Cobweb and garden spider

How to Create a Wildlife-Friendly Garden

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Gardens are becoming increasingly important for wildlife in this age of biodiversity and habitat loss. Taking up approximately six and half square kilometres of land in England alone, they cover more area than all of our nature reserves combined. As such, they can act as proxies for land that isn’t protected. More importantly, they can act as wildlife corridors between fragmented habitats. This allows species to find new feeding or breeding opportunities more easily. And when it comes to making sure our gardens fulfil this potential, there are some very easy steps we can take. So, with National Garden Wildlife Week starting on May 27th, how can those of us lucky enough to have the space create a wildlife-friendly garden?

1. Embrace the Mess

Absolutely the easiest, cheapest and yet most effective way to help wildlife in our gardens is to leave some areas messy, with minimal tidying, mowing and pruning. There is no need to let things get completely overgrown. This can actually be counterproductive by creating areas too dense for many species. Instead, by rotating mowing and pruning regimes, every area can spend some time left to its own devices. This allows a greater variety of plant species to grow, in turn attracting more species of invertebrate. Recent research shows that just letting grass grow longer can boost butterfly abundance by up to 93%, for example. Campaigns such as Plantlife’s No Mow May are a great way to start getting involved. Steering clear of the mower between March and October, though, is even better.

They might be ‘weeds’ to many, but a lawn full of dandelions is brilliant for insects

Being messy doesn’t just extend to our lawns. Piles of wood or leaves provide valuable refuges for a range of creatures. These can be temporary hiding spaces from predators and the heat of the day or winter hibernation spots for everything from ladybirds and moths to newts and hedgehogs. Resisting the urge to cut back dead seedheads in autumn is also good as many tiny invertebrates overwinter within the intricate structures. Likewise, leaving ivy intact is hugely beneficial for a range of creatures. As it flowers later than many other plants, it provides vital late food for autumn pollinators, such as the relatively newly arrived ivy bee. Its fruits are then valuable food late in the winter for birds including thrushes and wintering blackcaps. Finally, ivy’s evergreen leaves offer year-round shelter for hibernating invertebrates and even bats in winter and nesting birds like the spotted flycatcher in summer.

Ivy bee
Late flowering ivy is a boon for ivy bees and many other pollinators

2. Bird Feeding Basics

I’ve written before about winter bird feeding and how it can help birds supplement low food levels in the wider countryside. Late winter, in particular, can be especially difficult. At this point in the season, berry-laden trees are finally stripped, and supplies of seeds and insects have dwindled to almost nothing. As such, winter feeding can plug the gap before the first spring buds and bugs appear. Feeding during the nesting season, meanwhile, can help parents supplement their efforts. By providing food, you can help them shorten their journeys from nest to food source. This saves them valuable energy at a busy time of year. Avoid using peanuts during breeding season, though, as small chicks can choke on them.

Wintering blackcaps are increasingly using our gardens

If you are feeding your garden birds, there are some important guidelines to follow, however. Always keep your feeders clean by washing them in warm soapy water every two weeks or so. This will help prevent the spread of diseases such as trichomonosis, which has devastated greenfinch populations in recent years. Make sure you don’t place your feeders next to dense hedging or any other structure that allows cats to creep up on feeding birds. If you have a problem with grey squirrels monopolising things, you can get squirrel-proof feeders. It is also worth doing some research on feed quality. Bought fat balls can vary hugely in nutritional value, for example. Maybe try making your own, instead?

3. Homes for Birds and Bees

You could also help birds out by installing nest boxes, either bought or homemade. This applies even if you don’t have a garden, of course. It can particularly benefit cavity nesting species such as house sparrows, starlings and swifts who struggle to find nesting spaces as our houses get ever more secure and hole-free. There are a variety available, each catering for different species. Boxes with smaller entrances are good for members of the tit family, while some species, such as spotted flycatcher, prefer open-faced boxes, for example. If you have woodpeckers or grey squirrels locally, you should consider a box with a metal entrance protector so they can’t widen the hole and access any chicks. Do also research the best place to site your nest boxes. Don’t put them in direct sunlight, for example, to prevent overheating. Only take down and clean from September to January, outside the breeding season.

Squirrel-proof nest box
Metal-fronted nest boxes protect chicks from squirrels and woodpeckers

As well as leaving piles of leaves or branches for wildlife, you could put out a bug hotel. This could be as simple as a turned over flowerpot in the ground or it could be more elaborate. Again, these are available to buy, but their usefulness varies. It is much cheaper to make your own. Be sure to include different sections so that you cater for different groups of organisms. Pinecones offer holes for small invertebrates, holed bricks and hollow garden canes can support solitary bees and lower leaf-filled sections can shelter hibernating hedgehogs. You can make the structure as big or small as you want or have room for. Putting a roof on, though, stops it getting too wet. It has the added benefit of offering a planting surface for a range of hardier plants, as well.

Early mining bee
Bug hotels can help solitary bees like this early mining bee

4. Ponds and Puddles

Water is vital for all of the species using our gardens. Whether for hydration or washing, providing access to a water source is therefore important. How large a feature you install will depend on garden size and other factors such as safety. Even the smallest garden, though, can include a small bird bath and ground level water dish for hedgehogs. Likewise, very small gardens and balconies can include a container pond. As with bird feeders, it is important to keep bird baths clean to prevent disease spread. And don’t forget that birds need water in winter, too. You could also leave out a butterfly ‘puddle’ in summer. This is simply a low dish filled with sand or gravel and saturated with water. These puddles help butterflies and other insects stay hydrated in hot weather.

Bathing herring gull
It’s not just small species that benefit from bird baths in hot weather…

If you have room for a larger pond, make sure it is safe if there are children living with you or visiting. You should also make sure it is safe for small animals by keeping a sloped edge at one end so they can escape should they fall in. Garden ponds actually don’t need to be deep at all as most species prefer shallower pools. This means creating them is much easier and less hard work than many people think. If you choose to plant around the edges rather than rely on natural colonisation, make sure you choose native species. Once installed, ponds very quickly attract a whole range of species. Amphibians, dragonflies, water beetles, caddis flies and more can turn up in a surprisingly short amount of time. This means they very quickly benefit wildlife and are extremely rewarding features.

Spring ponds can be full of froglets

5. Perfect planting

Choosing the right plants for our gardens can really help our struggling insects. The latest results from Buglife’s Bugs Matter citizen science project show a staggering 78% decline in flying insects between 2004 and 2023. These figures are not just devastating for the insects themselves, but also for those creatures feeding on them. Additionally, between 75 and 95% of flowering plants globally rely on outside help with pollination, mostly from insects. Put simply, without pollinators such as wasps, bees, moths and butterflies, many plants cannot reproduce. This of course means that food webs are severely disrupted. If we can help pollinators by planting the right flowers, as well as trees and shrubs, we can help maintain those webs.

common carder bee
Pollinators, like this carder bee, benefit from native plant species

Native plant species are best. This is mainly because our pollinators have evolved alongside these species so often have special adaptations to help them feed from particular plants. This might be an extra-long tongue, for example, or a technique for dealing with tricky flowers. They often struggle to access food from non-native plants. A greater variety of flowers is also key. This caters for a larger variety of insects with difference preferences. Think about planting night-scented species such as honeysuckle to attract moths. Try, too, to find a range of plants that between them flower throughout the year. This means early or late emerging pollinators are still able to find food when the bulk of flowers are still unfurled or are over for the year. It should go without saying that you should also avoid using pesticides and herbicides and rely on natural help from ladybirds and the like. For more on pollinator-friendly gardens, see this earlier post.

Night-scented honeysuckle is great for moths

6. Helping Hogs

Our hedgehogs are also in trouble and need our help. This prickly mammal has declined by anywhere between 30 and 66% over the last few decades. Although a national census would give us a more accurate picture, that their UK population has fallen is undeniable. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but researchers think that habitat loss and food availability could be two factors. As well as habitat loss in the wider countryside, our changing gardens are also impacting hedgehogs. An increasing number of gardens are paved over or covered in artificial turf for convenience. This of course takes away vital habitat for the slugs, snail and beetles that hedgehogs eat.

Hedgehogs face numerous threats in our increasingly built-up landscape

We are also increasingly taking out hedges and replacing them with low-maintenance walls or fences. This stops hedgehogs being able to move about their territories easily for both food and breeding purposes. The average hedgehog will travel around a mile a night, after all. There is a simple fix, however. If you aren’t able to keep or install a hedge, and with your neighbour’s permission, put a hedgehog-sized hole in your fence so they can still move through. You can also help by not using slug pellets in your garden and letting the hedgehogs keep them in check instead. Additionally, if you choose to feed hedgehogs, do not put out bread and milk or mealworms as these can cause diarrhoea and loss of bone density respectively. Cat or dog food is much better. If you do choose to mow or strim long grass in your garden at any point, always check for hedgehogs first. Strimmer and mower injuries are a common cause of hedgehog admissions to wildlife rescue centres. And don’t forget to check any bonfires for hibernating hogs before lighting.

Small Actions, Big Impacts

At its simplest, wildlife gardening is about making the right choices rather than any elaborate and expensive installations. Just choosing not to install artificial grass, not to tidy that messy corner or not to use pesticides and weed killers, for example, will have a dramatic impact on your local wildlife. By not doing these harmful things, you will be providing better habitat for plants, birds and animals. And, of course, making decisions like these are completely free!

Orange tip
From butterflies to hoverflies, our gardens can benefit wildlife hugely

However, if you do want to do even more for nature in the garden, there are lots of ways to help. From ponds and bird boxes to thoughtful planting and bug hotels, even the smallest balcony or garden can provide space for wildlife. Not only that, but it benefits us, too. As well as the obvious pluses, such as the fact we need pollinators for our food, research shows that being around nature has a wealth of benefits for our mental and physical health. So, with our gardens becoming more important than ever, both for nature and us, now is the perfect time to start gardening for wildlife.

Further Reading

For those who only have a balcony or small garden, the Cloud Gardener has lots of amazing tips and ideas on how to transform tiny spaces.

The Hedgehog Street campaign has a wealth of information on how to help hedgehogs, even for those of us who don’t have gardens.

This comprehensive guide covers every size of wildlife-gardening project, from ponds and bug refuges to planting and bat homes. And it’s not just for those lucky enough to have a garden. The book even includes tips for those of us with just a window box to play with.

In The Accidental Garden, acclaimed natural history writer Richard Mabey explores the tension between our desire to master and control our gardens and the natural world. By observing the changing relationships within his own garden, he shows a new path, that of working together with nature as an equal gardening partner.

This great little book emphasises just how easy and cheap it is to help wildlife in our gardens. Author Ken Thompson includes lots of tips and information and shows that wildlife-gardening and conventional gardening needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Ken Thompson has also written the introduction to this lovely guide on the types of wildlife you can expect to find in your garden. Richard Lewington’s guide covers over 500 species and also includes some tips on how to attract them to your own garden.

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