrot. The flock keeps in contact with a constant garrulous chatter – a distinctive but subdued bell-like trill.

Waxwings have a voracious appetite, sometimes eating until they can no longer move, and it takes just a few hours for a small flock to strip several bushes. Increasingly, Waxwings are being spotted in supermarket car parks, as many of these are landscaped with berry bearing shrubs, such as cotoneaster, pyrancantha and rose. Sometimes they stay to devour all the berries or they may leave quite suddenly and unpredictably. When the flock moves on, the flight is undulating with frequent changes of direction (with all the birds in unison, like a flock of starlings).

The Waxwings’ social behaviour makes them relatively tame birds and they can be easily approached until you are standing beneath the tree in which they are resting.

Tree Sparrows in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)


Once common around arable farms, where it could get winter food from spilled grain and stubble fields, the Tree Sparrow is now something of a rarity that few people see in the county. Changing methods in farming, combined with notorious natural fluctuations, have caused a 95% fall in numbers nationally since 1970.

In Cumbria there are now only a small number of resident populations. For example, in South Cumbria there is a small breeding population in the Gleaston/Dendron area, another on the Cartmel Peninsula and one or two round Kendal. It is perhaps a little more numerous on the Solway Plain and in the Eden Valley.

Unlike its cousin, the larger and more urban House Sparrow, both sexes have similar plumage. They look a little more “dapper” than the House Sparrow. The all brown head contrasts well with the white cheek patch that extends all round the nape – the distinctive black smudge on the white cheek make this species instantly recognisable…if you can find the species in the first place. The male House Sparrow (on the right) has a less strikingly white cheek patch, no black blotch and the head is a lighter brown with a grey crown of course.

Although the name correctly suggests a tree nesting species, the Tree Sparrow will also use holes in buildings and nest-boxes. Several pairs nest in the old walls of Gleaston Water Mill (and a few more in the old Castle nearby). There has probably been a mill here since the mid-1300’s and one is tempted to imagine dozens of these birds feeding on the spilled grain that has been brought along rutted lanes by cart. The present mill is Georgian, built from local limestone, sandstone and slate, and has been lovingly restored by the present owners. In May you can sit in the sun with a cup of coffee from the cafe and watch as the Tree Sparrows take insects and caterpillars into their tiny nesting holes. This is a working water mill that is well worth a visit, even if you have seen Tree Sparrows elsewhere! Nesting in the same wall is a pair of Kestrels, which can be watched by remote camera, as can a hive of honey bees.

In 2008 the RSPB set up the Cumbria Tree Sparrow project, an extension of one currently operating in Lancashire and Cheshire. The aim is to increase the number and range of Tree Sparrows by providing nest boxes and advice to landowners.

Tree Pipits in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

Do you have difficulty distinguishing this summer visitor from its resident cousin the Meadow Pipit? Then forget the guide book descriptions of stockier build, bolder breast markings narrowing to fine streaks on the flank, and lighter legs, as these are so hard to see in the field. Instead concentrate on habitat and spring song and behaviour. Once you’ve sussed these out it’s hard to miss a Tree Pipit at 50 metres, although still difficult to photograph one (one day I’ll get closer)!

The obvious habitat is recently felled or planted areas where a few tall trees remain. Look also on heathland or mosses with scattered trees, or woodland glades, especially with scattered birch. There must be plenty of open areas for the dispaly flight and some low ground cover as this is where they will nest.

A bird singing from a tree has a song that is hard to forget once heard a few times – rather Canary-like with a bit of a stutter and ending usually with a couple of strong double notes that carry over a distance. Males sing strongly on arrival in late April, diminish a little during nest building and laying but sing again afterwards, usually away from the nest.

What marks out the Tree Pipit once and for all is its delightful song during its “parachute” flight during May. A singing bird will suddenly rise into the sky then glide down on open wings to an adjacent tree or even the ground. It’s one of my favourite sights of the spring. However, just to make life difficult, Meadow Pipits parachute as well, but their song in flight is much less interesting and distinctive.

After raising young in June and early July, the adults moult before leaving in September for tropical Africa.

Nationally this is a species that has suffered serious declines in numbers, and in 2009 was moved from the “amber” list to the “red list” of species of high conservation concern. In Cumbria numbers seem to have fallen sharply, but it is still a good county in which to find them. It is in fact a species that should benefit from the Forestry Commissions current programme to fell large areas of mature conifer forests and replant with native Oak and Birch. It was widely distributed and common over the central Lake District, but much scarcer on the outskirts of the county. But one site I visit near Bigland, on the Cartmel Peninsular, holds good numbers.

Numbers have diminished so much in recent years that observers are asked to submit all records of this red listed species.

Terns in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

Four species of tern nest around Cumbria’s coast although there has been a general decline in numbers over recent years. All are notoriously fickle in the use of nesting sites; disturbance or predation can cause the whole colony to abandon a site in the next season.

Most people’s favourite has to be the diminutive Little Tern (see above). Its small size, black tipped yellow bill and white forehead make it very distinctive and appealing. Their flight is fast and jerky and when looking for food they hover with head held low before plunging. This is a very attractive species to watch, especially at the RSPB Hodbarrow Reserve at Millom, where a hide provides perfect viewing. Although the species used to nest all around the Cumbrian coast there are now only a handful of colonies, of which Hodbarrow and Foulney are the largest. Even here, despite wardening and protective fencing to keep out Red Foxes, productivity is unfortunately low. In an average year probably no more than 50 pairs now nest around our coast.

The most numerous Tern species around Cumbria’s coast is the large Sandwich Tern. However it is now restricted to just the one site at Hodbarrow, having previously abandoned nesting at Ravenglass, Walney and Foulney. A raucous but handsome bird, it is recognised by its yellow tipped black bill.

Arctic and Common Terns are hard to separate in flight, although a little easier on the ground. In Cumbria they conveniently help us to get experience in recognition by nesting at separate sites! Arctic Terns currently only use Foulney Island; up to 30 pairs nest on the spit each year, watched over by a dedicated warden. Common Terns are found at Hodbarrow and Rockcliffe Marsh, but total numbers are probably less than for the Arctic. Although not infallible, the bill colour provides the best distinguishing feature – Common Terns have a black tipped red bill (see photo below), while Arctic Terns have no black tip and the bill is often a deeper, more crimson, red.

As Hodbarrow holds three of the four Tern species found in the County it is an important site and well worth a visit in late May and June to see them. The fenced area in front of the hide holds a truly cosmopolitan community of nesting birds. As well as the Terns, there might be Grebes, Ringed Plover, several species of Gull, Geese, and Tufted Duck amongst others:-

Swallows in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)


We used to call them “Swallows” but, as there are a dozen or so swallow species in their African wintering grounds, the “politically correct” name for our species is now “Barn Swallow”. As the names imply, our Barn Swallows are more rural than House Martins, preferring to nest on a ledge in an outbuilding or barn with more open cattle pastures around for feeding.

In an interesting piece of evolutionary adaptation some Swallows have established a colony of 10 – 15 nests underneath the bridge that carries the A590 Dalton Bypass over Thwaite Flat……perhaps they should be called Box-girder Swallows not Barn Swallows!!! The box-girders of the bridge afford ample ledges and shelter. However, every time a vehicle hurtles across the bridge there is a loud thud as it passes over the expansion plates. Neither the noise nor the vibration seems to deter the birds, although lesser mortals like us would get a thumping headache and their homes would probably collapse if they lived with this twentyfour-seven.

In fact the birds arrive back in late April/early May after spending the winter on the southern tip of Africa with 300 million or so other Barn Swallows from all over Europe. Even with the traffic, Thwaite Flat must seem like a peaceful haven compared to the noise experienced at a night-time roost there!

In another piece of adaptation to man made structures, Swallows characteristically rest on telegraph and electricity wires, which provide an unimpeded access that suits their swooping flight. Even the young seem to have this habit built in, as they often line up on wires after fledging, waiting to be fed (see photo below):

These are tough little beasts anyway. At five months old they begin an incredible 12000 mile round trip that sees them travel across the English Channel, the Pyrenees, the Sahara Desert, Equatorial Africa and down the east coast of South Africa …then back again two months later. Each night a roost site has to be found and an incredible variety of predators and weather conditions must be overcome. During the four days it can take to cross the Sahara an ascent to 3 miles may be needed in order to spot the next oasis fifty miles away. Fewer than 20% of first year birds make it back again but, of those that do, many find their way back to the same nest site each year (for up to ten years).

The House Martin is also a species that has readily adapted to man-made structures although there are a few places in the county where they still build nests in their ancestral habitat of cliffs and crags. More usually they build their mud homes under the eaves of buildings, with favourable sites acquiring a growing number of nests as the years progress. Very dry weather in Spring can cause serious problems as they must collect an enormous amount of mud of the right consistency. This is the only time when House Martins can be observed close up and relatively still -they are so intent on the job in hand (or beak) that they are relatively approachable. Now their gorgeous plumage can be seen in detail – note the tell-tale white rump seen in flight but also the uniquely white-feathered legs (please get in touch with me if you know of any theory for the evolutionary benefit of this adaptation!). It is also possible to distinguish male and female at this time, as males have slightly longer tail feathers.

While Swallows and House Martins are widespread in the county, the Sand Martin is much more localised and has suffered quite serious declines in the county in recent years. It requires suitable soft banks near water for it’s nest tunnel and is largely confined to the Eden valley (where the river banks are very suitable), with small numbers on cliffs north of Ravenglass and on a few sand cliffs in Furness. It will readily take to artificial nest tunnels, such as drainage pipes laid in concrete walls as on the River Kent. It is an opportunist species, adapting as the environment changes and numbers can fluctaute markedly from one year to the next – this site (left) has held good numbers in some years but only one or two pairs in others. Equally I have seen single pairs nesting in a sand dune blow out and on a small bank on an airfield!

The nature of their nests mean that they can be susceptible to predators like Stoats, Weasels and Hedgehogs.

Siskin in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

This colourful small finch passes through my Ulverston garden each year in early spring. They are usually seen for about a week sometime in March or the first days of April. When we first started seeing them many years ago they were attracted to peanuts in red mesh hangers. Now that we put out Niger seed, usually for the Goldfinches, the Siskin ignore the peanuts and go straight for the Niger. On the day I took this photo we had two on the Niger feeder while four others were content to “hoover” up the seed that had fallen on the ground beneath. Siskin are not noted for ground feeding so the Niger seed must be very attractive.

Readily recognised by the yellow wing bar on black wings this finch surprises you by its size, being little larger than a Blue Tit. Males are more brightly coloured with a characteristic black cap, while females are the paler and more heavily streaked of the two.

They were relatively scarce in Cumbria until the middle of the 20th century but, as elsewhere in the country, numbers increased dramatically once conifer plantations planted after the First World War started to mature. As natural seed sources became exhausted in spring they were tempted into gardens by the fashion of planting conifers as evergreens and discovered bird feeders in the process!

The main breeding strongholds are in the Grizedale, Whinlatter and Border forests. In winter they roam in flocks of up to 100 seeking out Pine and Spruce but moving out of the conifer forest once the supply of seed is depleted, when Alder and Birch are sought. There is a movement of British birds southwards in winter with birds from Scandinavia joining them. It is these birds that pass through gardens when returning north in March. Pairing occurs in the winter flocks and, once back in the breeding area, a nest is built high in a conifer hanging from an outer branch.

A small group twittering and piping as they breeze through riverside Alders, perhaps with a Redpoll or two, is a sight to be remembered. The bright yellow rump of the male is very striking.

Although there is still plenty of maturing conifer forest in the county the current plan is to replace it with native broad-leaved species as the timber is harvested. This may, in time, reduce the numbers of breeding Siskin.

The similar sized Lesser Redpoll also has a black bib but there the similarity ends. Small flocks of 10 to 30 are seen in the county during the winter. Although an irruptive species it does seem to have undergone a steep decline in numbers and it is now scarcer as a breeding bird than the Siskin. It’s preference for new growth in recently felled areas has hindered its progress and it has disappeared from many areas where it was once found – for example in the Furness peninsula. This is an attractive finch, especially a male with its scarlet cap and flushed chest …but they are not all as bright as the one in the photo! Females have no pink on the breast and juveniles have no coloured cap.

If you were playing bird bingo then the image below might represent “house full” – it also gives a comparison of size for three of our colourful finches, the Siskin, Lesser Redpoll and Goldfinch!