Conservation: How to boost wildlife on your shoot

Barn owl

Barn owls have suffered with the increase in barn conversions... but a simple box on a pole, or tree, can provide a home for them - Credit: Nick Lane

No matter how large you shoot is, there is always room for a greater variety of wildlife! Ecologist Alex Hatton explains how to encourage more bird and animal species onto your land

Habitat management is key to a functioning countryside and that is what this series has focused on so far. In this final part, we look at some of the quicker fixes that create homes for wildlife that can have very quick results and often are of interest to the non-shooting conservationists out there!

A pine marten box in position

A pine marten box in position - Credit: Archant

Small shoots
As we tidy up the countryside, many of nature’s natural wildlife roosting and nesting habitats are removed before they even get a chance to be used. Trees with a little bit of natural decay or those with woodpecker holes in them are ideal roosting habitat for bats or nesting for small songbirds up to some of our larger wildlife, but are often overlooked or removed long before they come down naturally. Armed with just a set of binoculars and a can of spray paint, I have spent many hours identifying trees with bat and bird potential and marking them in a way that others understand they are to be left. 

It’s simple but extremely effective, and if you do have time to come back in the spring to look, you will see many different crevice-dwelling species coming in and out of these features, so it really does make a difference. Bats tend to leave a dark stain around the hole, and if you look at the base of the tree you may see what looks like mice droppings, as bats tend to poo as they exit the roost – the way to tell the difference is that mice droppings are solid if you roll them between your fingers, while bat droppings are dry and crumble into dust!

Checking a dormouse box- under licence

Checking a dormouse box- under licence - Credit: Archant

Medium shoots
Armed with a little more money, putting up wildlife boxes is an easy and rewarding project. The speed in which they get used is really satisfying and indicative of just how much they are in need. 

What you put up is entirely up to you. A wonderful species to help is the dormouse. Not just confined to hazel woodlands as once thought, you do need to know you are in an area where they may be present before you embark on a project. Unlike other nesting boxes that have the hole in the front, dormouse boxes have one up against the tree on which they are placed. Although it’s fine to check the boxes initially, once you have them any checks would need to be done by a licensed person. 

Bird boxes can target an array of species depending on their preferences. For a simple scheme targeting our more common species, a mix of boxes with 28mm and 32mm holes will cover tits and sparrows whereas starlings prefer a box with a 45mm hole. Other species such as treecreepers and robins need more specialist boxes and blackbirds and robins prefer an open fronted box, provided with some shelter in front of them. Whatever you put up, make sure you put a squirrel plate around the entrance hole to stop it getting destroyed by greys! Tree sparrows prefer to nest in colonies in more open areas so do place multiple boxes together if you are targeting these. 

Around the farmyard, there is a lot you can do also. Swallows have really suffered in this age of barn conversions for staycations. They have such specific needs, as they nest in open ‘cups’ meaning they need to have some shelter above them. You can buy swallow cups quite cheaply and place them in an array of places. They are best given some space between nests. Barn owls have suffered a similar fate, but a simple apex design put on the outside of a building, a tree or a standalone pole can really help, and they will help keep the rodents at bay. Boxes are best but up away from woodlands as tawny owls will outcompete the barn owls. An old tea chest placed inside a building is also sufficient, just make sure there is a lip of a few inches at the front to stop eggs rolling out, and youngsters leaving prematurely, as barn owls do not make a nest but instead lay eggs straight on a hard surface. 

Bats also need as much help as they can get. Different species have different needs, but in terms of bat boxes, a simple box (as pictured) provides a roost suitable for crevice dwelling bats such as pipistrelle and barbastelle bats. For our bigger bats like the noctule and Bechstein bats, something more specialist is needed such as the Schwegler 2FN bat box. They are made from woodcrete, and have a really good uptake by these species. 

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A project I was involved in a number of years ago was to put up pine marten boxes in areas where they were once known to be. One of the reasons they fare less well in the UK is that we do not have the black woodpecker they have in Europe which creates the best sized cavity in a tree from them to nest in.

A bird box on a parkland tree

A bird box on a parkland tree - Credit: Archant

Large shoots
Although we have touched on the retention of natural homes such as tree cavities, this final conservation project is aimed at the larger shoots that can implement landscape scale change.
Fundamental to conservation is our insect diversity and some of the simplest changes involve doing less. In order for insects to survive year after year, there needs to be an element of stability in a habitat.

Such examples are a group of butterflies known as the ‘skippers’ and one in particular the dingy skipper. This species is really struggling in the UK. After mating in the summer/autumn, they lay their eggs on a plant called bird’s-foot trefoil, which is the food plant that the caterpillars require to survive. The eggs tend to hatch a few weeks later but overwinter on the same larval food plant by spinning a cocoon, emerging from it the following April. They feed for a couple of months, before going into a cocoon, later emerging as a butterfly and thus completing the life cycle. The nearby flowering plants then provide the nectar the adults need to survive and then to mate. At any one of these stages, a mow of hay/silage or being ploughed destroys this cycle. 

The answer is not to leave entire fields as this is not always sustainable, although this would undoubtedly help, but instead to incorporate either a permanent field margin or small areas of the grassland that is left uncut. Lots of our insects actually overwinter in the woody stems of species such as hogweed, thistles or use the flowering heads or stems of knapweed. If small areas or field margins are left through the winter, it provides our insects a dry home through the difficult months. If you can identify the butterflies you already have on your ground, you can help them to spread on your shoot by looking up what their larval food plant is and then collecting the seeds of it and propagating 
them elsewhere.

Permanent brash and wood piles, standing dead wood that is left in place, or earth banks are all important habitats for insects and can be dotted around the shoot. They will in turn provide food and shelter for your quarry species. The level at which you implement change is dependent on the areas you have access to, but all the small things really do help. 

A pine marten box being checked under licence

A pine marten box being checked under licence - Credit: Archant

Summary
This final part of the series has gone through quick results that make big differences. To best support shooting, make a note of what you have done and the time you have put into it. Monitor the usage of your new ‘homes’ and from a safe distance take pictures. Publicise what you do outside of your usual networks and get the message out there on these projects – who doesn’t like a picture of a barn owl using a box that a shoot has put up – the local newspapers are crying out for ‘good news’ stories. Go and talk to your MP and show him what you are doing; we must not be afraid to put out the details of what we are all doing to the wider public which will strengthen our future. 
When erecting bird boxes, they should be south facing but out of the prevailing weather. 

Bird and mammal box advice

  • Bat boxes should be placed ideally 4m or above from the ground. This not only stops members of the public from having a nosy, but as a bat leaves the roost it swoops downwards, and if it is too low predators can easily catch them such as cats.
  • Boxes erected for European Protected Species such as bats and dormice once used by these species become a protected feature that can only be moved under a licence, so place your boxes where they will not become an issue in any future management. 
  • It is a good idea to clean out old bird nest boxes in the winter when they are not in use so that the parasite burden does not carry over to next years inhabitants.