wild by design - wildlife garden

The Wild Garden - a breakdown in "Lawn Order"

Many serious-minded conservationists have been disparaging about the concept of domestic gardens being mini-nature reserves. However with the steadfast march of "Lawn Order" - i.e. the sanitisation and obsessive tidying of our countryside and suburbs, the wildlife friendly garden, is becoming increasingly important, although of course this is still inversely proportional to the degree of "Lawn Order" imposed on the garden! Having immaculate and regimented gardens with velvet striped lawns, lollipop trees and shrubs and immaculately-maintained borders of pretty but barren flowers - not a leaf or a flower out of line and not a weed in sight - is something of an affectation and an obsession for many gardeners and landowners.

Quite simply put -the more tidy and sterile a garden is made, and the more nature is controlled, the less good it is for wildlife and the more lonely a place it becomes, denying the possibility of it being a haven and a refuge for our beleaguered wildlife.

Many species of plants and animals have suffered marked declines in their populations. With changes in agricultural practices, the domestic garden can be a significant refuge for species such as the House Sparrow, the Common frog, the Hedgehog, and the Song thrush.

About 80% of households in the UK have gardens, and typically in the urbanised areas of the cities of the UK at least 20% - 25% of the overall green space is down to domestic gardens. Estimates of the square acreage involved range from between 2.5 and 3 million, and with other habitats under threat, the importance of domestic gardens cannot be ignored. Gardens, linked by trees, hedges and such, may act as mini reserves maintenance of biodiversity whilst providing valuable corridors for wildlife to move and colonise new sites. Gardens are also very often first points of contact and interaction between people and wildlife so can be important for people on an emotional and mental well -being level.

Away from the seas and coastal areas, the main categories of wild or "semi-natural" habitat that support the majority of wild animals and plants in the countryside, are: Grassland, Heathland, Wetland, Woodland and "Marginal" or "Boundary" habitats. So how can we translate these into wildlife supporting features in our own back yard?

Grassland:

  1. Let at least some areas of grass grow longer by cutting it less often. Short grass is far less attractive to most wildlife than longer grass. Longer grass may not as tidy as an obsessively manicured and weed-free lawn, but who wants a green desert? A mosaic of grass mowed over different time periods with fringes getting longer further from the edge can create visually pleasing and wildlife friendly effects
  2. Let the weeds grow! Introduce a range of finer native wild flowers and grasses to broaden the diversity of the sward. Even non-native relatives of native wildflower species should be more attractive to wildlife species than sterile cultivars. Allow the wildflowers and grasses to set seed before you cut them back. Raking off the cuttings (to a separate compost/habitat pile?) will promote further diversity.
  3. Don't use fertilisers, moss and weed killers - wildlife rich grassland is usually low in fertility. Too much fertility promotes coarse grasses and weeds like thistles and docks which crowd out the less vigorous growers. Raking off the cuttings will gradually reduce fertility.

Wetland:

  1. A garden pond, bog garden or even a small pool of water made from an upturned dustbin lid will be welcomed by many wildlife species. Make the edges as shallow as possible so wildlife can get in or out, Very deep ponds and pools with steep plunging edges are not as good for wildlife as shallow ponds. Streams and ditches can be enhanced to provide additional habitat for wildlife.
  2. Provide good cover at the margins and introduce submerged oxygenating aquatic plants if possible. Retain linking boggy/wet areas of your garden.
  3. Adjacent shrub or long grass cover, log or stone piles, drystone walls etc will help to provide shelter for amphibians, reptiles etc who may visit the pond or marsh area.

Woodland

Retain older existing trees ne they native or non native. Many bird and insect species are reliant on the cracked and holed bark and trunks. Plant blocks of native trees and shrubs suited to your locale and size of garden. A densely planted hedge of native tree/shrub species, fringed with woodland wildflowers makes a good linear woodland feature in a smaller garden. Do not clear up all fallen dead wood,and if safe retain standing dead trees. Create habitat piles of deadwood - rotting log piles are an absolute must! In smaller gardens - bundles of twigs and small branches offer some wildlife habitat. Do not pick up all fallen fruit. Don't trim hedges too closely and too often.

Boundary/margins

The edges of any habitat, be it pond, woodland or grassland, are richer than the sum of its parts. Because of this, it is always worth making your edges as long as possible for example with wavy lines on a body of water, or scallops on the edge of a piece of woodland, or meadow.

Hedges

Hedges are a great asset to any garden as they link to the outside world in the form of a corridor as well as providing shelter and forming a microclimate.

Wherever possible let flowering and berrying shrubs get their head above the trimmed hedge to provide pollen, nectar and fruit for birds, insects and mammals. Trees offer nesting and roosting opportunities and a good thick hedge gives shelter to small birds from predators.

Banks

All banks but especially those incorporating drystone walls are good for small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates such as solitary bees. If you can't get stone, broken paving slabs can be built into tall and broad walls full of holes and crevices. You can also plant nectar rich herbs and succulents into these walls.

Habitat Piles/Compost Heaps

The bigger the better - in shady places - offer many opportunities for wildlife so don't burn or bag up and tip all your cuttings and leaf sweepings - let nature break it all down slowly while providing a food and shelter for all manner of wildlfe and you can bury a hedgehog box under these with a tunnel connecting them to the outside.

Try to develop any empty spaces for nesting and sheltering - put up a range of bird nesting boxes and bat roosting boxes. Many houses and gardens have been so well-maintained that there are fewer and fewer holes in walls, under eaves and in trees for birds and bats to roost.

Don't keep Cats

They are instinctive hunters and will kill and maim (or at least frighten off) many wildlife species - almost anything that moves. Cats do not have a place in a wildlife garden and should be deterred or kept out. The much-overlooked unecological practice and cruelty in keeping cats (especially in a huge and dense population) is that they are necessarily fed meat, with all the animal suffering and pollution this causes. Their pampered lives give them the added energy and freedom to go out and kill creatures struggling to survive in the wild. Pet cats then return to their cosy home to be fed yet more meat, ( and occasionally fetching their prey back with them as a trophy) ready again to go off and kill and maim some more.

Finally: Go Organic

Of course avoid the use of chemicals in your garden. Fertilisers pesticides and herbicides should not be used at all. The toxins in Slug pellets, for example, tend to persist and travel up the food chain and may be killing off frogs and toads, and garden birds such as Song Thrushes.

Most of all - give up "Lawn Order" in your garden and beyond - be untidy for wildlife!