Why do we need to help wildlife?
The last state of nature report 2019 demonstrates once again that wild animals and plants in the UK are in serious trouble. Their decline is due to the loss of simple things like healthy soils and natural habitats that enable them to move about, find food, shelter and breed. Over many centuries, the habitats that they live in have become isolated and are still steadily disappearing - it's a long term nature eviction. Farmland, gardens and parks may look like 'natural' landscapes to many but these places often lack native plants and natural processes that our precious mammals, birds and insects need. All of our gardens cover a vast area - more land than all of the UK's nature reserves put together, so it's exciting to think that we can make a big difference to nature if we all do our bit. There are many really simple things that you can do to help nature like reducing light pollution and avoiding the use of chemical pesticides, but if you want to provide interesting physical habitats in your own garden, here are my tips.
What can you do to help?
1. Plant Native Flowers and Trees
Over thousands of years, the wild animals of the UK have developed special connections with native trees and plants. As those plants become increasingly scarce through climate change and habitat loss, so too will all the creatures associated with them. One way that we can help is by choosing to plant native UK plants in our gardens. Even a window box filled with native wildflowers would help wildlife at a local level. Here are our top tips for rewilding your garden.
The easiest thing that anyone can do is to leave just a small section of your lawn to grow long for a spring/summer season. If you don't have a lawn, you could make a planter with native plants (I will post about this soon). When it comes to lawns, you'll find that most in the UK are made up of non-native species of ryegrass. This isn't the greatest for our wildlife but there are bound to be other things growing in there too. Allowing grasses and other plants to grow without mowing provides breeding habitat for heaps of moths, butterflies, beetles and bugs. It will also attract grasshoppers and crickets. When the autumn comes, just cut it all back, remove the clippings and let the same thing happen again next summer - bingo! It doesn't have to look like the Chelsea Flower Show to help nature.
If you're keen, you can take the lawn tip to the next level. In a place that's safe to do so, try cutting some small sections of turf out and leave the ground bare. This is very good for two reasons; Invertebrates love it because they can bask in the heat reflected from the bare soil. The bare ground will be full of dormant seeds of all sorts of plants. The new space and warmth will allow them to germinate. You might find some field poppies appear that you never knew you had!
Sowing some yellow rattle seeds around the edges of the bear area will take your garden to the next level. Yellow rattle helps to restore wild flowers because it partially feeds off the roots of grasses. This means that the grass becomes less dominant and wildflowers can germinate. In time, you'll have native wildflowers in your garden.
Night scented plants are great for attracting insects that bats like to eat. The best native plant is honeysuckle - there are many cultivated non-native varieties so try to find the native one lonicera periclymenum.
Our gardens often lack the variety of native trees found in old hedgerows. These tree species were around long before humans made hedgerows and they are very important plants for nectar and fruits. Many insect larvae feed on their leaves and their dense foliage is great for nesting birds too. Here is our suggested list:
Plant an oak tree, they are the number 1 nature tree with the greatest biomass of life associated with them. There are many non-native species of oak so look for the native oak Quercus robur. Remember, oak trees will grow to be giants and they like lots of space so you need to think carefully about where to plant, don't plant too close to buildings and always get the land owners permission.
2. Create a log pile
No bug hotel can compete with a pile of logs. In long grass, under trees, next to a pond this stuff is the holy grail of habitats. Gather up any branches, twigs and logs and stack them in a tight pile. Your log pile will slowly decay and will benefit a whole host of wild animals. If you have trimmed trees in your garden, rather than dispose of the cuttings or branches, make a pile of them in a corner of the garden. If you have a pond, place some logs right next to it and you'll find a newt hiding underneath them in no time. The log pile needs to be in full contact with the ground so that amphibians feel protected underneath from predators. Here are our top tips for creating a log pile.
Size matters. Yes, the bigger your pile the better for the bugs. Using large pieces of wood means that the decay process takes longer and your log pile becomes 'the place to be' for all the wildlife that likes deadwood in your area.
The type of tree species makes a difference. The best of the best is good old English oak. There are vast amounts of tiny creatures that live in and feed on decaying oak but other tree species are good too. Hawthorn, field maple, sallow, sycamore, beech and ash are all really good for a whole variety of creatures. Any logs in contact with the ground will create a haven for amphibians, slugs, beetles and more. Don't worry if you haven't got the tree species mentioned, any decaying wood will be better than nothing.
Logs near ponds are vital but try to provide log piles in a range of conditions. Some in the full sun and some in full shade. The two conditions will attract creatures that like those conditions. Try drilling some 6mm holes in the ends of logs in full sun, this will attract tiny solitary bees to lay their eggs. Try to keep the bark on your logs for as long as possible, this is provides extra shelter for creatures that like to live between the wood and the bark.
If it's safe to do so, you can try inserting a log upright in the ground. Standing dead trees are extra special and a standing stump attracts birds to feed in a way you won't have seen at your bird table. Great spotted woodpeckers really show off their tree climbing skills if you have a standing stump in the garden.
3. Make a pond
Water is awesome for nature. Even a bucket left to collect the rain will soon attract small gnats that lay their eggs in the water. Ponds without fish are superb habitats and the more natural looking you make a pond, the better it is for wildlife -makes sense really. Why no fish? Well, they eat everything in the water and if it's a small pond that's a disaster for the tiny creatures trying to colonise it. If you fancy having a go at making a pond, here are our top Wildwood tips to help. We've focused on the ingredients rather than the construction but if you want to know more about the construction side of things, do get in touch.
Think about safety and choose a spot that won't create a hazard to you and your family. Choose a nice sunny spot but avoid full sun to reduce evaporation. Avoid placing it under trees that will shed leaves into it and consider diverting rain water into your pond if possible. A proper wildlife pond has gentle sloping edges and no vertical drops, this helps all creatures to safely and easily move to and from the water.
Geotextile clay membranes are really good pond liners because they contain clay granules like a natural impermeable layer. They are also good at sealing up again if there's an accidental puncture unlike butyl or molded plastic liners. If you'd rather go for a preformed one, that's still great if you follow the rest of our tips. Shallow water is very important and most of the life in the pond will be hanging out in the shallows - it's warmer!
So, you have your pond in place and it's full of water (ideally rain water). Now you need some native water plants. Here is our recommended list. They all have their preferred places within the pond. Some are submerged, some grow up out of the pond.
Yellow flag iris
branch bur reed
This is the last and possibly the most important ingredient. Every wildlife pond needs a log pile with the wood right next to the pond and ideally some of the wood submerged in the water.The logs provide a refuge for amphibians and the wood touching the water will attract female hawker dragonflies to lay eggs.
Now, sit back and enjoy the wonders of nature, you've made a real difference to wildlife in your area - well done! If you've had success with your new wildlife friendly gardening, spread the word. Talk to your neighbours and friends about making space for nature, let's make it bigger, better and more joined up.