Bishop's Stortford habitat that has featured on Gardeners' World open to visitors as part of National Garden Scheme
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
In 2019 I received an invite from Nigel and Jill Kerby to visit their garden in Bishop's Stortford, which has been designed specifically to attract and retain wildlife. A plan was hatched for me to spend time there in 2020, which obviously didn't happen. Eventually, I managed to get there last Wednesday – and to say I was impressed would be an understatement.
Arriving in warm weather, with the promise of the temperature rising, I firstly watched a BBC TV Gardeners' World clip that features this superb habitat, read articles in magazines and looked through a book showing the development of the garden before knowledgeable Nigel gave me a tour.
The half-acre plot has been divided into areas with every conceivable aspect of wildlife requirements being covered.
We started by checking the row of bat boxes on the gable end of the house which are home to many common pipistrelle bats before taking the winding paths around the site.
Native flowers abound, and at 11.30am these were already alive with a raft of insect species.
Three ponds, all different in their make-up, are thoughtfully placed with adjacent seating.
One was full of azure and common blue damselflies, many mating and ovipositing (egg laying). Also, four-spot chaser dragonflies and an immature, recently emerged, broad-bodied chaser patrolled the surface.
In the pond were all three species of UK newt: common (or smooth), palmate and great crested. Newt tadpoles wriggled their way around whilst pond skaters flicked over the surface and rested on lily pads.
A non-native area held many plant species, such as delphinium, again alive with insects and, close by, the most elaborate bee hotel I have encountered.
Here, Gwynne's mining bee (Andrena bicolor), grey patch mining bee (Andrena nitada) and chocolate mining bee (Andrena scotica) were all prospecting the specially drilled holes in a variety of woods. With more time to sit and watch their comings and goings, I am sure I would have compiled a much more comprehensive list.
I moved around to the soft fruit area before inspecting a sandstone dry wall and plenty of wood piles, upon which several viparious (or common) lizards were basking in the sun. A common frog hopped into a pond.
At the back of the garden, tucked away, are four large, well-managed compost heaps that have a cover over the top. Nigel lifted these to reveal a plethora of slow worm activity, with many large and pregnant females squirming their way into the compost. A remarkable sight.
Not only does the floral content of the garden change from one area to another, but so too does the actual geology.
Areas of limestone have been professionally placed, permitting different flowers to flourish, whilst, throughout the garden, wild flowers such as pyramidal orchids, common spotted orchids, ox-eye daisies, ragged robin and greater knapweed add height and colour.
The whole area has been professionally planned and constructed, offering south-facing banks and mounds that will attract beetle and bug species, and a sandpit for mining bees such as Andrena barbilabris, the sandpit mining bee. Even the Victorian red brick wall, south facing, has become a useful wildlife area as many holes are drilled into the brickwork for more bee species.
Seats and benches have been thoughtfully placed so that, at any time of the day, Nigel and Jill will be able to find a sunny area or a shaded area to sit and admire this truly stunning habitat.
Upon completion of the tour, I got out my camera gear and set out to log as much of the wildlife that I could discover. Three hours later I was still doing this as there was just an overwhelming amount to record.
To begin with, I placed three pheromone traps for unusual day-flying moths called clearwings. Looking more like a wasp or fly, these moths were thought to be quite rare as they were rarely seen. The female clearwings, of which there are 14 species, give off pheromones that attract the males. These pheromones have now been developed in laboratories and so I placed these near the larval food plant. The raspberry clearwing trap I put right into a raspberry cane and the trap for yellow-legged clearwings was placed next to wood piles as they lay their eggs on tree stumps. The final trap, to attract red-belted clearwings, hung high from a wooden arch where the gentle breeze would waft the pheromones across the whole habitat as this moth lays eggs on apple and other fruit trees.
Once placed, I left them and started checking flowerheads. Bumblebees proliferated: Tree bumblebee, red-tailed, white-tailed, buff-tailed and the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum). Mixed in with these bees were pollen-feeding hoverfly species such as Episyrphus balteatus, Syrphus ribessi and Syrphus torvus. Smaller ones of these yellow and black insects were usually Syritta pipiens, but the best find was Merodon equestris, an amazing bumblebee mimic that looks just like a carder bee species until the eyes and antennae are checked.
I sat by the pond watching large red damselflies weave their way through the emerging vegetation. Smooth newts swam to the surface before diving again as a chaffinch called from an old yew tree that has a tree preservation order on it. The garden used to be part of the land of the old All Saints vicarage before All Saints Close was developed. This old yew will have been here for over 100 years and maybe much longer.
Nigel showed me a list of everything he had recorded within the garden, showing many bird species. Presently, many birds are in post-breeding moult and will be tucked away in hedgerows whilst their new plumage grows, replacing the very worn feathers that have taken a battering during the hectic breeding season. The most frequently asked question I get at this time of year is: "Where have all the birds gone?" The moult can last a few weeks, with many birds suddenly reappearing in August.
I completed yet another circuit of the garden, each lap offering sightings of new creatures.
A small black and yellow insect fed upon an ox-eye daisy, yellow-faced and a new species for me. Originally I identified it as one of the 13 possible yellow-faced bees, the Hylaeus group. I fired off some macro shots to help identify it when I returned home. It transpired I was in the wrong area entirely as it proved to be Cerceris rybyensis, the ornate-tailed digger wasp. A pleasing find indeed.
I headed back to the table to add to my notes. A splendid black and red moth flew in front of me, a cinnabar moth. This moth uses ragwort as its larval foodplant and there was plenty of this in one of the beds. Another plant for moth attraction was verbascum (mullein), which is the foodplant of the mullein moth. On several plants the stunning white, yellow and black caterpillar happily munched leaves.
The whole garden biodiversity works here – bats feed on moths, frogs feed on insects, moths feed on the plants that have been encouraged to grow for that specific purpose. Butterflies are in really low numbers at present, not a good year for them at all. I recorded both painted lady and common blue, but no other species. Nigel's records, accumulated over several years, contain a much longer list of what I would expect to discover in a good, warm butterfly year.
I now had plenty of material along with over 300 photos for this article so went off to check the pheromone traps. Pleasingly, in the one for red-belted clearwings, two males had entered the plastic trap. These I potted then showed to Nigel and Jill before releasing them. A Vespa crabro (hornet) buzzed overhead.
I offered my thanks for being permitted to spend time in such a truly amazing garden, a veritable nature reserve right in the middle of the town. Truly remarkable.
If you would like to visit this garden – and who wouldn't – then there is a chance to do so. Nigel and Jill are part of the National Garden Scheme, opening their garden to visitors from Thursday to Sunday (July 1-4). There are morning and afternoon slots. Booking is essential as only groups of 10 visitors per slot are permitted.
To book, ring Jill on 07931 255812. There is a charge of £10 per person with all money going to the National Garden Scheme, which distributes the money to various charities. Tea and vegan cake will also be available.