13 things we learned about making nest boxes from Sherborne Park Estate’s rangers

Earlier this morning National Trust rangers on the Sherborne Park Estate took to Facebook Live to explain how they’re looking after birds on the Cotswold estate that’s charming millions on BBC Springwatch.

As well as building a bird box in under five minutes, they showed-off the different kinds of bird boxes they put up at Sherborne Park – including homes for barn owls, willow tits, tawny owls and dippers.

Here are 13 things we learned from the Facebook Live.

1. It’s really easy to make a blue tit box

Ranger James Gomery knocked up the blue tit nest box in under five minutes from untreated wood that they had lying around their yard.

He used a pattern from this amazing British Trust for Ornithology nestbox guide.


Laying out the box – plus one made earlier

2. If you’re making a nest box you should use wood

Anna Field, an ecologist and ranger at Sherborne Park Estate, said: “The important thing is not to use plastic or metals. They can get hot or damp inside and cause problems for the chicks.

“The other important thing is that you use wood that’s at least 15mm thick. That insulates birds from the weather.”

3. There are around fifty nest boxes for blue tits and great tits at Sherborne – but there are lots of other boxes for different species

A few years ago rangers put up several nest boxes that have no front panel at all. These were for dippers – a small black and white bird that snatches insects from fast flowing rivers.

“It’s historically bred on the estate,” Anna said. “But we don’t have any at the moment.

“A couple of years ago we had a young bird who came to winter with us, so we rather speculatively put up some of these boxes. We have had grey wagtails nesting in them.

4. If you’re putting up a box in your garden, don’t put it near your bird feeder

Birds don’t tend to use nest boxes near where they feed, ranger Anna said. Keeping the nest boxes away from the feeder also helps reduce disturbance.

Anna added: “If you’re putting them in an exposed position in a tree in your garden it’s best to face them north to east, away from the wet winds to the bright sunshine.”

5. Regularly cleaning your feeder helps prevent diseases

Anna said: “Empty them, put them in boiling water – and that kills off the diseases.”

At this time of year a water bath can also help the birds to keep clean – important when they’re nesting.


6. Owl nesting boxes are massive

Anna said: “Different owls have different sizes and different habits, so you need to have different boxes for each of them.”


Anna and Simon with a barn owl box

7. But they don’t always get used by owls – sometimes they’re used by greedy jackdaws

Last year rangers put up a few little owl nesting boxes. The distinctive design – with a tunnel opening up into a larger chamber – is tailor made for the species, which like their nesting chamber to be really dark.

Despite having a healthy population of little owls at Sherborne, with six males, none of the boxes have been used by owls. Instead, Anna said, one of the nest boxes has been filled up with sticks by jackdaws. She said: “We’ve got them in our barn owl nest boxes and tawny owl nest boxes, but I’ve not seen one down a tunnel in a little owl nest box before.”

8. Barn owls are doing really well at Sherborne

A family of barn owls has been charming Springwatch viewers – but there are four more pairs using the nest boxes at Sherborne.

“Out of our 18 boxes we’ve got five of them with nests in this year, which is really good for an estate this size,” Anna said.  “I was just checking them yesterday and in one of our boxes the eggs are just hatching and we’ve got three little chicks and four unhatched eggs, which is a massive brood.”

9. A muddy puddle can help house martins

The small bird, which is a similar size to a swift or swallow, builds its nest from wet mud – so a source of fresh dirt can be really helpful.

“We’ve got a really damp area of our yard and we’ve had scores of house martins coming down and taking mud out,” Anna said. “I think it’s in quite short supply at this time of year because it’s been so dry.”

10. Despite the name, willow tits like to nest in rotting birch tree stumps

Sherborne’s rangers have hollowed out a big birch log to mimic the kind of nest they like.

Anna said: “We’ve hollowed it out and put a hole in. Because they like to excavate their nests we’ve filled it with wood chippings.”

There are 15 of these distinctive nest boxes at Sherborne, funded by the North Cotswolds Ornithological Society. And rangers plan to plant wet woodland this winter to help the birds further.

“We’ve only got a few pairs left. But we’re trying to do everything we can to improve the habitat.”


A willow tit nest box

11. Even the rangers’ office at Sherborne is home to wildlife.

Countryside manager Simon Nicholas said: “We’ve got great tits nesting, we’ve got blue tits nesting, we’ve even got a nuthatch nesting in the building this year.

“In these older buildings, sometimes the mortar starts disintegrating. But in some places the cracks between the stones get bigger and the little birds find their way in and build a nest.”

12. The rangers at Sherborne really love what they do

Ranger James Gomery found a tawny owlet perched in a tree just the other day. He said: “We’re always keeping our eyes peeled for the wildlife. That’s what we’re fascinated by and interested in.”

13. And every office should have a dog called Alfie

Alfie, a black, white and tan border collie, threatened to steal the show – with his heavy panting and occasional barking interrupting the start of the video.

“He’s a bit of an attention seeker,” said Alfie’s owner Simon Nicholas – the countryside manager at Sherborne Park Estate. “Apart from that he doesn’t do much work.”


Show-stealer Alfie with Simon Nicholas, Sherborne’s countryside manager


Settled Saturday weather should mean bumper wildlife for Springwatch lovers

The nesting red kites and busy stoats were blessed with blue skies and warm sun yesterday at the National Trust’s Sherborne Park Estate.

The conservation charity’s Cotswold estate, near Cheltenham, is the site of this year’s BBC Springwatch – which has just come to the end of its first week at the 4,000 acre Sherborne Park Estate.

With warm weather and sunny spells forecast, the Trust’s nature experts predict that this weekend will offer nature-lovers some brilliant sights in the countryside.

Matthew Oates, National Trust nature specialist, said: “This weekend’s going to be really exciting, as the early summer butterflies are all starting to appear. You could see rarities like Large Blue, Black Hairstreak, Heath Fritillary, and commonalities like Meadow Brown, and probably Marbled White too – all rather early.

“Look out for a lot of other June insects, like the Burnet moths and various robberflies and hoverflies.  However, the spring species, like the Orange Tip, are ending or ended.

“June’s flowers are prominent – Elder and dog roses in hedges and along road verges, Common Spotted, Fragrant and Pyramidal Orchids. And everywhere the tree foliage is darkening.”


PICTURES: Ringed plover chick takes first steps at White Park Bay, Co. Antrim

A ringed plover chick waits for its mother at White Park Bay, Co. Antrim.

With its pebble-like down, the chick is perfectly camouflaged against the shingle on the famous Northern Ireland beach. It was spotted scuttling on the beach by ranger Christie Greer last week.

There are estimated to be only 5,600 breeding pairs of ringed plover in the UK and the bird has been given a ‘red status’ by the RSPB.


Ringed plover chick at White Park Bay, Co. Antrim. Credit: Christie Greer/National Trust


Ringed plover chick at White Park Bay, Co. Antrim. Credit: Christie Greer/National Trust

Nail-biting nests in unusual places

Springwatch viewers were left on the edge of their seat early this week as they watched a family of four Jay chicks fledge from a nail-bitingly steep nest.

One fan of the smash BBC show, which is filmed at the National Trust’s Sherborne Park Estate in the Cotswolds, calculated the angle of the precipitous nest at 35 degrees – higher than Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, one of England’s steepest roads.

The National Trust cares for 250,000 hectares of countryside and the conservation charity’s rangers have found plenty of nail-biting nests this spring

Pied wagtail, Studland Beach, Dorset

Two pied wagtail parents have found a far from rubbish nesting site in the cardboard recycling bins at the National Trust’s Studland beach visitor centre in Dorset.

Kevin Rideout, visitor experience officer, said: “They were starting to show quite a lot of interest in the bins, so I had a suspicion that they’d be there. I’m glad I checked.”

After the common black-and-white birds successfully raised four youngsters, staff at the centre thought that they would be safe to empty the bins – which are next to a busy visitor centre.

But when Kevin went to check the bins earlier this week, one of the adults flew out. “They’re onto their second brood!” he said.

After seven weeks, the bins still haven’t been emptied.

PIED WAGTAIL Studland Credit Kevin Rideout, National Trust

Pied wagtail nest in a cardboard recycling bin at Studland, Dorset. CREDIT Kevin Rideout, National Trust

Mallard, Farne Islands, Northumberland

Rangers on the remote Farne Islands discovered a mallard duck nesting beside a stack of Calor gas canisters this spring.

Jen Clark, National Trust ranger, said: “The gas is kept in a cage so that if it explodes it’s contained. There’s a tiny little gap between the wall and the cage that the duck must have crawled into.

“It’s probably just because it was a nice safe place – protected from predatators attacking from above.”

The duck’s eight chicks fledged a little over a month ago. Her gas cage nest site is yet to be used by another bird.

MALLARD Farne Islands CREDIT National Trust

A mallard duck nests next to propane canisters on the Farne Islands, Northumberland. CREDIT: Jen Clark, National Trust

Razorbill, Farne Islands, Northumberland

Around 400 razorbill couples make their nests on the steep cliffs around the Farne Islands – a mile off the Northumberland coast.

Jen Clark, National Trust ranger, said: “They tend to nest on horrible little ledges. They’re really tiny – about the size of the bird. They don’t actually build a nest – they incubate their egg directly on a small, sloping crevice.”

The black and white penguin-like birds, which are only 40cm and spend their entire winter at sea, lay just one egg a year.

The exposed nesting sites makes the eggs and chicks vulnerable to fierce North Sea weather, as well as predatory attacks by gulls.

A razorbill on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

A razorbill on the Farne Islands, Northumberland CREDIT Richard Scott, National Trust Images

Hazel dormouse, Fyne Court, Somerset

Rangers spotted this bashful dormouse was spotted squatting in a birds nest six feet above the ground.

Rob Skinner, a National Trust area ranger and licensed dormouse handler, made the discovery while checking bird nesting boxes on the Somerset estate as part of a regular survey for the British Trust for Ornithology.

He said: “I nearly fell off my ladder. It’s not something I was expecting to see. We have 93 dedicated dormouse nesting boxes in our woods – but this juvenile ignored them all.”

The dormouse stayed for three weeks before disappearing earlier this month.

DORMOUSE at Fyne Court 1 Rob Skinner, NT

Hazel dormouse at Fyne Court. CREDIT Rob Skinner, National Trust

Little Terns, Blakeney Point, Norfolk

One of Britain’s rarest seabirds nests so close to the sea it finds its nests regularly flooded.

It’s thought that there are fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs of little terns left in Britain – with numbers falling by a quarter since the 1980s. Nesting on beaches, the birds are sensitive to disturbance from people and dogs – as well as  flooding from the sea.

Ajay Tegala, National Trust ranger for the little tern stronghold at Blakeney Point, said: “They tend to lay one to three camouflaged eggs on the beach, often close to the high water mark.

“This means that nests regularly get washed away if big tides are combined with stormy weather. They’re also vulnerable from a long list of predators – gulls, birds of prey, foxes, crows, snakes and even herons.”

As part of an RSPB-led EU LIFE+ project, rangers at Blakeney Point have been using plaster models of little terns to encourage the birds to nest up the beach and away from the high tides.

Wren, Harewoods, Surrey

Despite years of hard work to improve the habitat around his National Trust cottage for nesting birds, it’s Andy Wright’s shed that is proving popular for the small birds.

Two months ago a pair of wrens built a moss nest into a coil of rope hanging from the shed roof. It was the first time wrens have nested in the wooden outhouse, which also boasted a family of robins.

Andy Wright, the trust’s countryside manager for the Surrey Hills, said: “They weaved it into the tassels of the rope. With the racket they were making there must have been four or five fledglings.

“I’ve no idea why they nested there. I’ve done a lot of habitat work around the place, so you’d think there would be plenty of natural nesting habitat for them. There’s even a wren nest in my smoker.”

WREN Harewoods CREDIT Andrew Wright, National Trust

A wren’s nest at Harewoods, Surrey. CREDIT Andrew Wright, National Trust

Field mouse, Alderley Edge, Cheshire

One small mouse chose a life in the fast lane after nesting underneath the bonnet of a National Trust van.

Christopher Widger, countryside manager at Alderley Edge, discovered the field mouse’s nesting place in the sound-deadening material beneath the bonnet – after the mouse scuttled across the windscreen wiper.

“I was travelling at 30mph!” Chris said. “I pulled over onto the verge and he made a jump for it – into the nearby hedge.”

FIELD MOUSE Alderley Edge 2 CREDIT Christopher Widger, National Trust

A field mouse nest in a ranger van at Alderley Edge, Cheshire. CREDIT Christopher Widger, National Trust

Pied wagtail, Giant’s Causeway, Co. Antrim

It was only on the fourth trip over a stony field that Area Ranger Dr Cliff Henry realised that his tractor had taken on some tiny stowaways

Nesting on the tractor’s drive shaft – just below the cab – was a nest containing five small pied wagtail chicks.

“Each trip took an hour,” Dr Henry said. “It was only after the last trip that I twigged that the adult birds were very keen to approach the tractor bearing food.”

The five wagtail chicks have now fledged.

PIED WAGTAIL Giant's Causeway CREDIT Cliff Henry, National Trust

A pied wagtail nest in a tractor on the Giant’s Causeway. CREDIT Cliff Henry, National Trust

PICTURES: Ice petals flower in woodland at Hardcastle Crags, Yorkshire

Rangers and volunteers at Hardcastle Crags, west Yorkshire, were treated to a rare spectacle last week as ice “petals” covered branches in woodland on the National Trust estate. 

Frost sculptures

Rangers and volunteers stumbled across these ice sculptures on dead wood at Hardcastle Crags, Yorkshire. Credit: Natalie Pownall/National Trust

Natalie Pownall, 25, National Trust Academy Ranger at Hardcastle Crags, said: “We were walking through the woodland at Hardcastle Crags with our conservation volunteer party, when we saw all these glittering white gems littered on the woodland floor. At first I thought they were fungi – but on closer inspection they turned out to be ice. 

“The ice formations are caused by water in the wood freezing. The water expands out of the logs, creating the beautiful ice ‘petals.’ 

“Most of these ice petals formed on the dead logs that we’ve left on the woodland floor after our woodland conservation work. One tree, which we felled last year, was covered in the ice fungi. Dead wood can also be an important habitat for invertebrates like beetles, birds and fungi. 

“You’ll often see these ice formations if the conditions have been below freezing and clear for a couple of days. Normally they melt away as soon as the sun comes up, but because our wooded valley is north facing and doesn’t get much sun we can enjoy the frost flowers all day long.”