How to get your local community involved in conservation

Yoesden nature reserve by Jacqui Titcombe

Encouraging your local community to appreciate and record the wildlife on their doorstep is one way to help protect and restore the natural world. Benson Nature Group share their activities to inspire your neighbourhood.

After congratulating ourselves on getting our 2020 programme of great indoor and outdoor events fixed early in the new year, lockdown changed it all. Benson Nature Group (BNG) had to cancel its forthcoming events so the team put its minds to finding ways to help our community continue to enjoy nature in and around our village.

We hope by sharing our recent activities, we'll inspire other local communities to get involved with protecting and restoring their local wildlife too.

One of the few benefits of lockdown was the lack of noise and air pollution, and the rare chance to really study and enjoy nature in our backyard.

The sounds of birdsong had been more noticeable and those of us lucky enough to have gardens were able to potter in them and investigate what wildlife was there. And of course, the benefits for our own physical and mental health of being out and about in nature attracted much attention in the media. 

So, we re-focussed, went virtual and formulated a strategy to encourage people, particularly children and young people, to notice, appreciate and record our local nature. This involved: 

  1. A practical session on citizen science/wildlife recording.
  2. Encouraging residents to share and record observations during their daily exercise on our Twitter and Facebook pages.
  3. A garden breeding bird survey.
  4. Providing information and advice on how to encourage wildlife, particularly pollinating insects, into gardens and green spaces. 

Starting out – Learning how to record wildlife

Instead of the face-to-face session planned for April, Donal McGurk, BNG’s Secretary, recorded a session on “Observing and Recording” on BNG’s newly created YouTube channel to help people get started. Donal explained that his training as an aviator, scanning the skies to identify (enemy) aircraft had given him a solid foundation for observing, but he lacked confidence to accurately identify what he came across in the natural world.

Many traditional recording schemes were designed for “experts” whereas what he needed was something for “amateurs” that would help in identification. 

Lady with binoculars

Why record local wildlife?

Recording the natural world is important to monitor the health of nature and to implement measures to preserve and enhance it. In addition, developers and planners use biological records, made available by Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre (TVERC) to protect and improve the natural environment.

BNG has been submitting records to TVERC for many years, using traditional recording methods so it was important to continue to support this valuable database.

The ideal platform would enable amateurs to confidently identify and therefore record what they see, but also support TVERC’s data collection for our area. To avoid duplication, though, it is important to only log an observation via one channel, whether that is through a general naturalist site/app or bird/butterfly/moth/bat specific study as records from other studies are also often shared with TVERC. 

Where to record your sightings?

After researching several different recording methods, Donal discovered the iNaturalist app. This app enables users to photograph and submit their observations. It provides help identifying anything in the natural world – plants, insects, birds, mammals etc – and, albeit via an indirect route, the records find their way into the TVERC database.

The location of a sighting is recorded via the phone’s GPS functionality, so there is no need to work out complicated grid references or to find out postcodes. Donal set up a BNG Project Group within the app so that all our records could be collected and viewed in one place. 

Recording breeding birds in gardens

A simple breeding bird survey was designed by the BNG team and made available via our website. The idea was for people to observe the signs of birds nesting in their gardens. Early in the season, such signs might include male bird singing from high branches, courtship displays or carrying nesting material; later on, it might be awareness of birds visiting nest sites, carrying food or the presence of nests with eggs or baby birds; then finally, later in the summer, fledglings being fed by parent birds. 

Of course, there are a myriad of different types of wildlife around, and everyone was encouraged to pursue and share what they were interested in. 

Bee and dandelion

The importance of protecting pollinators

Early in lockdown interest in nature became evident; bird seed sales were at record levels and online nurseries struggled to meet demand. Yet in a stark message from wildflower charity Plantlife, as wild flowers disappear from the countryside our pollinators were starving.

Apparently, it takes five daisies, two dandelions and six buttercups to provide enough nectar for a honeybee for a day.

To encourage wild flowers and help our declining pollinators, Plantlife has been campaigning for some time for councils to minimise verge cutting and individuals to not to mow their lawns as much, particularly during May.  

Making the most of our verges and green spaces

In Benson, we are fortunate to have several green spaces where planting for pollinators is being encouraged or undertaken by BNG – St Helen’s churchyard, Warwick Spinney, Bertie West Field, Aldridge Triangle and Millbrook Mead Nature Reserve.

Many people reported that they discovered and enjoyed these areas during their daily exercises. Lockdown was facilitating the discovery of nature. 

In addition, the village has verges and pockets of roadside green space and protecting pollinators is part of the strategy for the Neighbourhood Plan. With the huge loss of wildflower meadows - 97% gone since WW2 - these are often special places for wild flowers and pollinators. 

There are legal requirements for local authorities to keep the highways safe to use, but they are also obliged to have regard to biodiversity and there is growing interest in how you get a balance between, on the one hand well managed verges that are good for increasingly scarce wild flowers and on the other hand safe road use.

Good mowing practices, for example mowing vision splays at junctions and edges rather the whole verge can help with this, and the financial savings are also an important incentive.

Wildlife pond

Pond by Anna Williams

Encouraging gardening for wildlife

We also encouraged the Parish Pastoral Council to participate in Plantlife’s “No Mow May” initiative in the churchyard, and other residents to adopt wildlife friendly gardening practices, by getting ideas from BNG’s leaflet “Managing your Garden for Wildlife”.

In addition, we pointed them to more hints and tips from The Wildlife Trusts and Royal Horticultural Society who also have great information on wildlife gardening on their websites, including advice to leave the flowers long enough to set seed and to remove the arisings when the vegetation is cut back.

Again, we encouraged members to post their sightings on the BNG Facebook page, for instance sharing some pictures of our verges or the wild flowers and pollinators locally. 

But 'what grows here?' 

During lockdown, some BNG members recorded their observations of the wild flowers in the churchyard. These were incorporated into a document that residents will be able to view at our website. 

The team has some botanical skills and is planning more surveys once movement restrictions are lifted, and will thereby discover what grows on the verges around the village before they are mown at the end of the summer. 

A personal project

For a while, I had been struggling to get to grips with my camera’s macro lens and at the same time, I wanted to improve my personal knowledge of wild flowers. The “great pause” of lockdown enabled me to combine both ambitions in a single project.

On my daily exercise, I took photos of the wild flowers I came across and tried to identify them when I got home. This was more challenging than I had realised at the outset; I was amazed by the number of cow-parsley look-alikes there are, as well as the number yellow daisy-cum-dandelion species. Nevertheless, I surprised myself by documenting 46 species during April and May, which I of course submitted to the iRecord database. 

Broad-bodied chaser

Share results and sightings on social media

As the lockdown gradually eases, our interest in nature continues with BNG’s following on Facebook increasing from 170 at the beginning of the year to more than 230 today.

During lockdown we have all shared observations, questions and knowledge.  

People have reported on what they have seen across Benson’s green spaces on their daily exercise. Various birds, moths, dragon flies, hedgehogs, deer as well as a plethora of wild flowers have featured in social media posts as well pipistrelle bats along the Thames. The clear skies offered rare views of Mercury close to Venus attracting several comments. 

38 moths of 13 species were recorded at Warwick Spinney one evening in May, including a buff tip and a beautiful and large privet hawkmoth; a blue tit was reported to be nesting in a post box; broad-bodied chasers were seen laying eggs in the water at Ewelme Cressbeds and swifts, house martins, swallows, lesser whitethroat, kingfisher and a tawny owl were all observed locally.

Sightings in Benson gardens included a spotted fly-catcher, a muntjac deer, a family of five hedgehogs, a nuthatch, a cuckoo, a large red damselfly, exotic bee orchids, pine and hummingbird hawkmoths, a scarlet tiger moth and a false widow spider. 

And in one of the gardens on the new housing development a sighting of a suspected hummingbird hawkmoth turned out to be a narrow-bordered bee hawkmoth, when reviewed by one of the experts following us on Facebook.

‘A fantastic garden record,’ he said! It just goes to show you can never tell what’s going to show up on a new development, and vindication, if one were needed, of our efforts to demonstrate the value of recording. 

Putting it into context - national relevance of recording

Following Donal’s virtual talk in April, people have also submitted photos on the iNaturalist app. The reduction in background noise has enabled us to listen to and identify individual birdsongs and to submit them as audio records too.

So far BNG members have contributed 829 observations of 369 species, with more being added every day.

Social media also provided the opportunity to draw attention to a number of national campaigns that chime with the activities of the group as well as the strategic plan for nature in the village, namely; the Wildlife Trusts’ “Action for Insects”; Plantlife’s “No Mow May”; International Dawn Chorus Day and Hedgehog Awareness Week.

The churchyard attracted positive comments for its reduced mowing regime during May, enabling cowslips, oxeye daisies, germander speedwell, various cranesbill species, sweet violets, cuckooflower, buttercups etc to be seen. To date 36 species have been recorded, with doubtless more to come. 

Kingfisher perched on branch

Kingfisher by Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Our own movie

Like everyone else it seems, BNG responded to lockdown by moving online! Our latest effort was a short (26 min) film called Wild about Benson, presented by Edel McGurk and other team members, telling the story of the amazing diversity of green (and blue!) spaces in the village, and what BNG is doing to help make them the best they can be. It also covers the plans we have for new green space as the village grows.  

Nesting Birds

The nesting birds survey is ongoing. A cold spell followed by a heat wave, lockdown and then heavy rains will no doubt affect results. It will be interesting to see whether this year has been a good breeding season for wildlife. There have been no boats on the Thames, whereas normally it is estimated a staggering 70 – 80% of nests, including those of kingfishers, are destroyed by the wash from pleasure boats.

Lapwings have been recorded on Swyncombe Downs and it is hoped that these and other ground nesting birds will fare better this year. 

Winners and losers

On the whole, it is believed that the reduction in human activity will have benefited wildlife, although, like most things, there will be losers too, such as foxes, red kites and other scavengers affected by the absence of roadkill. Sadly, the RSPB has seen a huge rise in the illegal killing of protected raptors including hen harriers, peregrine falcons, red kites, goshawks, buzzards and a barn owl.

Hedgehog rescuers have reported an increase in fatalities due to over-enthusiastic “strimmaholic” gardeners. And, in the few days after the initial easing of lockdown measures, nature reserves everywhere observed record levels of anti-social behaviour and vandalism

But on a more positive note, we have some curlews in the area. They’ve been paying visits to the airfield, moving back and forth we think to meadows around Berrick Salome. Curlews are increasingly rare these days - they say there are only 300 pairs left south of Birmingham, so we asked people to share their observations - sightings or their haunting call, often very early in the morning.

And finally…..

We continue to remind our members it is important to record common as well as rare species. If we know where our wildlife is, we can protect it. It’s not just about influencing development and planning, but also about the long-term monitoring of the health and abundance of species.

And when all the social distancing measures are a thing of the past, let’s hope we all remember the joy that nature has brought to us and continue to make time and space for it in our lives.

As for me, I will continue to pursue my wildflower photography project. I still have so much to learn.

We hope the story of our village will help inspire you and your neighbours to get out and protect your green spaces and wildlife, too. 

Find out more about the local groups BBOWT works with, and how to improve your neighbourhood for wildlife