In many cases the success of local wildlife is limited by the lack of suitable roosting and nesting sites. By providing these in your grounds (together with sources of food and water), not only will wildlife be more likely to take up residence close to school, but will be more likely to be seen and able to be studied. Suitable homes for nesting birds, roosting bats, hibernating hedgehogs and insects can be provided using man-made boxes. This page outlines those possibilities, with links to further information.
Homes for birds
Nest boxes can be provided for many different birds, with different birds preferring different types of boxes. Some common birds such as blackbirds and thrushes will not use a bird box of any design, but much can still be done to accommodate them by planting and managing trees, hedges and shrubs. It is also important to make sure that your school grounds have sufficient food resources to support breeding birds and mammals, which means that plants should attract insects and produce fruits and seeds. Bird tables and feeders of different types can also attract birds, but make sure that they are regularly re-filled and kept clean.
Hedges and shrubs
Blackbirds, thrushes and dunnocks (hedge sparrows) will all nest in hedges as long as they are densely grown to provide cover and completely hide the nests. Blackbird and thrush nestlings will leave the nest before they are really ready to fly and can cause some consternation among children who think that they have been abandoned by their parents. This is not usually the case, and they are best left to their own devices as the parents keep close watch and return to feed the youngsters. However, most children cannot resist ‘rescuing’ the vulnerable fledglings. The best strategy is to simply make sure that the fledglings are left where they are and observed from a safe distance, or if necessary move them to a safer place where they cannot be seen so easily by predators. Fledglings rescued by humans rarely seem to survive, and need feeding at very frequent intervals.
Coniferous evergreen trees and hedges are often chosen as nesting sites by finches – including the beautiful goldfinch, bullfinch and goldcrest. Their beautiful nests, made from lichen, animal hair and feathers can sometimes be found fallen to the ground after strong winds.
Bird boxes have been successfully used to attract nesting tits, robins, jackdaws, kestrels, owls, house sparrows, house martins and swifts. Different birds like different designs of box, for example tits will use the classic hole in the front box, while robins prefer open fronted boxes. Owls, jackdaws and stock doves will use ‘chimney shaped’ boxes, while kestrels will use a deep open-fronted box. It is important to make sure that you choose the right position for your box, while some birds are not fussy, others will only nest in elevated positions. Monmouthshire Countryside Service has advised on, and helped to install school birdboxes with cameras installed, so that classes can observe the behaviour of tits during the nesting season, and monitor breeding success. We hope that in time, this website can be used to share information of nesting activity between schools.
You can register your bird box with the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Box Challenge, reporting regularly on what happens inside your box. This is a national scheme that helps the Trust to better understand breeding success of British birds. http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/nbc. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) organises a Big School Birdwatch at the end of January each year to encourage whole schools to record which birds use their grounds. http://www.rspb.org.uk/schoolswatch/ Participating schools get free schools packs and ideas on how to count birds in different ways.
Homes for mammals
There are 18 different species of bats in Britain, and Monmouthshire is a real stronghold for them, largely due to its woodland and farming practices. Bats need roosting sites, where they can rest during the day, and will readily take to man-made boxes. The bats get into the boxes through a slit between the box and the back board, which needs to be ridged so that they can clamber up. Boxes are best sited in small groups, and need to be at least 5 metres up on a tree or pole, or the side of a building. It is against the law to inspect boxes or disturb their occupants as bats are highly protected. Monmouthshire Countryside Service may be able to provide moth and bat activity evenings at schools to enable local people to learn more about these fascinating mammals and use bat detectors to listen to their echo location calls. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Hedgehogs are a great asset to any garden, munching through slugs, snails and other garden pests after dark. Hedgehogs emerge at dusk from a nest that will often be sited under a thick hedge or shrubs, and is roughly made from leaves and dried grass. During the spring and summer they are likely to move around a lot, and not have a permanent home. In winter they need a more substantial nest for hibernation, that will keep them dry and warm (but not too warm or they will wake frequently and go in search of food which may be in short supply). A hedgehog house is not difficult to build, but needs to be sited in a quiet place, and be well camouflaged. Look out for distinctive hedgehog poo around the school grounds, very black and gooey. If you see a hedgehog during the day, it is most likely unwell and in need of help – pick it up carefully and take it to a vet who will have contacts for a local rescue centre. Never feed bread and milk to hedgehogs as this will make them ill. Cat or dog food (not the fish varieties) is a much better option, with a shallow bowl of water. A feeding station can be arranged under a milk crate or mushroom box to prevent the food being taken by local cats.
Homes for insects
Insects need homes too, especially for hibernating in winter. The autumn is the perfect time to make these. They can be made from bundles of hollow plant stems or bamboo, and then hung up in a sunny place out of the wind and rain. They are likely to attract solitary bees, lacewings and ladybirds. Bumblebee queens hibernate underground, usually in an old mouse nest, and an old bird box, or two flowerpots (plastic or clay) joined together and filled with dry moss and grass or similar material can attract them. A dry nest site is extremely important – see below for links to easily constructed plans. They should be sited somewhere that will not be warmed by early spring sun, or the queen will wake too early, when there will be no sources of nectar available.
South East Grid for Learning: live webcams in bird boxes all over the south of England for schools to share, and a video showing how this work has been extended to include other aspects of school grounds.
Bird box cameras – Handykam supply boxes and integrated cameras that are good value and come with all the fixtures and fittings you will need.
Bat Conservation Trust website offers resources for schools, and information about making or choosing bat boxes.