How to start a wildlife garden

Most of us would like more wildlife to visit our gardens, and making your patch attractive to birds, mammals and invertebrates needn’t involve a lot of work. Here are our easy tips for creating a wildlife haven in your backyard.

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Illustration: How to plan your wildlife garden

 

The great joy of wildlife gardening is that it gives you the chance to get to know many common British species. Having regular wildlife visitors enables you to learn more about their behaviour and witness the trials and tribulations of their daily lives.

Even though I have studied foxes for 40 years, I still get an immense buzz every time the animals that I know so well reappear in my garden.

And it’s not just foxes that provide interest. I always look forward to seeing frogs return to my pond, the emergence of the first newts, slow worms basking in the sun, swarms of hoverflies hanging in the air and the occasional bat skimming overhead. I also love watching dragonflies emerge and monitoring orange-tip caterpillars on my jack-by-the-hedge. These small, everyday events are as enjoyable as seeing a rare species in a remote part of the world.

 

Let’s start with an overview of some simple things you can do to improve your backyard for wildlife – with luck, you’ll soon be welcoming everything from humble beetles to charismatic birds of prey.

 

Let the soil settle

To increase populations of earthworms and beetle larvae, including cockchafers, don’t dig your garden soil unless you’re planting. Lay compost on top to provide habitat for invertebrates and foraging for blackbirds and robins.

Create corridors

Plant up bare ground and open areas to connect all parts of your garden. This will encourage invertebrates and young frogs and newts, such as the smooth newt, to move around. Glades, flowerbeds and marshy areas planted with different species will all create cover and ensure a constant supply of wildflowers over the year.

Feed the birds

Regularly provide a diversity of food to attract a range of birds, such as greenfinches. The number of visitors will build up over the years. Install plastic domes to prevent grey squirrels from raiding your feeders.

Create a garden glade

Sow woodland flowers, such as bluebells and foxgloves, in succession under trees – this will provide shelter for invertebrates, frogs and slow worms. In late summer, mow and mulch with leaf mould.

Stack up your sticks

Put logs and stickpiles under bushes and around garden edges to provide refuges for a host of wildlife. Grow ivy or place sods of earth on top for humidity. Vertical, half-buried logs (‘stumperies’) in shady areas are good for ferns and invertebrates, such as woodlice.

Love your lawn

Keep the centre of your lawn short so badgers, foxes and birds can forage for grubs. Leave the edges long to create cover for invertebrates.

Build ponds

If space permits, create more than one pond for diversity. A small ornamental pond on the patio will be too shallow to attract newts and dragonflies, such as the common hawker, but the survival rate for tadpoles will be higher.

Keep things varied

Avoid straight edges in your garden. This will create a range of temperatures and varying patches of sunshine throughout the day, and reduce the effects of wind. Irregular outlines will enhance the overall diversity of your garden habitat for insects, allowing butterflies, such as small tortoiseshells (above), to maintain a succession of territories throughout the day.

Help your hedges

Wait until winter to cut your hedges so you don’t disturb nesting birds or impede growth. Hedges should comprise a mix of native shrub species, such as hawthorn, to provide food for invertebrates.

 

BRINGING WILDLIFE TO URBAN AREAS

  • Do not expect to attract lots of rare species to your garden, especially if you live in a city. Few species are able to access urban areas, however appealing your garden may be.
  • The one exception is birds, which fly between good gardens outside the breeding season. Feeding birds in your garden is extremely beneficial – a recent study showed that birds fed over the winter bred earlier the next spring and fledged more young.
  • Your chances of seeing badgers and hedgehogs decline the further away you are from open areas. Even attracting foxes and grey squirrels, both of which are well adapted to living in built-up areas, is harder in more urbanised regions.
  • Life in towns and cities poses problems for even the most adaptable species. Urban birds, for instance, have to sing at night in noisier areas because their song is drowned out during the day.
  • Do not view wildlife gardens as compensation for losses in the countryside. They are a habitat in their own right, colonised by a limited range of species, and provide a great opportunity for watching wildlife and seeing how our animals adapt to urban life.

 

STEVE'S TOP TIPS

  • Don’t be too ambitious
    You can’t recreate natural habitats, such as bluebell woods. Even if you tried, the native bluebells would probably hybridise with the Spanish varieties in nearby gardens. So be realistic.
     
  • Think small
    It’s easy to encourage several hundred invertebrate species to a medium-sized town garden, and these will give endless enjoyment. Concentrate on invertebrates first – larger species will follow in time.
     
  • Balance wildlife with your needs
    Wildlife and practicality are not incompatible. A lawn for children can still be rich in herbs such as white clover, self-heal and birds-foot trefoil, which will attract bees and hoverflies and provide good foraging habitat for starlings and hedgehogs.
     
  • Plan slowly
    Walk around your neighbourhood at night to see if there are any tawny owls, foxes, badgers or hedgehogs. If there are, make your garden more attractive to them. Find out which butterflies are using other gardens and grow their favourite foodplants.
  • Don’t try to grow difficult plants
    If something isn’t thriving, replace it. Don’t obsess about native species. Though they are good foodplants for many animals, particularly caterpillars, many garden flowers, such as lavender, are great for nectar and may flower for longer.
     
  • Monitor your wildlife
    Make bird lists, keep mammal records, carry out invertebrate counts and note the dates of any first sightings. You will soon see the changes you have achieved.

 

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine.

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