The Wildlife Diaries with Kev Gustard

It’s cold, it’s grey and I love it! This month I’ve been hand-planting thousands of flowers, tucking my honey bees under a cosy quilt and have been locked into a battle of wills with a flock of black-headed gulls. This can only mean one thing: winter is here

Kev built some raised beds in the car park and planted buddleia
Kev built some raised beds in the car park and planted buddleia
Kev has introduced a bee hive to Sherwood Forest, in an isolated area, to promote the safety of the humble  bee
Kev has introduced a bee hive to Sherwood Forest, in an isolated area, to promote the safety of the humble bee
Black-headed Gulls are causing havoc on the lake
Black-headed Gulls are causing havoc on the lake
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Kev built some raised beds in the car park and planted buddleia
Kev built some raised beds in the car park and planted buddleia
Kev has introduced a bee hive to Sherwood Forest, in an isolated area, to promote the safety of the humble  bee
Kev has introduced a bee hive to Sherwood Forest, in an isolated area, to promote the safety of the humble bee
Black-headed Gulls are causing havoc on the lake
Black-headed Gulls are causing havoc on the lake

Winter for us is quite a labour intensive time of year. The work we do this season falls under one word: preparation. We’re preparing for spring – the growing season – and the year ahead, so I’ll be doing a lot of thinning, planting and seeding. We hit the waterways hard to clear them of debris, replant reeds and reinstate the ground. But we have to be quick as our window of opportunity only lasts for two months.

Just last week Andy [fellow Conservation Ranger and my partner in crime] and I were on our knees planting daffodils, snowdrops and bluebells – all by hand. We have planted 5,000 daff bulbs, 2,000 snowdrops and 2,000 blubells. Young Andy has the blisters to prove it! It’s hard work but it’s worth it because we’re providing a food source for our wildlife and we’re maintaining a natural environment.

Gearing up food production
And this maintenance doesn’t stop with planting. To help even our car parks fit in with the natural environment, all you need is a bit of imagination. We’ve focused on a new area and built some raised beds; we lined them, filled them with compost and planted, all with wildlife in mind. I planted buddleia, which is brilliant for butterflies, and cotoneaster which is good for birds in the autumn. We have to put thought into it; it’s not just about looking nice, we have to make everything in this Village function. Yes, we lost a patch of land to a car park, but we can gain from it by providing a food source for our wildlife all year round.

“We must have planted 2,000 daff bulbs; young Andy has the blisters to prove it!

In terms of animals and wildlife, you’ve got to have minimum disturbance, so the best way to look after them at this time is by leaving them alone. Here at Sherwood Forest we only have two hibernators – hedgehogs and bats – and we know where they will be hibernating so we have to tread very carefully. I can promise you this: there’s no machine that goes off a road before the undergrowth is checked.

Would you bee-lieve it?
Did you know that at Sherwood Forest we have bees that we keep in hives just behind The Nature Centre? We brought them in during the summer last year and they’re my pride and joy. Around winter our honey bees don’t hibernate, but their activity is very subdued; they go into a tight ball and specific bees will control the temperature inside the hive.

But to help them keep toasty and cosy, I’ve put a quilt over the hive. Yes – a quilt! It’s champion. I couldn’t find one anywhere, so I got my sister-in-law to make me a camouflage one. I’ve had some enquiries and have had beekeepers come in to visit and say ‘that’s great!’ The bees feed off of honey stores that they’ve reserved to keep them going. Again, like the hibernators the best thing is to leave them alone. But I’ll be going in over the next week to put in a treatment for varroa – a mite that attacks honey bees.

During this time of year while the bees are snoozing, I’ve planted all around the hive – buddleia and wildflower mix – so that when they wake up, they have a food source. Of course, they can forage for up to three miles, but if we plant correctly then they don’t need to. And that way I can keep my eye on them!

Don’t worry, bee happy
I can understand that when I say: ‘We have bees’, people might automatically feel frightened, but that’s the reason I brought them to Sherwood Forest – Andy and I wanted to promote them. We’re not doing it for the honey, although they do produce it, we want to educate people and make them aware of the benefits. The plight of the humble bee has continued for many years and I want to make it clear they’re not the nasty little insects that sting you.

“Insects are estimated to contribute more than £400m each year to the UK economy”

In fact, I read online the other day that through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas and apples, insects are estimated to contribute more than £400m each year to the UK economy. So if they were to become extinct, the only sting you’d feel is in our supermarkets.

Anyway, back to our sleepy bee hive. They’ll wake up in early spring, but if this weather continues to be mild it could be as early as February. When they wake up fully they’ll need a pollen fix close by, so by us planting snowdrops and wildflowers they’ll be like kids in a sweet shop. As soon as they get that energy boost, the queen goes into egg-laying mode to increase her swarm – that is her sole motivation. What a life!

Influx of immigrants
Elsewhere in winter we have to look after our birds. Birds are my personal area of expertise and during the cold months you absolutely have to keep topping those bird feeders up, as natural food gets covered by snow or ice. This year, because of the mild winter, we’ve had an influx of migrants from Scandinavia mainly. Birds such as siskins will come over for the catkin seeds that falls from our birch trees.

I’ve seen a lot of black-headed gulls from continental Europe; the workers on watersports aren’t their biggest fans at the moment because they love the pedalos and are ‘depositing’ on them. If I go down to the lake in the morning there’ll be 80 to 100 black-headed gulls just sitting there. Of course, we’ve tried different ways of discouraging them by putting in decoy plastic birds such as peregrine falcons or eagle owl, but after a while they get used to them. The gulls sit there and think, ‘It’s plastic’. ‘For the past week it’s never moved and hasn’t eaten anything’ and they’ll end up just sitting on it – mocking us for our efforts.

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Kev Gustard

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Kev Gustard

I am the Senior Conservation Ranger at Sherwood Forest and have worked at Center Parcs for 20 years. My Wildlife Diaries is a monthly update of what life is like in the great outdoors, with a few tips along the way for you to use at home.