Support the natural environment and create a pleasant place to relax by creating a wildlife garden this summer, says Rachel England
Summer is the perfect time to spruce up our gardens – especially since they will be such a prime location for socialising after pandemic restrictions are lifted.
And what could be better after months cooped up indoors than spending time in a bright and lively garden thrumming with wildlife, insects and natural activity?
There are around 24 million gardens across the UK making up a combined area nearly four times the size of all of our national reserves put together, so we have a wonderful opportunity to help support British wildlife – something that’s now more important than ever.
“We have so much amazing wildlife in the UK, but research shows that some 44 per cent of species are on the decline,” explains James Winder, programme coordinator at Naturehood, a community project working to reverse wildlife decline by connecting people with nature.
“This is a shocking statistic, but sadly one that doesn’t come as a surprise when we consider that in the last century human activity has removed 97 per cent of our native wildflower meadows and around half a million ponds,” he says.
“Even our most-loved species are at risk, including hedgehogs which were categorised as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ in the UK in 2020.”
Back to nature
The good news is that reversing this worrying trend is really easy. “You can create a wildlife garden by simply leaving everything alone,” says James.
“The more that nature is left to its own devices, the more benefits it can have.” But he acknowledges that a completely overrun garden isn’t to everyone’s taste: “It’s really just about incorporating opportunities for food, water and shelter into your plans.”
He suggests spending some time thinking about what you really want out of your garden before making any changes.
“Do you want to see lots of birds? Or maybe you want to help support our dwindling pollinator population? Maybe you want to help hedgehogs travel safely,” he says. “Any action – big or small – will have a great impact.”
Creating a wildlife-friendly garden isn’t just good for nature, either. Numerous studies have highlighted the positive impact spending time with nature can have on people’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
So before you pad down to the shed or head out to the garden centre, keep these suggestions in mind.
Choose wildlife-friendly plants
Climbing plants are a good choice, providing year-round cover for birds and insects. Ivy in particular is a great source of food and pollen.
Other winners are anything brightly coloured, which butterflies love, and native plant species such as common rock rose and common dog violet, which will support the local wildlife that has evolved with the local flora.
Sound a bit high-maintenance? Simple wildflowers are a gorgeous addition to any garden and don’t involve any more effort than raking a handful of seeds into some soil.
Create a water feature
One of the best features you can introduce is a pond – having water in your garden benefits so much wildlife, especially birds that enjoy a splash around. Don’t be daunted by this prospect, though.
As Helen Moffat from the RSPB says, we should all rethink what a ‘pond’ really is.
“It can literally be an old washing up bowl dug into the ground, with a slope or ramp at one side to help creatures get in and out,” she says.
Float a few corks in there too, to give bees and other insects a nice resting spot.
Introduce a ready-made cosy home
Bird boxes, bug hotels, frog pots, hedgehog houses… there are plenty of ready-made animal habitats available in garden centres and home stores that can be popped in your wildlife garden with minimal fuss.
You could even have a go at making your own!
Bird boxes should be fixed two to four metres off the ground on a tree or a wall, preferably facing between north and
east to avoid strong sunlight and wet winds.
Bug hotels do well in sunlight or light shade, while hedgehog houses should be positioned in a quiet spot against a wall, bank or fence, with the entrance facing away from the north or northeast.
Food, glorious food
Every good host knows how important it is to feed your guests, and your garden visitors are no exception.
Plus, putting food out for wildlife can be a huge help for them in periods of harsh weather. Birds will be more than happy with a simple seed feeder – just make sure it’s positioned out of the reach of predators.
Hedgehogs, meanwhile, can feast on dog or cat food – crushed biscuits or tinned (but not fish-based flavours) are fine.
Or if you’re worried a neighbourhood cat might take advantage, you can purchase specialist hedgehog food from pet stores and some supermarkets.
Never give them milk, though – it can cause diarrhoea. Provide fresh water instead.
Let the grass grow
The lazy gardener’s dream! Simply leaving your lawn to grow is one of the best things you can do for a range of important insect species such as bees and butterflies.
Mowing the lawn only once every four weeks gives short-grass plants like daisies and white clover a chance to flower in profusion, boosting nectar production tenfold.
Prefer a neatly-trimmed lawn? Consider leaving just a patch of grass to grow freely at the bottom of the garden.
Things to avoid when creating a wildlife garden
Avoid pesticides where possible
Although they can help to protect some of your plants from the pests you don’t want, they can have devastating impacts on the invertebrates and pollinators that you do, and also on amphibians, due to their porous skin.
Steer clear of peat-based compost
This kind of compost has a very negative impact on the environment and could be detrimental to a wildlife garden. For the greenest fingers, create your own compost pile instead.
An added bonus, a compost pile will also give you somewhere to put your food scraps.
Don’t neglect your wildlife houses
Bird boxes should be cleaned out once a year between October and January, and feeders should ideally be washed once a month.
This is important as it helps reduce the transmission of parasites and diseases. If you don’t have the ability to do this, consider other ways of welcoming wildlife instead.
Don’t worry about making things perfect!
“A bit of messiness is good for wildlife,” says Rob Stoneman, director of landscape recovery at The Wildlife Trusts. “And you don’t need a big space, either!
Roofs, walls and windowsills can all be mini-havens for wildlife. It’s about being creative and making the most of what’s available – nature will thank you for it.”