Nick Upton – Gardening with Wildlife
Photographer Nick Upton has been documenting the wildlife in his rural Wiltshire garden for over 10 years. He uses a range of techniques to capture a surprising range of creatures great and small. We asked Nick to tell us more about the wildlife he shares his garden with, and to share some of his recent images from his own garden and those of other local people.
Can you tell us more about the garden and how it has developed over the years?
“The property is part of a rambling 300 year old complex that was run as an asylum/nursing home for over 200 years. It sits on a Wiltshire hilltop, surrounded by meadows and woods, with quite large gardens. The rather wild garden below the house was one of the things that led us to buy it 25 years ago, despite the holes in the roof and collapsing floors! Over the years we’ve encouraged more wildlife by planting lots of wildlife-friendly plants, installing insect hotels, a pond and most recently boxes for owls and bats.”
How has your garden photography evolved during lockdown?
“My portfolio has grown a lot lately, as I’ve used the lockdown period to try things I haven’t before. For instance, I have been doing a lot of hide work, and also waiting as long as it takes for bumblebees, mining and mason bees to return to their nests. The time I have invested has paid dividends in more unusual behavioural images. Many nocturnal mammals visit the garden and I’ve managed to photograph them using camera traps and remotely triggered cameras. Where possible I try to frame the shot to include some elements of the domestic setting. It seems the local visitors have become very habituated to clicks and flashes at night and have become bolder than ever.”
You have captured some great badger and deer images in your garden. How do you work out where to set the camera traps?
“I often simply watch for signs like small excavations in the lawn that badgers make while foraging and flattened grass and enlarged gaps in our hedges where they’ve walked many times. They’re creatures of habit and use the same routes repeatedly. I also look for the tiny footprints or “slots” left by Muntjacs around the garden and larger ones of Roe deer and for signs of browsed plants. For the last 3 years or so, though, I’ve also been using a cheap video trailcam most nights of the year to monitor what animals are visiting the garden and when, usually setting it where I’ve seen some field signs of badgers or deer. ”
“The footage isn’t very high quality, but it’s perfect for helping me know where to set up the stills camera trap which involves a good DSLR camera and lens, an infra-red trigger mechanism and up to 4 flashguns, all carefully waterproofed. This approach has really paid off this year as the trailcam told me that both Roe and Muntjac deer were grazing a sloping section of our lawn and led to some clear camera trap photos of both. The trailcam also told me that badgers started using our garden steps regularly from late April, on their way to forage for insect grubs on the upper section of the lawn and that they started to drink from the pond as the weather became very dry in May. I then set the camera trap in good positions to capture both behaviours in stills.”
Do you know how many individual animals visit the garden?
“I can only guess at the number of badgers that visit our garden, as they are rarely distinctive to me in shots except by size, but I think around 6 or 7 visit in total from at least 2 families. We think they all come from setts in some private woodland not far below our garden, and they often forage in a large meadow grazed by horses nearby. The badgers, Roe and Muntjac deer and foxes all use a well-worn path they’ve made that runs along below our garden and enters a neighbour’s garden as well. There used to be a rather flimsy chicken wire fence in one corner of the garden, but the badgers and deer have completely flattened it over the years and we haven’t repaired it. Some of our neighbours who have well-tended gardens and vegetable plots work hard to try and keep them all out, but don’t always succeed!”
What attracts the badgers into your garden?
“I think the badgers mostly visit our garden to hunt for worms, sniffed out by their sensitive noses. Worms are their staple food and they can really feast on them on very wet nights when more come to the surface. They also hunt for slugs, snails and beetle grubs in the lawn. We get a lot of cockchafers flying to the lights from our windows on early summer nights and their big grubs are a real favourite for badgers who also dig for leatherjackets (Cranefly larvae) and for bumblebee larvae.”
What particularly attracts roe deer into the garden?
“Roe deer are the ultimate browsers and like to nibble a bit of this and a bit of that. They keep moving around trying everything that’s edible and some things that aren’t meant to be! In our garden they especially like ivy leaves (no problem), rose leaves (major problem as the bushes are often left completely bare), laurel leaves (poisonous to humans, but the deer eat a few) and they seem to try everything else that grows that isn’t extremely spiny or toxic.”
“They sometimes sneak right up onto the patio to nibble the leaves of Begonias and other flowers in pots, so living with deer is a mixed blessing. We love watching them, though, and tolerate a fair bit of destructive nibbling and never chase them off, even if we catch them in the act!”
Deer are usually quite timid. Did you use a hide to get the daytime shots, or were they taken from inside the house?
“Most of my daytime roe deer photos were taken from either the sash window of our bathroom on the first floor, which I have to raise very quietly not to alert them, or through the double glazed windows of our front room. A hide at ground level would likely not work for deer, as they’d probably smell me and their visits in daytime are also too intermittent to make hide use effective. They’re also quite wary of the camera trap set-up. However, I’ve found ways to get shots of them and the even shyer Muntjac. I try to see where they’ve been grazing, set up the trap nearby and often catch them with it before they realise it’s in place.”
“Even that never worked for Muntjac, as they are so shy and observant and always managed to avoid the camera trap, but I found a way to get some shots this year. Once the trailcam told me they were grazing a patch of grass on our lawn this spring, I set the camera box and light stands out for a couple of weeks for them to get used to before slipping the camera and flash guns in, and then immediately had some success.”
How important is it to have a pond in a garden to attract wildlife?
“Ponds are really good for attracting more wildlife to a garden. Birds and mammals may well come to drink from them and birds can bathe in them. Frogs, toads and perhaps even newts may come to breed. And a wide variety of invertebrates, such as damselflies, dragonflies, pond skaters and water boatmen, soon colonise. So garden ponds create thriving wildlife habitats, with lots for us to enjoy watching.”
How large is the pond in your garden and how did you construct it?
“Our circular pond is quite small, just 2 metres across and about half a metre deep, built of concrete and stone and lined with a thick plastic sheet. We had it built 2 years ago at the same time as some new garden steps were constructed on a steep slope, and it’s been a huge bonus for us and many kinds of wildlife. Before we filled it with water, I built a rubble slope in one side of the pond to give plants a good place to root in, for aquatic wildlife to find safe crevices in and for any creatures that might fall in to be able to climb out again. I’m sure that has helped many kinds of wildlife to use it so quickly. We planted it with native wild plants such as Spiked water milfoil, Water mint, Marsh woundwort, Yellow flags, Water forget-me-not, Bog bean, Water speedwell and Yellow water lily. They all established really fast and have proved a magnet for lots of insects as they flower in turn across the warmer months.”
Which new species were attracted by the pond?
“Almost as soon as the pond was built and filled in May 2018, many kinds of wildlife began to appear in it with a mass of water fleas, pond skaters, pond snails and water boatmen appearing within weeks. Some were introduced with plants we got from garden centres and a neighbour’s pond, but others have flown in. Large red and azure damelsflies and Broad-bodied chaser Dragonflies came to lay egg within weeks, and lots of adults now emerge in summer. More species have been coming to lay this year including large, colourful Emperor dragonflies. ”
“Frogs began breeding in the pond last year and lots of honeybees and hoverflies come to drink. The badgers learnt during the dry spell in May that they could climb up onto the edge to drink and the Roe deer have started to visit for a drink too. Wood pigeons drink from and bathe it in a lot (a mixed blessing as they leave an oily scum on the surface!) and blackbirds and other small birds often come to drink as well.”
How many species of bee do you have in your garden?
“We get masses of honeybees in the garden and at least three kinds of bumblebee. We have early, red-tailed and buff-tailed with the last two often nesting in the lawn or under old tree stumps. It’s hard to be sure how many kinds of solitary bee we get as there are so many kinds that look similar, but I’ve definitely identified red mason bees, two kinds of leafcutter bee, and five kinds of mining bee, while the ivy bee, a new species to the UK in 2001, now visits our ivy flowers in big numbers in autumn. . We also have common furrow bees nesting in the the lawn, and several species of solitary bee and wasp use the two insect hotels we have in the garden.”
Which species act as natural pest control, eating aphids and other garden pests?
“There are lots of helpful natural insect predators that really help control pest species, while frogs, toads, badgers and hedgehogs eat snails and slugs. So having a good mix of wildlife around can really help keep pests under control. Ladybirds are really effective aphid hunters, as are the larvae of marmalade hoverflies. Green lacewing larvae are called aphid lions for good reason, as each one can eat up to 100 aphids a day. Small black aphid wasps also collect aphids to feed their grubs and the even smaller braconid wasps kill many aphids by laying eggs in them. So a huge amount of pest control happens naturally in “wilder” gardens without using chemicals and we very rarely use them.”
Can you give us some top tips for attracting wildlife into a small garden?
“Here are my top tips for attracting lots of wildlife to gardens:
- Make sure there is a wide variety of plants and bushes offering lots of nectar, pollen, fruit and cover for insects and birds..
- Try not to be too tidy. Wildlife loves piles of old leaves and rocks, rotting wood and plants you might consider to be weeds are often really beneficial to wildlife. Not mowing lawns too often allows lots of small flowers to appear, which pollinators love.
- Mammals need easy access and pathways. Gaps in fences and hedges to allow easy movement between gardens and wilder areas beyond are really important. Species like hedgehogs really benefit from “hedgehog highway” gaps in fences and small tunnels under them to move around easily.
- Having some available water around in bird baths, ponds or dishes for thirsty hedgehogs and other visitors can really help.”
We have also created an extensive gallery of Nick Upton’s garden photography, taken both in his own garden and in others in Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire. We hope this gives some inspiration about what can be achieved by creating a wildlife-friendly garden, with benefits for nature and people too.