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Yorkshire Wildlife Trust look forward to National Nest Box Week

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 January 2017

Greater spotted woodpecker. Photo Harry Hogg

Greater spotted woodpecker. Photo Harry Hogg

Harry Hogg

Yorkshire’s wildlife is on the hunt for a des res for the busy summer ahead. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall has a look what’s on the market

Gannett. Photo Margaret HollandGannett. Photo Margaret Holland

There’s a very good reason why National Nestbox Week is held each February. The romance of Valentine’s Day provides the perfect precursor for the upcoming breeding season, and for a lot of wildlife that also means finding a new home for the summer.

House hunting in what is often the harshest month of winter can seem strange, but as the best in the business will tell you, the most sought after locations are always the first to go. When your window of opportunity for raising a family might only be a few weeks long, those who hang around until the lengthening days of April and May are sure to miss out.

When it comes to the natural world, there are generally three choices; self-building, renting or squatting – and all come with their advantages and perils.

Barn owl. Photo Andrew MasonBarn owl. Photo Andrew Mason

One of those quick off the mark is the barn owl. Often using the winter to re-affirm the pair bond or find a new partner, it’s not unknown to find eggs being laid during March – which means a new home has to be decided upon well in advance. As their name suggests, these ghostly silent hunters were historically a firm farmyard fixture, but sadly are now increasingly relying on nestboxes. This however, has provided an opportunity for volunteers to offer an increased capacity for the species, and also better monitoring of its fortunes.

The Yorkshire Wolds and the county’s coastal meadows remain a great place to look for barn owls, with accommodation providers such as High Barn Holiday Cottages near Bempton even providing guests with their very own Springwatch-style barn owl experience from a box just metres above guests’ heads.

Rather smaller than the barn owl, but no less reliant on a helping hand from conservationists is the hazel dormouse. Once widespread across the UK in traditionally managed coppice woodlands of a century ago, these diminutive ginger-furred mammals are now back in the Yorkshire Dales thanks to a reintroduction scheme and a miniature housing boom.

Greater spotted woodpecker. Photo Bob CoyleGreater spotted woodpecker. Photo Bob Coyle

Requiring nestboxes both for their vital winter hibernation and to raise a family, one-room social housing has been put in place in woodlands near Aysgarth to support the newly-welcomed residents. The architecture may be less familiar though, with the homes taking the form a typical garden bird nest box but with a back door for these shy and elusive characters.

When it comes to self-building, birds have really carved out a niche – in every sense of the word. As the month draws to a close, woodpeckers who have been using their beaks to drum out a tune to attract a mate, will soon be putting the same chiselling tools to good use excavating a new home. Great spotted woodpeckers will need to excavate around 12 inches deep to create a nest cavity – work that will be undertaken by both the male and female birds. This head-banging activity has seen them adapt remarkably well to the job, with special tissues built into the base of the beak to provide vital shock absorption from the skull. Leeds’ Adel Dam nature reserve is a popular spot for watching both greater and lesser spotted woodpeckers.

If the woodpeckers’ residence is a work of finely crafted joinery, then Yorkshire’s otters prefer a more rustic approach. Once a feature of all our larger waterways, by the 1970s numbers in areas like the River Hull and Aire were at critical levels. Industrial chemicals, pesticides and hunting were largely to blame with a slow turnaround finally starting to take place from the 1990s as a recovery got underway.

Otter. Photo Margaret HollandOtter. Photo Margaret Holland

Today, like the dormouse, ‘pre-fabs’ are once again all the rage and behind a riverbank renaissance for the otter. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and others have installed dozens of otter ‘holts’ on rivers including the Aire and Whiske, hefty constructions of mud and large wooden boughs, sometimes with corrugated roofs. These temporary stop-offs provide an insight into these secretive mammals, with some nature reserves such as Tophill Low near Driffield installing infra-red cameras in a wildlife version of ‘Big Brother’.

With otters, dormice and barn owls aiming for a cosy home, Yorkshire’s seabirds take a very different approach. Often the last to leave in the autumn, northern gannets are already starting to make their way back to the cliffs of Bempton this month, where house-hunting couldn’t be any more competitive than with 250,000 other feathered first time buyers.

As if finding a suitable plot on the perilous 400ft cliffs – higher than those of Dover – wasn’t enough, as Britain’s largest seabird, there’s a flurry of 5ft wings to consider too. Unlike the relaxed parenting of the guillemots, whose eggs are laid directly onto the cliff ledge, gannets opt for at least a resemblance of a nest with a carefully moulded mound of mud, droppings and scavenged flotsam and jetsom for a touch of interior design. Worryingly, this penchant for providing a splash of colour can often lead to death-defying stories of rescue as gannets become tangled in the ever growing rafts of marine litter in our seas. Discarded fishing tackle and plastics have led to gannets trapped on their own nests, with staff from the RSPB and RSPCA often called in to release starving and injured birds.

A bug hotel. Photo Sue TatmanA bug hotel. Photo Sue Tatman

Finally, for those happy with more communal living, there’s no better back garden project than a ‘bug hotel’. Originally developed as a great re-use of old haulage pallets, today bug hotels have become an art in themselves, providing a popular pastime for allotment users and afterschool clubs alike, with a range of stunning creations to rival any episode of Grand Designs.

This month can be a ideal time to start thinking about a bug hotel for spring, which will not only provide rooms to rent for insects and invertebrates during the summer, but a vital place of slumber when the temperatures drop again, from butterflies to ladybirds. For some inspiration, try nature reserves like YWT Potteric Carr or Stirley Farm, RSPB Old Moor Wetlands or Bempton Cliffs.

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