Here are 10 ideas for gardeners who would like to make their gardens welcome places for wildlife. Some of them require a reasonable amount of work to establish or maintain, but some require little or no effort at all. Some of our most familiar species are increasingly vulnerable, including the house sparrow and the hedgehog. Acting upon just one of the ideas below will be of benefit to these troubled species and our local wildlife in general.
1. Grow wildlife friendly plants
Try planting a hedge instead of a fence, or some dense shrubs: they provide shelter and nesting sites for many birds, such as wrens and blackbirds, and small mammals and insects. Climbers, e.g. honeysuckle or ivy, growing up a bare fence or wall provide a similar habitat. Hedges or shrubs (particularly native species) with berries are a great source of food for birds. Try to establish a long flowering season in your garden to provide nectar for insects for as long as possible. For instance, bumblebees emerging from hibernation early in the year when nectar is scarce will appreciate early flowering bulbs. Incorporate as many native plants as possible in your garden to provide a more natural habitat. Native herbaceous plants have simpler flowers that are more ‘user-friendly’ for insects than some of their horticultural cousins. You could even try growing a small area of meadow (once established, even a single square metre could yield up to 30 different plant species).
2. Go peat-free
The large-scale removal of peat from bogs in Britain and Ireland is destroying one of our most precious wildlife habitats. It takes centuries for a peat bog to form – modern machinery destroys it in days. Peat alternatives are available in most garden centres and DIY stores, or you can use your own compost. These alternatives are excellent in the garden if used in the right way.
3. Create a log pile
Dead wood supports a variety of wildlife, and a wood pile is quick and simple to make. Frogs, toads and newts will spend the winter in its dark crevices. The grubs of some insects will live in the rotting wood. Slug-eating centipedes and rove beetles live in the shady damp spots under rotting logs. Fungi growing on rotting wood help to recycle the wood and provide food for invertebrates. Creating a wood pile can be as simple as piling a few logs (ideally a mixture of native hardwoods) under a tree or shrub. Partially burying some of the logs will further encourage some species, e.g. the threatened stag beetle.
4. Don’t be too tidy
An anathema to some gardeners. Make space for a small patch of stinging nettles, preferably in a sunny spot. These frowned upon plants support over 40 insect species, and are the food plant for the caterpillars of some of our most colourful butterflies, and in turn provide food for birds. Allow a small section of your lawn to remain uncut. Long grass provides a shelter and a place to lay eggs for insects, again providing food for birds. Delay cutting back perennial flowering plants until spring. Seed heads provide valuable food for insects and small mammals during the winter.
5. Create a pond
A pond, however large or small, is both an attractive feature in a garden and a haven for wildlife. A pond is a complex habitat which supports an abundance of wildlife within the garden, and a string of ponds allows species to migrate from one natural site to another. Build your pond in a sunny site. Make sure it has at least one gently sloping edge to allow creatures to enter and leave the pond. Plant a mixture of oxygenating, floating, emergent and marginal plants to get a good variety of wildlife. Do not transfer any wildlife to your pond from a natural pond: wildlife will inhabit your pond quite naturally. Do not keep fish in a wildlife pond: they eat many of the species that you are aiming to attract.
6. Go organic
The use of chemicals in the garden endangers wildlife. Encouraging wildlife into your garden can help you to manage garden pests. Frogs, hedgehogs and some birds eat slugs and snails. Ladybirds and lacewings eat aphids. Birds that nest in your garden will eat problem caterpillars. Use mulches to control weeds rather than chemical weed killers. Try companion planting, e.g. marigolds, to discourage greenfly and blackfly.
7. Provide nesting boxes for wildlife
There are many styles of man-made nesting box available for all sorts of wildlife, and many are simple and cheap for the DIY enthusiast to build. Different types of boxes will attract different species. For instance open fronted bird boxes are ideal for robins, boxes with a 25mm hole will attract blue tits, whereas great tits will prefer boxes with a 32mm hole. It is important to site your nest box appropriately: sheltered from strong wind, rain and sun, 1.5-5m above the ground, and out of the reach of predators. Clean your box before the start of each breeding season. Specialist insect nest boxes can also be purchased or built. A bundle of short lengths (150mm approx) of bamboo canes will act as home for some overwintering insects. Boxes are also available for mammals including hedgehogs and bats. Many of these are available from KWACS.
8. Provide food and water for birds
Different species of bird prefer to feed in different ways. Mesh feeders filled with peanuts will attract nuthatches, tits and maybe even spotted woodpeckers. Seed feeders will be used by many garden birds, particularly greenfinches, goldfinches, sparrows and tits. Robins and chaffinches will benefit from bird tables and ground feeding trays. Try using different types of food to see how many different species will come to your garden. A general seed mix will attract a range of birds. Sunflower hearts are particularly attractive to greenfinches and goldfinches. Insect rich seed mixes or mealworms (live or dried) will be lapped up by robins, blackbirds and starlings. Fat rich foods provide added fuel in the winter. Provide food regularly and all year round. Clean your feeders frequently. Like us birds need to drink and bathe regularly. Natural sources of water can often be scarce, so provide water for the birds. There are many styles of birdbath available, but a plant pot saucer is a simple and cheap alternative.
9. Make garden compost
There are many good reasons for making your own compost. You can recycle clippings and cuttings from your garden to return their nutrients back to the soil. You can incorporate a surprising amount of kitchen waste into a compost heap and send a little less to landfill (egg shells, used tea bags, coffee grinds, wood shavings and shredded newspaper can all be composted). Composting will save you a little money too, having to buy less or no commercial soil conditioners or mulches. Composting is good for wildlife too. Not only is it good for the invertebrates that feed on the rotting vegetable matter, but the heat generated during composting makes the compost heap a welcome place for reptiles, amphibians and hedgehogs to shelter or hibernate.
10. Help your cat to be wildlife friendly
Attach multiple bells (or better still a sonic device) to your cat’s collar to warn birds and small mammals of its presence. If possible keep your cat in at night, bringing him/her in before sunset and letting them out after sunrise. Site bird boxes, feeders and water containers where they will be more difficult for your cat and other predators to reach them.
Useful sites on the internet
There is of course much more detailed and exhaustive advice in a variety of books and elsewhere on the internet. Here are links to a small number of helpful websites:
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) http://www.rspb.org.uk/makeahomeforwildlife/wildlifegarden/
The Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) http://www.wildaboutgardens.org.uk
The Wildlife Gardener http://www.wildlifegardener.co.uk