Image © RSPB

All Things Wild and Wonderful

7th April 2017

There’s something splendid and uplifting about having butterflies in your flowerbeds, frogs in your water feature, and birds in your bushes, and knowing that they are there because of you. According to the RSPB’s Adrian Thomas, even the smallest of actions in the domestic garden can make a positive difference to the natural environment. Jack Watkins finds out more.

A fuel policy that has demoted renewable energy, and promotes the destructive and divisive process of fracking. A High Speed rail project which, between London and the West Midlands alone, is going to chew through four nature reserves, over 50 ancient woodlands and numerous local wildlife sites. The relaxing of planning regulations which means the certainty of building on greenfield sites. An unelected prime minster who apparently doesn’t like reading about history and hasn’t mentioned the word environment once since she moved into No. 10. A leader of the opposition who very definitely does both of those things, but who is oblivious to Middle Britain, and who has as much chance of becominf prime minister as Ken Dodd.

As we stumble through what is probably the bleakest decade since the 1940s, it’s as if all the progress on green issues of a decade or so ago has been fed through the shredder. And while you can talk airily about what this means for the planet and future generations, at ground level, wildlife is suffering right now. Last year’s State of Nature report laid it out in black and white. Nature in the UK is faring worse than in most other countries. Of 8,000 species studied for the report, 56% have declined in recent decades, and over one in ten of them are under threat of extinction. For a country that regularly lectures the world on its civilised values and pride in its heritage, that’s pathetic.

Despair, though, isn’t a healthy emotion, unless it’s used for positive ends. And if the plight of nature troubles you, and you are fortunate enough to own or have access to a garden, there are things you can do about it. Even better, as a bright and beautiful new edition of the RSPB’s Gardening for Wildlife explains, it’s doesn’t mean having to move mountains.

The book starts with some myth-busting. One is that wildlife gardening means giving the whole lot over to the birds and bees, or that it means separating an area off from the zones you need for your own functions. Not so. In fact, a shed, viewed primarily as the place for tool storage, can also be a handy feature to nail a nest box onto, for example. The patio may be where you entertain friends. It doesn’t mean you can’t train wildlife friendly climbers up a pergola, or have pots of nectar rich plants around it.

Another myth is that a wildlife garden must be ‘wild’, because nature hates the neat and tidy. Certainly, there are plenty of species which like nettles and brambles, writes author Adrian Thomas, but ‘as for straight paths or geometric patterns or colour-coordinated planting schemes, wildlife doesn’t mind one jot’. The key distinction, he says, is between ‘tidy’ meaning ‘orderly’, which is not problem for wildlife, and ‘tidy’ meaning ‘sterile’, which is a no-no.

Thomas also makes the point that, in reality, no matter how hard you try, you can only attract wildlife that exists within sensory distance of your area. ‘No matter how good your gardening is, you are almost wholly reliant on what wildlife is living in your neighbourhood or accidentally stumbles upon your garden as it roves naturally. The skill is in making your garden so welcoming that your existing residents never feel like leaving, and when a new creature happens to drop by, it thinks ‘blimey, this is good,’ and decides to stick around.’

In that respect a little homework is in order to decide what exists, or could potentially exist, in your garden. That done, the next step can be to determine whether your particular interest is in attracting birds, or butterflies, or maybe bumblebees, beetles or hedgehogs. Adrian Thomas devotes specific chapters to gardening for a wide range of different types of wildlife, including dragonflies and damselflies, moths, reptiles and amphibians, and even primitive plants and fungi.

A section on the wildlife commonly found in gardens includes an analysis of distribution, to help you establish whether certain species live near you and consequently if it is likely they will pass through it. Details on their habitat and habits advise you about what sort of environment they like to live in. Then there’s information on the sort of food they need to find, where they need to hide away and sleep and rest, and what they need for successful breeding. Fulfil some of these and you could be on the way to success.

Birds come top of most people’s lists as the favourite form of wildlife they’d like to attract. They are bringers of joy in themselves, of course, and they can be the allies of gardeners, too, mopping up slugs, snails, aphids and insects. Details are given on around 50 of the birds most likely to be found in gardens, not just the commonest twelve – robins, blackbirds etc – but also such delights as goldfinches and potential winter visitors like the brambling.

Did you know there are 60 species of butterfly regularly recorded in the British Isles, though this only a fraction of the 380 recorded throughout Europe? Favoured plants among those likely to be planted in a garden include Buddleia, Michaelmas Daisy, Majoram and Ivy. As for bees, which have been getting considerable publicity lately for their struggles, Thomas writes that he despairs when he thumbs through plant catalogues, because of the sheer dearth of good bee plants ‘even if some little wildlife icons on seed packets appear to be telling, or selling, us a different story.’

For best results, he suggests trying to ensure there is something in flower all the year to provide a supply of nectar and pollen, from the point the first queen bumblebees emerge in very early spring, until the honeybees are gathering their last stores for the winter. Crocuses and Hellebores (for the spring), Bellflowers, Rosemary and Cranesbill (for midsummer), and Catmints, Dahlias and Cornflowers (from late summer to autumn), should do the trick.

This fascinating book is both easy to find your way around, and very comprehensive, with tips for every size of plot (including balcony gardens) and, to make life easy, a section on what to do every month of the year. Gardening for Wildlife neither lectures nor harangues, and anyone with a garden should learn something from it.

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