Featured Image: Flagship Pond site Strensall Common is home to Pillwort and many other special pond plants and animals
Earlier this month, we were lucky enough to catch up with Becca Williamson, Communications Officer at Freshwater Habitats Trust, to find out more about their Flagship Ponds Project. Check out our interview below:
Our interview with Freshwater Habitats Trust
1. The Flagship Ponds project works with local communities and organisations to protect important freshwater pond sites across England and Wales. How many pond sites are you currently working on?
Freshwater Habitats Trust is working on 70 of the hundred or so Flagship Pond sites we have identified in the UK. These are the most important pond sites, the top 0.2% of ponds. They support some of our rarest freshwater plants and animals, and we’ve selected them because the work we can do there, will really make a difference to these special places.
2. How many communities and organisations are involved in the Flagship Ponds project?
Some Flagship Pond sites are cared for by devoted community groups or organisations. Other ponds have had very little attention, and are vulnerable because of that. The Flagship Pond project aims to get at least one group actively taking care of each of the 70 sites. We provide support and training so that groups know how to monitor their ponds. We also help them write and deliver effective management plans so the ponds are kept in the best condition.
3. How do you get the funding to continue making such an important impact across the country?
The Heritage Lottery Fund have been a great support, enabling us to get surveys done, support local groups, run training events, provide advice, and figure out what the ponds and their wildlife need to stay healthy. However, we still need to raise money to pay for vital habitat management work on each of the Flagship Pond sites. We’ve launched an appeal to raise the £140,000 we need. Every pound raised will be spent directly on habitat management work. At Inglestone Common, Gloucestershire, woodland management and grazing animals are needed to bring Adder’s-tongue Spearwort back from the brink of extinction, and allow other pond wildlife to thrive. At Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire, the ponds were once a stronghold for the tiny aquatic fern Pillwort. With the right management, we can bring Pillwort back. At Llyn Tegid, Wales, the delicate Glutinous Snail that lives nowhere else is being left high and dry every time the water level drops. We want to create refuges to keep the snail alive.
4. Do you think more people are taking an interest in sustaining natural habitats now than they used to?
Over the last 20+ years, we’ve seen a growing interest in the value of smaller water bodies like ponds, streams, and ditches. It was previously believed that larger habitats, like rivers and lakes, were more important for wildlife because of their size. But as we understand our landscapes and wildlife better, there is a definite increase in people taking action to care for the little things, both in the wider countryside and in gardens where simply adding small clean-water ponds can make an enormous difference for wildlife. The number of people getting involved in our PondNet, Clean Water for Wildlife, and Flagship Pond projects is a clear indication that people care.
5. As part of protecting the pond sites, you also work to protect their rare and endangered species. How many rare and endangered species do you think you have helped so far?
We are currently working to protect over 30 different plants and animals that are at real risk of decline or extinction. Some, like the oddly named Broad-nerved Hump Moss, are rather obscure. We’ve just completed emergency works in the sand dunes of Anglesey to bring it back from the brink of extinction in Wales. Other species are more widely known, like the Medicinal Leech lauded for its incredible medical benefits. Volunteers have done an amazing job carrying out surveys to help us understand the exact pond conditions the leeches need. We can now put that knowledge to good use and make sure ponds are managed sensitively.
6. Wildlife, in general, is facing massive changes to their habitats and lives as urbanisation takes over natural habitats. How important is it that more and more people come together, and get involved with your projects to help provide and maintain a natural habitat for pond life?
The pressure on natural habitats is unprecedented. And the reach of our negative impacts is staggering. There are no longer any undamaged rivers left in lowland England and Wales. It’s hard to find a stretch of stream that isn’t polluted by road runoff or septic tank outflows. We’re down from a million ponds at the turn of the last century to roughly 400,000 ponds now, and nine out of ten ponds are degraded. It is critical that we work together to protect the good bits where freshwater wildlife thrives, and create more clean water habitats so it can spread. It may seem a daunting task, but we know what needs doing, and we know how to do it. People taking part in our Clean Water for Wildlife survey are identifying the places where there is still clean water. PondNet volunteers are helping us find high-quality ponds and measure changes in pond wildlife. Flagship Pond partners are caring for the best pond sites. People contributing to the Million Ponds Project are creating new clean water ponds that is boosting pond wildlife across the country. Together we can protect freshwater wildlife for everyone to enjoy.
7. Part of the successful management of the pond sites is supporting an early warning system to prevent inadvertent damage. How is this put into place, and what does it measure?
Ponds can benefit enormously from an early warning system that detects threats to the water quality or species. Catching a problem early, or even before any damage is done, makes it much easier to keep pond wildlife safe. Trained volunteers make regular visits to ponds and keep an eye out for things like invasive non-native plants, disturbance from dogs, an increase or decrease in grazing, changes in how surrounding land is used, or potential sources of water pollution. Regular monitoring of key plants and animals can give us a clear sign of when things are starting to go awry. And when a problem is spotted, there is a plan to tackle it.
8. Is there anything that people can do on a smaller scale to help provide habitats for pond life?
Helping pond wildlife is actually all about taking small scale actions. If everyone did a few small things, together it would add up to a colossal change. In our gardens, we can create a clean water wildlife pond, sit back, and let the wildlife move in. We can switch from tap water to rain water to fill our ponds so that a wider range of plants and animals can live there. We can let the plants spread and leave the old stems in place as a shelter for more animals. We can keep ponds fish-free, avoid fertilisers or nutrient-rich run-off getting into ponds, and when we’re out and about, keep our dogs out of wildlife ponds. We’ve got a wealth of pond creation and management advice on our website to help everyone make a difference.
We will be talking to the guys at Freshwater Habitats Trust again early next year to find out more about pond advice and what to do with ponds in your garden, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, check out our other interviews
Featured image credit: David Marsden
Earlier this month, we spoke to David from The Anxious Gardener about how he became a self-employed gardener, how other people can do the same, and some great tips for attracting wildlife to your garden. Check out our interview below.
Our interview with The Anxious Gardener
1. You started gardening 10 years ago, has much changed between then and now?
For me, the major change in the last ten years has been the smartphone. Not only does it allow me to interact easily with people on social media (in what can otherwise be a lonely profession), but more importantly it gives me immediate access to a whole world of gardening know-how. If I'm unsure or I've forgotten when to prune a particular shrub or the conditions a certain plant prefers, I can find out the answer instantly. I still keep a hefty RHS encyclopaedia at work and it is excellent … but I use it less and less.
2. Do you think more people are getting into gardening now than before?
Gardening has always been a popular past-time and I don't know whether it is more popular now than when I started. But the internet allows a vast number of people to blog about gardening or their gardens; to post photos on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter; and gardeners all over the world can now easily connect and share ideas. Maybe the number of gardeners over the past ten years has remained fairly constant, but the numbers talking about it has certainly ballooned.
3. Is it easy to become a self-employed gardener, for example after changing professions or as an additional income?
Personally, the hardest part was making the decision to become self-employed. But actually, though the idea was a little daunting, the reality was pretty straightforward. I'd suggest paying an accountant or book-keeper to complete your tax return, at least initially. I paid my book-keeper about £200 a year but I easily recouped more than that with her advice on various tax-deductible expenses.
The next hurdle, of course, is finding work. I know several gardeners who did so by printing leaflets and posting them through letterboxes in the areas they wanted to work in, i.e. areas with big gardens! Once you're working and have woo-ed your clients with your charm, wit, good looks and hard work, you'll hopefully be inundated by word of mouth offers. Both my partner (who also gardens for a living) and I regularly turn down work because we're fully booked. There is plenty of gardening work out there, it's just a question finding it.
Gardening can be a fairly easy career path for many people wanting a change and I think there are more people choosing it, especially in later life. The other day I met an ex-teacher who made the switch and has never been happier. I also know care-workers, an artist, postmen, a shop worker and a musician who have all taken up professional gardening.
4. How did you become a self-employed gardener?
I began by working part-time in a trade alpine nursery. It was hard work in all weathers but I loved working outdoors and being amongst thousands of tiny gorgeous plants. I learnt a great deal about cuttings, seed sowing and propagation by division, as well as general plant care; all of which has stood me in good stead. Then I moved to a garden centre which, when you're constantly being asked questions by customers, is the perfect environment to learn about a wide range of plants very quickly. At about the same time, I worked a few hours a week with a small gardening business and, when working in the garden of a famous musician, I met the gardener. Chatting to her and seeing her at work gave me the confidence to think, I could do this! After a year at the garden centre, the job of gardener at The Priory, opposite my house, became vacant. You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I got my dream job a few minutes walk from my front door.
5. You work primarily with two different gardens, one in South Downs National Park and one in Sussex Weald. What work do you do on these gardens?
Both properties are holiday homes and so I am both gardener and, to an extent, caretaker during the owners' absence. My work is exactly what you would expect: I mow the lawns, strim the edges, cut hedges, plant and weed the borders, grow a few vegetables (and a lot of tomatoes in one garden) and do an awful lot of watering. I also liaise with a range of tradespeople – tree surgeons, nursery staff, mechanics, builders, carpenters, mole-catchers and other gardeners when I need help with a big job or holiday-cover. Oh, and I make the gardens look nice.
6. Part of your work in Sussex Weald is making compost on a large scale. What sort of things do you put into the compost, and how do you make sure there is enough to go around?
The majority of the material for the compost bins is lawn clippings of which we produce a huge amount. Clippings take an age to break down if just dumped in a heap but by adding loads of other plant material from the gardens, as well as newspaper and cardboard, and turning the heaps several times, I produce about 4 cubic metres of excellent compost annually. I have seven large compost bins, which might sound excessive but I wish I had two more. I'm also a bit fanatical about making leaf mould; both this and the compost give me plenty of wonderful, rich organic matter for mulching borders, shrubs and the veg beds. I rarely run out.
7. You’ve also written about gardening to encourage wildlife on your blog. What tips could you give to home gardeners or garden owners to help wildlife in their gardens?
I'd suggest the easiest, most sure-fire way to attract wildlife to your garden is to provide water. A small pond will draw amphibians, birds and all sorts of insects very quickly. Even a bird bath, topped up with fresh water, will soon attract birdlife and drinking insects. If you haven't the space for a pond, an old water tank or wooden barrel, perhaps with a solar powered pump, can work just as well; especially if you can ensure that animals can get in and out easily. A bird feeder and nest box are other obvious additions; as are nectar rich flowers to bring bees and butterflies into your garden. And finally, avoid pesticides and herbicides - unless they're organic.
Need to know what to do in your garden but don't know where to start? We've looked at 4 key areas for gardening and provided 5 top tips for each to help you make a start on your garden. Our 4 key areas of focus are:
- Seasonal Gardening - we've covered tips for the whole year, not just the current season, but if you want to know more in detail about month-by-month gardening head over to Shedstore's blog
- Eco-Friendly Gardening - eco-friendly gardening is a huge part of making sure that you are doing your bit to help the environment while you enjoy your garden! Find out more about eco-friendly gardening here
- Growing Your Own - growing your own food is becoming more and more important, and popular! We look at some great ways to get started here but for more information check out our grow your own posts
- Wildlife Gardening - we all love wildlife, so it's time to make sure they are safe and happy in our gardens! You can also find out more about wildlife and wildlife gardening on our blog
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Featured Image Credit: British Hedgehog Preservation Society
Earlier this month, we caught up with British Hedgehog Preservation Society to talk about why hedgehogs are a gardener's best friend, how we can help cater for them in our gardens, and what they should be eating if you do find one in your garden. Check out our interview below!
Our interview with British Hedgehogs
1. Why are hedgehogs known as ‘A gardener’s best friend’?
Hedgehogs are famous for eating bugs, slugs and snails, although they do eat a huge range of other garden invertebrates as well – beetles, earthworms and caterpillars make up most of their diet. Creepy crawlies in abundance will attract hedgehogs to your garden, and, in turn, will help them to survive.
2. What good would it do, if I were to cut a small hole into my garden fence?
Hedgehogs travel around a mile per night in search of their natural food. A hole 13cm square in the bottom of your garden fence will allow hedgehogs access to your garden and others. If you and your neighbours all have holes that hedgehogs can travel through you will be helping them by creating a “hedgehog highway”.
3. What are the general dietary requirements of a hedgehog?
Hedgehogs eat a variety of insects, molluscs and other invertebrates, often switching from one food type to the other depending on the time of year. They also need to drink water. Offering hedgehog food, meaty cat or dog food, chopped unsalted peanuts or sunflower hearts can be a help to supplement a hedgehog’s diet, and in dry periods especially, offering water can be a life-saver.
4. What is the best advice you could give someone who has just found a hedgehog in their garden?
If you see a hedgehog out after dusk, then you could offer some food and water to encourage it to continue coming to your garden, and a wild area or log pile for it to create its day nest and later in the year to hibernate. If you see one out during the day it is likely to need help. Hedgehogs that are wobbling or ‘sunbathing’ are likely to be hypothermic and need to be rescued and warmed up gently. You can get first aid advice from the BHPS website, and if you call us (01584 890801), we can give you up to date contact details for rescuers local to you. (NB If you see one that looks healthy, moving very purposefully and out only briefly during the day, it is probably a mother with a nest of young, so don't disturb her at all - she is just having a quick break from the nest to feed herself or gather nesting material).
5. How can people create more of an awareness about hedgehogs and help to protect their environment?
People can talk to their neighbours about joining up their gardens to help hedgehogs travel at night, and about not using poisons in their gardens – we can provide literature that they can display or deliver to their neighbours to help them to learn more about hedgehogs.
Hedgehog Street (a joint initiative of BHPS and People’s Trust for Endangered Species) encourages people to become Hedgehog Champions – see www.hedgehogstreet.org. The Big Hedgehog Map allows you to log sightings of hedgehogs and also map gaps in fences.
6. “I would like to own a garden hedgehog.” Where can I get one and how do I make my garden as ‘hedgehog friendly’ as possible?
You can never “own” a wild hedgehog – they are wild animals and as mentioned above, need to travel over a large area to get their variety and volume of natural food. However, volunteer hedgehog carers (you can get the contact details for your local ones through BHPS) sometimes have hedgehogs to release into suitable areas. It is a very common request and most volunteers have a waiting list of potential release sites. The carer will probably want to check your garden and area is suitable before releasing a rehabilitated hedgehog with you.
To make your garden hedgehog friendly, leave an area wild in the garden, with a log pile and plenty of dead leaves; grow a variety of plants to attract plenty of natural food; avoid using chemicals in the garden, and keep all netting a foot off the ground. If there is a pond in the garden, make sure there is a sloping shelf or ramp for them to climb out – hedgehogs are good swimmers but can struggle to climb out of steep-sided ponds. Check for hidden hedgehogs before lighting bonfires, strimming and mowing the lawn.
7. What would you deem to be the most misinformed information people generally have about hedgehogs?
That they have fleas – not all hedgehogs have fleas, and if they do, the fleas will be hedgehog-specific so won’t be able to survive on another animal.
That they should be fed bread and milk: these are not good for them and should not be offered.
8. What are your 5 most interesting facts about these lovable little furze-pigs?
- Evolutionarily, hedgehogs are a family all of their own; they have no close relatives among other mammals and have been a separate evolutionary line for millions of years.
- Hedgehogs can travel 1-2 miles a night in search of food
- They can move at up to 4 miles an hour on their surprisingly long legs
- Hedgehogs hibernate for the cold winter months – their bodies shut down and operate at a very low level with a slow heartbeat and cold temperature
- Hedgehogs sometimes suddenly abandon normal behaviour and begin to produce large quantities of frothy saliva with which they cover their spines – this is called self-anointing and has never been fully explained.
9. What small steps could someone take to look after the well-being of these small creatures, keeping them safe from danger?
Offer food and water in a feeding station – somewhere safe that other animals can’t get into. The simplest form would be an upturned child’s toy box with a 13cm square cut out of one side and a weight on top. A hedgehog house of similar design, but more protected from the elements would provide a safe place for a hedgehog to nest during the day and during hibernation – providing nesting material such as straw or dry leaves nearby is also helpful.
Don’t drop litter – it can cause real problems for many animals, with hedgehogs’ spines making them particularly vulnerable to getting tangled in elastic bands etc.
10. How can someone get involved with The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and is there a membership fee?
We welcome members and are very grateful for their support – the funds raised through membership help us with our education and information activities. Members receive a membership pack and certificate and twice-yearly newsletters. Individual membership costs £7.50 per year; Family or Group membership is £12.50 and Overseas members pay £10.00 per year. Life membership costs £200.00. To find out more or join us, call 01584 890801. If you would like to consider becoming a hedgehog rescuer, do call us and we can give you further information about that.
The humble bumblebee is more important than many may think! We spoke to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust about the importance of these little invertebrates and how to help save them from further depletion. Take a read of our interview below.
Our interview with Bumblebee Conservation Trust
1. A lot of people probably don’t know how important bumblebees are in terms of wildlife. Why should people be concerned about their declining numbers?
Our charismatic bumblebees are keystone species, holding a unique and vital role in the way the ecosystem functions. These wonderful little invertebrates play a huge part in the pollination of a number of the commercial crops that we rely on, such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries (all that good stuff that we love). In fact, according to a study by Potts et al in 2014, bees contribute over £651 million per annum to the UK economy.
Bumblebees are perfectly adapted to the cold, wind and rain here in Britain, working hard to pollinate 80% of our native wildflower species. Fewer bees means less pollination, and ultimately even fewer wildflowers. Wildflower-rich grasslands are the building blocks of a complex food chain directly affecting the success of other insects, birds and mammals which reply upon it. The high cost of pollinating plants without our prized pollinators would most likely mean an increase in food costs for us all.
Whilst bumblebees provide us with a vital service, we should also value bumblebees simply for their intrinsic value. They are an interesting wild species, perfectly endearing, and a delight to watch whether out in the countryside or at home in your garden.
2. What are some of the main reasons why their numbers have been declining in the UK?
The overriding reason for the decline of our bumblebees is the loss of bumblebee-friendly habitat in the UK. An increased demand for food has spurred a need for specialist technology and more intensive land management. These changes in agricultural techniques from the traditional to the modern unfortunately means fewer wildflowers for our pollinators.
Worryingly, since the 1940s, 97% of our flower rich grassland has been lost - combine this with the added complications of pesticide-use, climate change and parasites and things aren’t looking too good for our bees. Within the last 80 years, two bumblebee species have become nationally extinct and further extinctions may follow in the near future unless we act quickly!
3. How can gardeners get involved and help conserve the bumblebees?
First and foremost is making space for bees! Bee-friendly gardening is easy and doesn’t have to break the bank. If you’ve mastered this and your garden is a haven for bumblebees, you could consider holding an open garden day and inspire fellow gardeners to practice wildlife-friendly gardening. You could also link up with other gardening enthusiasts, creating a network of bee-friendly gardeners to share tips, cuttings and seeds from your own bee-friendly plants.
Supporting the Bumblebee Conservation Trust by becoming a member allows us to continue our vital conservation efforts. New members receive a great welcome pack with loads of advice about bumblebees and what to plant to support them. You can find out more at www.bumblebeeconservation.org/support-us/become-a-member/
4. Are there any tips or advice you can give to gardeners as to the best ways to attract bumblebees to their flowers?
Having a succession of bee-friendly flowers right through from March to October is the best way to attract bumblebees and support them throughout their life-cycle. Making sure there are plenty of foraging opportunities for new queens in spring will increase the chances of a nest being located nearby.
Take some time in your garden to simply watch bumblebees and see which flowers it is that they visit, you can then maximise on their favourites.
You could consider adding a pond to your garden if you have the space. There a number of aquatic and marginal plants that are great for bees such as the Yellow Iris, Watermint and Bogbean. A pond also has the added bonus of attracting a whole host of other wildlife into your garden.
5. How could gardeners and the general public help to monitor the bumblebee population in the UK?
There are a few surveys which the Bumblebee Conservation Trust run and support which you can get involved in.
BeeWalk - This survey helps us to monitor changes in the bee population and acts as an early warning system. Our volunteers walk a fixed-route of 1-2km each month and record what they see. Reasonably good bumblebee identification skills are needed for the survey, so if you are a complete novice you might be better starting with another of our options below and/or attending one of our basic ID courses, and then graduating to BeeWalk when you're a little more confident.
Blooms for Bees - This survey aims to explore which bumblebees visit gardens and allotments and discover which flowers are bumblebee favourites. Taking part in this flower friendly project is easy; simply download the app (search 'Blooms For Bees' in the App Store or Google Play) or visit the website and register your location; choose a flowering plant and observe for five minutes; photograph and ID the bumblebees, then simply submit your data!
To record bees (and other wildlife) on a more ad hoc basis, go to www.brc.ac.uk/irecord. If possible, include a photo of the bumblebee that you have seen to allow the iRecord experts to verify your sighting.
6. What are the best plants to help these pollinators?
Old-fashioned cottage garden flowers such as globe thistles and borage are brilliant for bumblebees with an added bonus of being beautiful to look at. There is also a whole variety of culinary herbs such as lavender, chives, marjoram, sage and rosemary that are all loved by bees.
Herbs and other cottage garden flowers are often very similar to the wild flowers from which they originated, and so have not lost their natural link with their pollinators. They tend to be hardy, easy to grow, and most are perennials so that you do not have to plant them every year. They will grow well in a traditional herbaceous border, but also equally as well in pots on a patio or even in a window box.
It’s important to provide a good source of nectar and pollen throughout spring to late summer to cover all stages of the bumblebee life cycle. We recommend at least 2 bee-friendly plants per season and have suggested some bee-friendly favourites below:
- Flowering current
- Pussy Willow
- Globe thistle
- Sweet pea
You can find out how bee-friendly your garden is by using our handy Bee kind app. Select the flowers that you have in your garden to calculate your score and then receive a tailored list of 10 more flowery suggestions to provide even more bee food.
7. What advice would you give to someone if they came across a bumblebee nest?
If you find a bumblebee nest, you should consider yourself very lucky! We would advise that you don’t disturb it - thankfully bumblebees are not aggressive and will quietly go about their business if left alone. If you do approach the nest, try not to breathe on it as this can cause bumblebees to become defensive. Bumblebee season starts in spring with the emergence of the queen from hibernation and will end late summer/autumn, so a colony will only live in a nest for a few months before dying off naturally.
It is important to remember that bumblebees will not cause structural damage and do not bore holes or chew through wood. They will rarely nest in the same location two years running, but if you do have bumblebees nesting somewhere that you don’t want them (i.e. roof space or cavity wall) then simply wait for the autumn when the nest is empty and block the entrance hole. This will prevent a new queen from finding the hole next year.
Remember to provide lots of bee-friendly plants to help the colony through its life cycle!
8. Are there any other tips on things that gardeners should be doing or avoid doing to help the dwindling bumblebee population?
There are a few things to avoid when thinking of the bees!
Invasive plant species that have a habit of escaping from gardens and into wild habitats nearby are best avoided, this includes plants such as Rhododendron ponticum and Himalayan balsam. They can look pretty but their benefits to the bees are far outweighed by their negative impact on the surrounding environment.
If you wish to have happy bees, try to avoid growing flowers with little to no pollen and nectar. These often come in the form of annual bedding plants such as begonia, pansies and lobelias and are a result of selective breeding by horticulturalists. Whilst they can look spectacular, the breeding process causes flowers to lose their vital nectar, or produces deformities in the flowers which means it is nearly impossible for insects to reach the nectar or pollen, such as double varieties with extra sets of petals.
Pesticides are often labelled as 'bug killers' or something similar, but almost all can harm bumblebees even if not intentionally. If you do decide to use them, it’s certainly best to avoid spraying them near flowering plants. Left to nature, natural enemies such as ladybirds, hoverflies, ground beetles, lacewings and wasps will usually consume troublesome aphids or caterpillars before long, but if you wipe them out with insecticides you can expect worse pest problems in the very near future.
Wildlife gardening is a way for gardeners to put out a welcome sign for all the birds and animals who rely on our green spaces to survive. With dozens of species coming under pressure through losing their natural habitats, it has become ever more important for Britain’s gardeners to offer some sort of safe haven for our native wildlife. The RSPB discovered recently that 60 percent of animal and plant species have declined over the past 50 years.
Wildlife like wildness, so the trimmed and manicured gardens with decking and paving have pushed them out. But this doesn’t mean turning your own garden into a scraggy patch of chaos – you don’t need to do a major overhaul of your garden to make it more appealing for wildlife. Many of the traditional features of gardens offer something for wildlife – think of sparrows drinking in a bird bath, squirrels finding the best way to the bird feeder or tadpoles in the garden pond. There are many more options though – take a look at our ultimate guide to wildlife gardening.
Planning a wildlife garden
The first thing to do is take a long look at your garden and see what its potential might be for wildlife. Is there an obvious patch which you can afford to leave untidy? Do you already have wildlife visiting your garden or living in it, and what sort of wildlife would you like to attract? This may depend on where you live, and the RSPB’s activity map can provide you with some helpful hints about the sorts of birds and animals you might attract.
After mapping your garden, you should think about the sorts of plants and flowers that might bring the creatures you want into your garden. This is where you should think about the food chain. Swallows and swifts eat ladybirds. Ladybirds eat aphids and aphids seem to eat every one of your flowers. So try not to exterminate every aphid you see – give the ladybirds a chance to find a new source of food. Set aside a patch which you do not use any insecticides on, and plant things that ladybirds like - high pollen plants such as dill, chives, fennel or marigolds.
Water is another crucial factor. If you can find room for a pond, it will bring a host of visitors – there’s a reason why safari lodges are built near water holes. The larger it is the better, because you will have room for a wider range of pond plants which will give you more chances of seeing dragonflies, newts or even otters, not to mention the dozens of bird species who will come to eat and drink.
Caring for wildlife
It’s not enough to give wildlife the chance of a good meal. They also need to be safe from larger predators, with the chance to nest or hibernate, or shelter from the sun or the rain. If you have a dedicated patch of wildflowers or untidiness, so much the better, but there are alternatives.
Hedgerows and dense shrubs make good hiding places – you should allow for at least two spots for more nervous visitors to scurry between. Fences need the occasional hole so that hedgehogs can pass between gardens, while trees are ideal for birds looking to nest. You can of course use man-made habitats like bird tables and nesting boxes, and don’t be shy of allowing space around your shed to create some nooks and crannies for insects and creatures to hide in. A log pile or a compost heap is also a good option – hedgehogs love places like this in winter. These structures need to be maintained to make them appealing and safe, but be extra careful when clearing up – you never know if a pile of autumn leaves is hiding something vulnerable.
Keeping wildlife in your garden
Planting the right flowers is vital because it allows you to create a steady source of food for insects. Pollen and nectar are key, and many cultivars – plants that have been bred to create a particular effect – do not contain much of either substance. Spring plants recommended by the RHS include Crocus and Mahonia, Sedum spectabile and ivy.
Look into companion planting, the practice of growing two species near each other so that they can pollinate each other or repel insects. Your tomatoes and fruit-bearing trees are helped by nasturtiums, which is a great way of distracting aphids and other insect predators - put your bird box nearby. You can cordon off your insect trap with some marigolds, which even produce a natural pesticide in their roots.
Don’t forget that you can also leave food out for your visitors. Try throwing stale bread onto the grass instead of putting it in the bin. And don’t get too concerned about gaps in the fence – not everything can scale the fences and you need to allow wildlife to come and go as they want. The harder it is to get into your garden, the harder it is for you to receive guests.
Getting children involved in wildlife gardening
Children love wildlife gardening and there’s plenty of ways to get them involved. To get them outside, make or buy a seasonal wildlife chart of animals that can be seen in the garden. If they can mark off the animals they’ve seen, they’ll soon be pestering you to get out and do some gardening.
They can help and plan the maintenance of wildlife environments. It can be their job to check on levels of food in the bird feeder or put seed on a bird table. If they have their own patch – a raised bed is often a good, self-contained option – then they can take responsibility. After identifying which wildlife-friendly plants you can grow, they can plant them and tend them under your supervision.
- Set aside a ‘messy’ patch
- Don’t use insecticide everywhere – try to contain the aphids in a particular area
- Companion planting is a great way to trap insects
- Make sure there is a good food supply all year round
- Don’t forget to create a water supply
- Animals need ways of getting into your garden so don’t turn your fences into a fortress
Recently we were fortunate enough to interview Jenny Steel from Wildlife Gardening about all things to do with having a wildlife garden, helping wildlife, and not using chemicals in your garden! Check out the interview below.
Our Wildlife Gardening Interview
1. As someone with a keen interest in wildlife gardening, what are your top tips for encouraging wildlife to come to your garden?
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about butterflies, birds, mammals or the smallest invertebrates – all wildlife visitors need food and shelter and some need water, so thinking about these basic necessities is a good way to start. Once you have a better feel for the wildlife that is using your garden, you can be more specific about providing what those local creatures need.
2. Pollinators like bees and butterflies are all under pressure at the moment. How can gardeners do more to help?
The first very obvious thing is to garden without using any chemicals at all but especially without pesticides. For some gardeners the idea of ‘going organic’ can be quite frightening, but if you do stop using pesticides you soon find that the natural predators of, for example, blackfly, build up quickly and you no longer have a major problem. The natural world has a way of keeping these things in balance as long as we don’t interfere too much. After that, it is as simple as finding out which plants they are likely to feed on (and many are very specific) and growing those plants for them in your borders, pots or ‘meadow’ areas.
3. Once we have pollinators in our gardens, how can we keep them and their habitats safe?
Finding out more about the life cycles of different pollinators and the conditions they require is very helpful. Many bumblebee species make their nests in holes in the ground, especially in old vole nests, so having grassy areas in the garden that are undisturbed and not frequently mown can be beneficial to voles and therefore to bumblebees. Solitary bees can be encouraged by providing them with special ‘bee homes’ but these must be properly constructed! Many ‘bee hotels’ and ‘insect habitats’ available in Garden Centres are completely useless because the holes are the wrong diameter and the tubes are open at both ends – they should be closed at the back. Look out for those that are specifically for Red Mason Bees as these have holes that are perfect for solitary bees of several species. Management of your garden is also very important especially in the winter as most pollinators spend the cold months in dead vegetation, in the soil or in log or leaf piles so leaving your borders untouched through the winter is very beneficial.
4. How important are wildflowers for a wildlife garden? Do these help attract specific wildlife to your garden?
It is possible to have a wildlife garden of sorts with no native wildflowers or wild shrubs at all, but with native flowers and shrubs it will be so much better! There are plenty of non-native flowers that provide pollen and nectar for wildlife and it is important to grow some of these, but native species provide so much more than nectar and pollen – breeding opportunities for butterflies, moths and many other insects and that means food for nestling birds or shrews, voles and hedgehogs, all of which eat caterpillars. All garden wildlife is interdependent and the greater the variety of plants you have in your garden, especially wildflowers, the more wildlife you will cater for.
5. Wildlife gardening is about much more than just feeding the animals that come into your garden. What advice could you give to people who want to start a wildlife garden?
Firstly, read something about the ecology of gardens and the interdependence of the life that uses our gardens. Once you consider that, things fall into place and it becomes second nature to think about which insects depend on which plants or type of habitat. Buy a book or use the website of a well-known organisation for your information. Wildlife gardening is so popular now that there is lots out there that is completely inaccurate, misleading or simply wrong! Once you have a little good background information you will see your garden in a different light.
6. As well as the pollinators, it is important to cater for other wildlife as well. How can you prepare your garden for multiple animals with different needs?
If you are gardening in a wildlife-friendly way you don’t need to think too much about specific groups such as mammals or birds. Not interfering too much, leaving borders uncut in the winter, trimming hedges at the right time and leaving a few undisturbed areas all year round will benefit all garden wildlife whether it is a mammal, bird, amphibian or invertebrate. The only other requirement is water! A pond caters for a huge range of wildlife needs – from somewhere to spawn for amphibians to a place to drink and bathe for birds.
7. Not using chemicals in your garden is crucial to providing a safe habitat for animals. How easy is it to garden without using chemicals?
It is easy, and it is essential. Once you stop there may be a short time when aphids or slugs become more prevalent in your garden, but soon the wildlife that eats those aphids and slugs – the birds, small mammals and larger insects that depend on them for food – will find that source of food and their numbers will build up naturally. A balance between predator and prey occurs as they regulate each other.
8. What other aspects of organic gardening do you follow?
Composting or recycling all organic matter that is produced in the garden – whether that is the hay from my wildflower meadow or the hedge trimmings - is very important in my garden. Our compost is used in the vegetable garden and for mulching nectar borders and hedge trimmings are piled up to create twig piles under shrubs and in other out of the way places – vital for small mammals and some nesting birds. I also plant plenty of annual flowers such as Calendula around the vegetable garden. These encourage pollinators to the right places and bring hoverflies and ladybirds to other plants that are susceptible to aphids. Nest homes for red mason bees are located near our fruit area to pollinate for us.
9. Having been in Garden Ecology for over 25 years, what got you interested in the field to begin with?
I was fascinated by wildlife as a small child and kept ‘pet’ caterpillars and had sticklebacks in a small aquarium. Spending lots of time in the Oxfordshire countryside fired my interest, but spending even more time in my parents’ small garden in Oxford gave me an opportunity to get up close to garden wildlife, learn about it and watch wildlife activity on a daily basis. The ‘scientist‘ in me was counting hoverflies on different flowers and watching bird behaviour, including the dates when swallows and swifts were arriving each spring. I kept these observations in a notebook. I also carried out a little ‘ecological’ study of a small local neglected field where I discovered great diving beetles in a small pond and a tawny owl nest in a hollow tree. I found it infinitely fascinating then, and still do now.
10. Do you have any advice for people thinking about becoming more involved with wildlife gardening? Is it ever too late to start?
It is certainly never too late to start. Wildlife gardening isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ activity. For some people (like me) it is the only way to manage a garden, but other people may simply want to feed the birds, or grow some good butterfly and bee plants. Doing anything is better than doing nothing at all.
Robin Redbreast may be the best-known creature to live in our gardens during the winter months, but he’s not the only one.
Winter wildlife includes a host of birds, animals and insects who all rely on our finely manicured gardens to survive the colder months.
You can make the most of your garden so that you can see some wonderful winter wildlife and also do your bit to help keep them safe and well until the spring thaw comes.
Whether it’s providing food or ensuring that they have somewhere to hibernate or shelter from the cold, you can do something to help the animals that give you so much pleasure during the rest of the year.
What sorts of wildlife can be seen during a British winter?
Your garden definitely seems quieter when the nights start to draw in, but not all the birds have flown south for winter. Many birds who spend their summers further north come to Britain during the winter, and it’s a great opportunity to see some lesser-known species.
Ducks, geese and swans often migrate here in winter, including pintail, goldeneye and long-tailed ducks. Birdwatchers may also recognise red-breasted merganser and goosander. Not every winter bird is wildfowl, though – look out for redwings, fieldfares and waxwings.
For those who can’t fly, winter can be a big challenge. Amphibians like newts, frogs, and toads will still be around your garden pond, occasionally waking up on a warmer or sunnier day.
Gardeners in more rural areas may also see smaller mammals like foxes, badgers and even otters during the winter months.
So what can I do to help?
For your garden’s birds, the best and easiest thing to do is leave out a bird feeder. Bird feed generally includes high-calorie items like sunflower seeds, peanuts and even suet. If you have fruit trees, try to leave some of the fallen fruit and also make sure the bird bath is full.
Amphibians often sleep at the bottom of your pond, or occasionally in a compost heap. So be careful when turning the compost to make sure you don’t accidentally skewer a slumbering toad.
The other important thing to do is to ensure your pond doesn’t freeze over completely. The layer of ice prevents oxygen getting into the water and sleeping frogs can suffocate.
You don’t need to break up the ice every day, though – just leave a tennis ball floating as that will prevent all but the most serious frosts.
Don’t forget the hibernating creatures either. Hedgehogs are particularly vulnerable - only half survive their first winter. Milder weather can trick them into waking up early, believing that spring is already here.
Their fruitless hunts for food waste valuable energy and some that go back into hibernation don’t survive the rest of winter. In the Autumn, you should leave a water dish and some cat food out if you have a hedgehog in your garden to help it fatten up.
After that, they tend to hibernate in piles of leaves so make sure you don’t light any bonfires unless they are freshly made that day. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has reams of information about helping the little furzepigs – the old English name for hedgehogs.
Insects also go into hibernation, and we all know how important they are for the good health of your garden – yes, even wasps. They, along with ladybirds and lacewings, like to shelter under loose pieces of bark or wooden doors and frames.
Bumblebees bed down after digging holes in the ground while butterflies like garages and sheds.
You can help insects out by creating the sorts of hiding holes they like – tie up a bunch of sunflower stalks and leave them in a sunny spot.
Take a look at our handy winter survival guide
So not only are there many birds and animals that you can see in your garden over the winter months, there’s lots you can do to help. The things to remember are not to disturb hibernating creatures if you can help it while providing food sources and habitats for those that eke out the winter day by day.
There’s lots more you can do to help make the most of your garden during the winter. We’ve put together a handy winter survival guide to help you through the colder months. You can even download it, print it out and pin it to your fridge – find it here.