Greener Greenways benefit biodiversity

 

The bulk of Scotland’s population lives in the central-belt corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh. That’s one of the many reasons we were delighted to have supported the Greener Greenways project which sought to engage people with nature on their local active travel routes.

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A wildflower meadow created on one of the Greener Greenways routes in 2015.

The Greener Greenways project was delivered by Sustrans, the charity behind the fabulous National Cycle Network (NCN).  It provides around 600 miles of traffic-free cycling routes and through the hard work of organisations such as Sustrans we now have a cycling and walking route within 2 miles of 78% of the Scottish population.

The Network’s traffic-free routes offer huge potential for biodiversity, and it is clear that by improving and creating habitats along these routes we can help people, biodiversity and our hard-pressed pollinators at the same time.

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Pollinators on meadow wildflowers.

People lay at the very heart of the Greener Greenways project. Volunteers embraced the opportunity to participate in citizen science as well as practical habitat management, whilst giving nature a much needed helping hand. It was perhaps the classic ‘win-win’ situation.

The health benefits of cycling and walking are well-documented, but less well-known are the opportunities that these routes provide for enhancing biodiversity.

To help deliver the latter, eleven traffic-free routes were chosen, mainly within the Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) area, and volunteer wildlife champions were recruited. They were the engine behind an array of beautiful flower-rich verges and meadows, insect-friendly embankments and newly planted hedgerows.

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Volunteers carrying out traditional grassland management using Austrian scythes.

Huge credit for the success of the project must go to the Sustrans Scotland Greener Greenways team – namely, ecologist Lenka Sukenikova, and Laura White, Volunteer Coordinator for Routes. They ensured that a wide variety of wildlife habitats and features were embedded in the survey and restoration work carried out.

 

‘I feel more involved with the Network, slightly more responsible for it. if I’m out and I’m not litter picking and I see litter I’m tempted to pick it up and put it in a bin further up the route and that sort of thing. And I suppose look out more for natural, you know, flowers, wildlife. I’m more aware of that now than I was in the past.’

 

The volunteers were crucial because habitat creation and management are labour intensive activities.  Volunteers helped to create and manage grasslands, wetlands, woodlands, hedgerows and orchards, and they delivered the habitat management plans drawn up for each route.

In addition to practical work, volunteers were also involved in recording wildlife, thus increasing Sustrans’ knowledge of biodiversity on the NCN and contributing biological records to a number of national wildlife recording schemes. Records were provided to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme and to the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch (adapted for the NCN). From a pollinator perspective the project provided useful data to BeeWalk, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s monitoring scheme.

It was not of course a ‘one-way street’. In return for all this recording effort, the project offered people training in wildlife identification and survey techniques, and practical conservation skills, whilst offering friendship and social connections, as well as an opportunity to achieve the John Muir Award.

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A bumblebee enjoying a meadow wildflower.

The Greener Greenways project, as it was known between 2013 and 2018, has perhaps run its initial course. The legacy it leaves, however, lives on, and the project has been developed into a number of smaller initiatives integrated into Sustrans’ Network Development programme.  So the good work continues.

In the meantime, it is great to reflect on a project that has encouraged communities to get involved in improving their local active travel routes, provided a boost for people’s health and well-being, and of course helped biodiversity. What’s not to like?

 

All images courtesy of Lenka Sukenikova.

Edinburgh Council extend a helping hand to pollinators

The City of Edinburgh Council has a lot to be proud of in their work supporting pollinators as part of the Edinburgh Living Landscape programme. From creating floral meadows, to changing management of amenity grasslands, they are doing a huge amount for pollinators in our capital. When Alan Bell, Greenspace Manager for City of Edinburgh Council, met with Alice Brawley from Scottish Natural Heritage he explained the background to much of the work they’re doing.

The Greenspace team in the city’s Parks, Greenspace & Cemeteries service, create and manage so many sites that they are well placed to give an informed insight into practices and perceptions around changes in grassland management.    

Edinburgh Living Landscape, (which The City of Edinburgh Council are a part of), is a partnership set up to restore and connect green spaces in the city which is creating a biodiverse landscape that residents, visitors and nature can enjoy.

Good results are the outcome of a lot of planning. Working closely with Scotia seeds, they developed an ‘Edinburgh Biodiversity Seed Mix’ made of both annuals and perennials of native and non-native species. The result was often wondrous displays of colour, and pollinator friendly havens, throughout the summer months.

As more wild seed companies come onto the market, Alan offered the following advice:

“try and buy from companies which identify the
percentage of each type of seed in the mix to
ensure the mix is not dominated by the
poorest quality and cheapest seed type.”

Silverknowes Roundabout1 05.09.18

Many observers encourage the planting of perennial mixes over annuals for their long-term sustainability. Once established, no more sowing needs to take place so this approach can be cheaper in the long run and often provides significantly more forage for pollinators. However, as they can take longer to establish, flowering displays won’t always be seen until year 2 or 3. Edinburgh opted for annuals at some sites to give pleasing results in the first year. These need to be re-sown every year but require less weed management from the offset.  

Alan noted the anticipated difficulty of changing public opinion on the attractiveness of meadows as an alternative landscape design out of season. This decision might resonate with other councils which have experienced the ‘pressure’ of ensuring sites preserve a ‘managed’ look all year round.

Management of 80-sites across a sprawling city is no easy task, and Alan reckoned this is the maximum number of sites he and his team could support with their current resources. Meadows require fewer cuts per annum which saves money. However, Alan emphasised a need for care and discretion when selling wildflower management as a direct cost-saving strategy, especially within councils whose grounds maintenance staff are already stretched for resources. The time saved on cutting can create more time to maintain shrubs, flower beds, hedges and grassed area.

Lifting of cuttings is an important part of the meadow management process and Alan identified this as one of the biggest challenges. Meadows can benefit from cuttings being left for 1 – 2 weeks to allow seeds to drop back into the earth. However, from a logistical perspective, it is easiest to remove cuttings all in one go.

To dispose of cuttings from so many sites is also a challenge. Alan’s team tried to liaise with farmers to do the cutting and lifting on their meadows, where they can then use the by-products for hay. Due to the poor quality of the cuttings, this was not a great success. Despite the challenges presented, Alan’s already thinking about how to overcome these hurdles for next year.

 

Floral meadows aren’t the only action Edinburgh City Council has implemented. They have created naturalised grasslands to encourage biodiversity by reducing cutting and planting yellow rattle at sites to discourage grass growth. They don’t cut hedges in summer to give pollinators an opportunity to nest.

When the Edinburgh Living Landscape project was first introduced, staff were at the centre. They made good progress working to chance perceptions both internally and to the wider public. It can be hard to change people’s mind set on the value of weeds for pollinators, especially if you’ve been brought up thinking they’re a problem.

Councillors were briefed and given Q&A cards on the benefits of meadows to support them in answering questions and complaints regarding changes in land use

Finally came engagement with the public. Signs were added at every site to show the site is being maintained and managed for biodiversity. Now, 4-5 years down the line, Alan has noticed a huge improvement in the acceptance of meadows – from colleagues changing their opinions to fewer public complaints.

Harrison Park July Sign 2015

When it comes to creating a pollinator-friendly Scotland, councils are at the forefront. Talking to Alan certainly emphasised the value of councils sharing good practice across the whole country.

Alice Brawley, Pollinator Strategy Graduate Placement

Edinburgh Living Landscapes is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, The City of Edinburgh Council, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Edinburgh & Lothians Greenspace Trust, The University of EdinburghButterfly Conservation Scotland and the RSPB. Working in partnership, the Edinburgh Living Landscape aims to improve the ecosystem health of Edinburgh for the benefit of local people and wildlife.

Take the dandelion dare

To capture your attention I could do a lot worse, it seems, than encourage you to “Make space for dandelions.”  Rarely has one single plant raised the ire of so many, but let me explain whilst I make a plea for this very special flower.

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Now, I will concede from the outset that dandelions have had a bad press.  Think dandelion and you might very well think tap roots. Not just any old tap roots, but the kind which it seems refuse to be dug out, cling to earth with a tenacity that belies their delicate flower, and will even set up home in cracked concrete and brick. It isn’t just an issue of devilish determination, there is an aesthetic challenge here too. For anyone who loves that vision of a lawn which resembles a bowling green dandelions ruin the scene.

However,  hear me out, dandelions, given half a chance, can considerably enhance your experience of wildlife in the garden.

Delay that first spring cut, let the dandelions have their time in the sun and you could be feeding so many hungry pollinating insects.  A little concession on your part, a potential life-saver for our hard-pressed insects.

The problem for insects, especially emerging queen bumblebees, is that food sources are quite thin on the ground in spring.  Add to that the northerly location of Scotland and you can see that things can be tough for insects.

A dandelion in bloom is vivid yellow, and a tempting restaurant for those insects seeking to stock up before they begin the serious job of raising the next generation.  For some gardeners they might as well be bright red, like the cape of a matador is to a bull. But try to think beyond your conventional idea of a gardening canvas.

 

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There is a temptation to keep our gardens neat and tidy. And that’s fine, but if we compromise and set aside a little bit of space for nature we can deliver a big benefit.  By letting the lawn-mower languish in the shed for a week or two longer we could make life a lot easier for insects

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), wasn’t always unpopular. It was believed to have a medicinal value as a diuretic, hence a variety of fairly uncouth old names.  Its early leaves used to be viewed as a snack stuffed with vitamins, and there were those who swore that the sap of a dandelion was a cure for warts. Add to the mix some stories suggesting that it could work against blood pressure issues, colds, poor circulation, and hot flushes and you can see why it was viewed rather differently in the past.

However, what about the here and now I hear you ask?  The emergence of dandelions in March or April is a boon for honeybees, hoverflies, beetles, butterflies, solitary bees and the ever popular bumblebees.  That’s a roll-call of some of the very insects we need to give a helping hand to.

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Someone once said “Don’t mow, let it grow”.  I don’t know if they had the humble dandelion in mind when they uttered that lovely phrase, but I hope they did, and what’s more I hope someone heard.  If you let the plant have its day, perhaps in a wild corner, you can even look forward in time to a relaxing game of blowing the feather-like seed heads in the wind.

Hang fire on cutting your grass, let the dandelions have a spell in flower, and congratulate yourself on helping our pollinators.

 

Bee kind

Bee kind is an online educational gardening resource designed to help people choose the best plants for bumblebees and other pollinators in their gardens.  We spoke with Darryl Cox of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to find out more about tool they have developed which promises to help take the nations’ bee-friendly gardens to the next level!

 

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Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, (c) Les Moore

What’s new about this tool Darryl ?

The most notable change is that we have an improved plant list and a new way of ranking plant value.  This means that the number of plants has expanded from around 150 plants to an impressive library of around 700 pollinator friendly plants, including over 200 bumblebee super plants. That’s great news.

The original Bee kind was built on one way of scoring plants, which is by ranking them based on how attractive they were to bumblebees. This involved surveying over a thousand Bumblebee Conservation Trust members back in 2011 and working out which plants came out on top across gardens in the UK.

Now, thanks to available data on the volume of pollen and nectar that plants produce, Bumblebee Conservation Trust has also been able to add a new dimension to the scoring by identifying the stand-out performers.

Bee kind can be found here: http://www.beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org

 

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Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, (c) Les Moore

If you were to single out another exciting development in the new tool, what would it be?

Probably the fact that the scoring system can be revised and updated as more data becomes available. Pollinator science is fast-paced and we expect to learn even more in the coming years about the value of plants beyond just nectar and pollen volume and attractiveness, for example, there is research looking in to the nutritional value of different pollen and nectar, and the role of plants in hosting bacteria essential for the bee microbiome (think good bacteria yoghurt drinks but for bees), all of which may make a plant less, or more, valuable to bees than others.

You seem to have managed to make the tool more personal this time around?

Yes, I think it would be fair to say that.  Recommendations can now be filtered based on the growing conditions in your garden, as well as your personal preferences. This means that the more information you enter, the more appropriate your plant recommendations will be. So for example, you may want to choose a shrub which produces purple flowers in September and will grow in acidic soil, Bee kind will list all of the flowers that match those specifications – in this case recommending plants like Heathers and Lavenders.

You have incorporated a new educational scoring system too we understand.

Yes, this is based on feedback about how your garden scored points. The scoring system encourages gardeners to ensure they have pollinator-friendly plants throughout the key months of the bumblebee life-cycle (March to October), with bonus points for plants which are known bumblebee favourites and for planting plants which are native to the UK. Convincing people to provide forage across the seasons is a key educational aim.

How do you tackle the issue of non-native invasive plants ?

Non-native invasive plants are discouraged with the application of penalty points, and information on why this is important. Users are now able to estimate the coverage of each plant in their garden, and receive bonus points for increased coverage, although these bonus points are limited to encourage floral diversity, which is better than a monoculture.

1.1.20 Buff-tailed bumblebee queen, Bombus terrestris

Buff-tailed bumblebee queen, Bombus terrestris, (c) Bumblebee Conservation Trust

If you had a front and a back garden that were markedly different, does the tool allow for comparisons?

Certainly.  Once signed up, users can now add multiple gardens so if you want to compare your front garden to your back, or if you manage multiple gardens, you can now assess their individual bee-friendliness scores. You can also create a wish list so you know which plants or seeds to get next to fill in the gaps in your bee-friendly garden.

Any final message Darryl ?

We are pretty confident our followers will share their scores with people in their social network and encourage others to do so too. There is a hashtag to encourage this =  #Beekind! We certainly encourage people to compare and contrast their results.  The new web application is maximised for mobile use and provides all the benefits of an app through a smart phone’s web browser without taking up memory (mobile phone data usage may apply if not connected to wifi).

Just a reminder. Bee kind can be found @ http://www.beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org

 

 

Further reading:

Bee kind is an important resource to help the Welsh, UK, Irish and Scottish governments to achieve their respective pollinator action strategies. It is free to access and can be used by schools, businesses, local authorities and the general public to help improve their gardens for bumblebees and other pollinating insects.

 

Redeveloping the Bee kind app has been real collaborative effort and Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and in particular Sally Cuckney and Darryl Cox, owe great thanks to all the people who made it happen, including their web development team at Hydra Creative, dedicated volunteers (Jack Reid, Rachel Clarke, Bill Wales, Lucy Dunsmore and Izzy Bunting), colleagues at Plantlife and Anthony McCluskey for their expert advice, as well as all of those who helped test and refine the tool (Jack Reid, Bex Cartwright, Les Moore, Andy Benson, Annie Ives, Dawn Ewing, Richard Comont and Barnaby Smith). BBCT are also very grateful to the RHS and John Crellin from floralimages.co.uk for the use of their images within Bee kind, to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for backing our work to help bumblebees, and to the Communications team at BBCT and Richard Bunting for helping to promote Bee kind.

 

All images courtesy of Bumblebee Conservation Trust.