Nature Quest: Discovering my local patch

My 'local patch' in summerWhen I set a number of wildlife-related ‘Nature Quest‘ challenges for myself at the beginning of this year, I did not initially list discovering my local wildlife patch as one of them. Instead, it developed almost accidentally over the year as I used my local green spaces to take breaks from my work, get fresh air and exercise, explore a bit and recharge my batteries.

However, what I learnt was that by regularly visiting my ‘local wildlife patch’ – simply the green space nearest to where I live – I not only got a refreshing break and a dose of nature, but also a unique chance to watch the changing seasons, learn a bit more about my local wildlife, and find some surprises along the way.

What is a ‘local patch’?

There has been a lot of talk recently in the wildlife world about monitoring your ‘local patch’. BBC Wildlife Magazine has even had 20 ‘local wildlife patch reporters‘ doing this over the last year and reporting back on what they’ve seen.

A local patch could be anything really, from your garden or walk to work to a nearby wood or wildlife reserve.

For me, my ‘local patch’ used to include my garden, small and urban as it was. Now living in a flat, I’m forced to go a bit further afield for my local nature fix, but luckily not far – some fields and woods behind where I live have become my new stomping ground.

My local fields

I live on the edge of a city, but it’s a huge relief to have parks, wood and fields nearby. I started exploring the fields soon after I moved in. They’re not the most amazing, biodiverse, unspoilt habitat in the world – they’re mainly used for horses, they’re almost constantly waterlogged, and they’re next to a busy motorway and an old railway line – but they lead down to a small nature reserve and do provide a small haven for wildlife.

Common blue butterfly in local patch Local patch - caterpillar Local patch - rabbit run

The thing I like most about this patch is that it’s peaceful. In a year of visiting it I’ve seen a grand total of two people. It’s somewhere to get away from everything and have a chance to think, and to feel like I’m the only one seeing what’s there. As I work from home, I’m lucky to be able to go down there when I take a break. And over the year I’ve started to learn the sights, sounds and smells which transcend the sound of the traffic and the nearness of the city.

I’ve seen my patch through all four seasons now, from the first spring shoots in the woods, through fields of glorious buttercups and wildflowers, to thick, undulating meadows of grass in summer, the cutting of the grass in early autumn and the first crisp, photogenic frosts of the winter.

Local patch - woodland in spring Local patch - woodland in summer Local patch - seeds on woodland floor

Local patch - buttercup field Local patch - grass cutting in late summer

I’ve seen rabbits scuttling away, surprised hunting foxes, been surprised in turn by roe deer dashing in front of me, and had my soul soothed by hundreds of butterflies. There are the regular birds – the magpies, crows and woodpigeons in the fields, the gentle chirps of bullfinches in the hedges and the shrill calls of long-tailed tits in the trees – and also some seasonal visitors, such as reed warblers and redwings. I’ve seen newly fledged buzzards soaring overhead, watched a noctule bat hunting around an old oak , and even stumbled across a (sadly deceased) water shrew.

Dead water shrew It’s not just been about the wildlife or the peace and quiet, though. Exploring my patch has allowed me to go on my own mini-adventures, finding new paths, exploring new routes around the area, choosing new directions with unknown destinations. These explorations have thrown up unexpected finds, such as a glorious bluebell display in a small copse at the edge of the fields.

Bluebells in local patch wood Local patch - buttercup field

Frosty reeds Local patch in frost

A surprise back home

I have to confess, I didn’t just find one local patch this year – I found two. I suppose technically the second isn’t local to me, but it’s right next to where I grew up in Kent, and where my parents still live.

It seems that in all the years I spent growing up there, I never realised there were extensive fields just down the road from my house. And worse than that, I didn’t know that in those fields were good populations of farmland birds such as yellowhammers and skylarks, as well as rabbits, badgers (quite a few, judging by the extensive latrines we found!) and a multitude of insect life. How did I not know this was there?!

Crops growing in fields, Kent Late summer in fields, Kent

Ok, like my own local fields these ones not perfect – they are managed as arable farmland, and are joined by large orchards which are also fairly intensively managed – but the wildlife is clearly thriving, helped by healthy hedgerows, ditches and unmanaged areas. They’re like a hidden gem, barely a mile from a busy town centre; a relaxing place to explore and take a break. So much so that I now make a visit there an essential part of any trip to see my parents.

Autumn in fields Local river

I’ve seen these fields change too over the year since I found out about their existence. Spring was marked by a wave of new wildflowers and by dozens of yellowhammers and skylarks in full song. The heat of summer brought clouds of demoiselles and other damselflies and dragonflies. Autumn brought the harvest and some interesting fungi, and winter has now arrived with a lot more mud!

I’ve enjoyed exploring this new place as well, scouring satellite images and footpath maps to find new routes I can try out, and sometimes dragging others along with me to share it all.

Poppies in fields, Kent Brooding clouds over fields, KentMushroom in fields, Kent Badger latrine

The biggest surprise though were two species I would never have believed could be there. The first was a totally unexpected nightingale – in fact not one but about three singing males, warbling away by the river. Only the second nightingales I’ve ever heard, and they were in my home town! The second was perhaps even more of a surprise: I’ve made special trips out to suitable locations to see the now very rare turtle dove, all unsuccessfully, and ended up finding one purring during an evening stroll across these fields with a friend. It just goes to show the value of exploring those places closest to you and not taking them for granted. You never know what you might find!

Why visit your local patch?

Well, for all the reasons I’ve given above, and more. If you spend time exploring your surrounding area and getting to know its wildlife, you get to see how it changes with the seasons, you learn what wildlife to expect and where, you experience different weathers, sights, sounds, smells, and you get a sense of adventure as you explore and discover it.

Perhaps most importantly, it becomes ‘yours’. You start to care about it, feel a connection with it, and you’ll naturally want to protect it. And like me you’re bound to get surprises and find things you never knew were there. There will always be more to discover about it. It’s good for the soul!

Rainbow over fields, Kent

Why not get to know a local space near you in 2015?

You don’t have to visit a particular patch every day or even every week. But regular visits to the same place are a great way of getting to know a site and its wildlife. Why not choose somewhere near you and follow it over the year? You could document what you see and how it changes. Look a bit more closely at things you might otherwise take for granted. You could even BioBlitz it to see just how many species it supports!

Why not blog about it? See BBC Wildlife Magazine’s website on how to be a ‘local patch reporter’ in 2015.

Have fun!

Shadow and ditch in fields, Kent Dandelions Local patch - footprints in dew

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