Emma Pritchard celebrates meadows gardens and the magic of nature at dusk in her top picks for what's going on in the Surrey countryside over July
A bat tumbling overhead, the sound of a nightingales and nightjars, and the vanilla scent of gorse; the countryside as the light fades is a magical place. But when was the last time you really experienced it? The final weekend of July (29-31) is the ideal opportunity to delve into the darkness with the return of the RSPB’s popular Big Wild Sleepout, now in its fourth year. Encouraging the public to spend a night under canvas in their own back garden, novice and experienced campers alike will love the specially-created survival pack featuring ID guides and child-friendly activities to unlock the nocturnal world.
No garden? Join fellow night watchers at RSPB Farnham Heath on 29 July (booking essential) and pitch up in a secret meadow. There’ll be bonfire-baked jacket potatoes, bush crafts, a twilight wander around the reserve and, of course, hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows. rspb.org.uk
Growing for gold
Inspired by Chelsea? Put your green-fingered prowess to the test in a different type of gardening contest. The Wildlife Gardening Competition 2016, organised by the Surrey Wildlife Trust and Squires Garden Centres, is a celebration of the county’s greenest spaces – in all senses of the word. “You don’t need a big garden to take part,” says Surrey Wildlife Trust’s gardening guru Dawn Fielding. “Balconies, allotments, front gardens, schools and business grounds can all be fantastic havens for wildlife.” And, with habitat loss regularly reported and wildlife decline reaching worrying highs – hedgehog numbers have fallen by 30 percent, for example, as fast as tigers are disappearing worldwide – there’s no better time to transform your outside space into a nature haven.
- Plant herbs such as marjoram, rosemary, sage and thyme in a window box and leave to flower to support pollinating insects.
- Create a water feature using an old tub or trough. Fill it with rainwater then plant insect-protecting flag irises around the edges.
- Replace chemical fertilisers with seaweed derivatives, pelted chicken manure, homemade compost and leaf mould.
- Set up a pile of twigs or logs in a quiet part of your garden to provide shelter.
- Avoid trimming your hedge until after August and then do so in stages so there is always an undisturbed place for wildlife.
Meet me in the meadow
Step into summer in an instant with a rainbow-coloured ramble through some of the area’s finest floral habitats. Once common nationwide, ancient wildflower meadows are now sacred sights, suffering a 7.5 million-acre loss since the 1930s. National Meadows Day was on 2 July but it’s not too late to enjoy the wonders of many local sites: Sheapleas in West Horsley is a SSSI rich with marjoram, wild thyme, eyebright, orchids and more than 30 species of butterfly; Old Windsor’s Runnymede boasts displays of birds foot trefoil, vetches and stitchwort; while at Moor Copse, Reading, believed to have been the inspiration behind E. H. Shepard’s The Wind in the Willows illustrations, you can marvel at delicate violets and the acrobatics of silver-washed fritillary, demoiselle damselflies and brown hawker dragonflies.
Fortunately, conservation groups including Plantlife (plantlife.org.uk) are striving to restore 14,000 acres of wildflower meadows in a UK-wide Save Our Magnificent Meadows project – but they need your support. Visit magnificentmeadows.org.uk to see how you can keep Britain blooming for generations to come.