Why should we be concerned with wildlife in our gardens?
Put simply, an environment that is healthy for wildlife, is also healthy for us. Moreover, we depend upon wildlife – bees, pollinate many of our essential crops, worms produce the soil we depend upon, and a host of predators from wasps to ladybirds to thrushes and hedgehogs, control garden pests. There is an interdependent web of life and if we destroy part of it with chemicals or habitat destruction, it has a knock on effect for other wildlife. Gardens are increasingly important habitats for wildlife as natural habitats decline.
So, how can we make our gardens more wildlife friendly ?
Avoid using chemicals. If you spray greenfly or blackfly, for instance, you will also kill the ladybirds and lacewings that control them. Moreover, the greenfly will recover more quickly than the predators, so you will increase the pest problem and escalate the spraying regime. Nature needs to be allowed to find a balance, which means a certain amount of leaving alone, and also accepting imperfections in the garden such as the odd leaf being eaten by slugs.
Other things we can do to make our garden more attractive to wildlife are: raise the blades on the mower to improve the habitat for insects and creeping wild flowers; accumulate a stock pile of dead logs, prunings and fallen leaves for small mammals (including hedgehogs), to hide in; provide nectar rich flowerbeds and extra food for birds; leave flowerheads to run to seed – providing food for birds such as finches, through the winter. Don’t be too tidy: dead wood is an ideal habitat for beetles and fungi which attracts other wildlife. A compost heap is not only a good way of keeping the soil fertile and healthy, it increases the worm population in the garden which encourages toads, hedgehogs and birds; slowworms give birth to young in warmth of compost heap and grass snakes lay eggs there.
So, what can we plant to make our gardens attractive to wildlife? Whilst it is not essential to have only native species, some native plants are essential to make the best wildlife habitats. “…we have a complex, mixed community of wild plants and animals which have ‘grown up together’ since the last Ice Age… Not all our animal life feeds directly on plants… but even the most carnivorous of predators feed on other animals which themselves feed on plants, or on other plant eating creatures. The leaves and shrubs of native plants provide the basic platform for our animal life… many plant-eating insect larvae… only eat the leaves of one specific type of plant, and that plant will always be a native one.” Chris Baines How to Make a Wildlife Garden (p.47).
By extending the season of interest in our gardens, we not only increase the delight for ourselves, but make it more hospitable to wildlife. It should be possible to have something in flower and fruit every month of the year, so providing food for a variety of wildlife. Single flowers that most closely resemble the wild form in a wide variety of shapes will attract a variety of pollinators. Don’t go for highly bred double forms which confuse pollinators and offer little or no nectar. Seeds and berries are an important food source, so choose varieties with attractive seedheads and allow them to seed, and plants with berries, haws or hips, such as hawthorn, pyracantha, cotoneaster, and dog roses.
Our gardens need to provide three crucial elements in order to attract wildlife – food, water and shelter. Trees and shrubs are good for shelter, (as are piles of leaves, compost heaps and dead leaves of perennials left over winter). Food is provided by the plants we choose (and any additional food we may leave for birds). That leaves water. A pond is a very valuable wildlife resource. If you have children you can put a grate over it. If you don’t have room for, or don’t want a pond, even a birdbath can be a valuable wildlife resource, not only to birds, but to insects, who also need to drink, and if you leave it on the ground, ground-living creatures such as hedgehogs can drink from it. Do keep the water clean to avoid diseases, and never put chemicals in the water.
One last thing, look at the wider landscape and make your garden to fit into it “… go for garden habitats which compliment the local wildlife community… an isolated island of peat bog in the heart of suburbia is never likely to be anything more than a collection of plants. The appropriate animal life simply won’t be around to colonize it. Conversely, if you create a mini habitat typical of the area you are likely to be very successful at attracting wildlife to join you.” Chris Baines How to Make a Wildlife Garden (p.33)
This is one of a series of blogs I will be doing on how to create wildlife habitats. Please look out for my next blogs for more detailed information about how to attract wildlife to your garden.