June 16 2017

Gardening for Wildlife

A call for robins

Several days ago, a Facebook contact posed this question:

Do any ornithologists or even folk good at gardening know, how one attracts robins into one’s back garden? We have feeders which say ‘good for robins’ on them but only so far seen sparrows and the odd tit (apart from me scratching my head) – but no robins. Any ideas?

As one who loves to attract birds to the garden I felt I ought to help if I could – not that I consider myself qualified. Although I’m a keen birdwatcher, I’m no gardener. Yes, I like a pleasant garden but creating ours has been a haphazard game of suck-it-and-see mixed with a bit of  trial-and-error and a healthy portion of see-how-it-goes.

I had no idea of my contact’s circumstances, or how he could remedy his problem. All I could tell him was what appears to have worked for us. And so I did.

Our North Lincolnshire plot

Then I got to thinking, if he has this issue, a pound to a penny he won’t be alone. There’ll be many people out there equally keen to add feathers to their foliage by attracting birds to their own gardens.

So I thought I’d expand on my brief Facebook answer here, by describing how my wife and I created a haven which is clearly attractive to our avian friends, prompting them to, not only call by each day and feed, but to nest and rear their young as well.

Before I do, here’s a list of those birds we’ve seen so far on our own middling-sized North Lincolnshire plot.

Visitors to Saddler’s Cottage

 

Inspiration from the BBC

A wildlife garden is something my wife and I had wanted to create since the 1980s when we subscribed to the magazine, BBC Wildlife. Aside from a host of interesting and informative articles was a regular feature written by wildlife gardening guru, Chris Baines. It was around this time that Chris’s book How to Make a Wildlife Garden was first published.

The book is excellent and well recommended for anyone wishing to attract wildlife to their own mini-estates – or even for those who simply wish to nurture a cultivated plot that doesn’t have the sterile and orderly appearance of a formal garden.

After first of all explaining why development of such a sanctuary is important, the book contains information on such things as creating a wildlife pond, wildflower meadow and woodland edge. Following several attempts at fostering a semi-formal garden here at Saddlers Cottage, my wife and I purchased Chris’s book and set about building our little Eden.

The garden in May

Natural balance

It is worth mentioning here that, since purchasing this property in 2001, we’ve never used any poisons, insecticides or even slug pellets on the land. Yes, we have an abundance of slugs. But we also have a furtive army of newts, including the great crested variety, and they just love to eat slugs.

Who needs slug pellets? A great crested newt showing his colours

I don’t know for sure, but it’s my guess that, for every garden pest out there (our Border Terrier aside) there’s one or more natural predators, and like bickering kids in the schoolyard, leave them alone and they’ll sort themselves out. And they do.

The benefit of this approach, of course, is that the area is alive with miniature critters, all battling to survive, and all food for hungry birds.

Tropical fish enthusiasts will tell you that they don’t keep fish, they keep water. They work hard to maintain the water, optimising its quality, striking the right balance of nutrients and temperatures. As for the fish? They look after themselves.

Get the environment right and all else falls into place.

It was the same for me when I owned a varied lizard collection. Keeping the lizards wasn’t a problem – maintaining a quality food supply, such as roaches and crickets was the challenge.

Pile of bricks, or creepy-crawly des-res?

This same principle applies to a wildlife garden. It’s all to do with the food chain. Nurturing a healthy stock of insects and invertebrates at the low end of the chain ensures those higher up call in to capitalise on the bounty. Rather like opening a high street restaurant. Get it right, unlock the door, and the customers will appear in droves.

But how to attract the mini-critters?

Demographics

I may be excused for assuming that, as I live in England, the insects and other creepy crawlies that share this green and pleasant land are ‘English’ too. We’re all natives together.

Think about it, if you’re a Brit who’s planning a move to a new dwelling, somewhere to cast down your roots, rear a few kids and live a happy and fulfilled existence, do you consider an igloo, or a nomad’s tent made from animal skins? No, you want something familiar, a tidy, two up two down, or modest semi. Our creepy crawlie neighbours are no different.

Tenement among the ferns

When looking for their own cribs, they seek out familiar, indigenous species of plants to inhabit. So, while garden centres may stock a bewildering array of shrubbery originating in the Himalayas, sub-equatorial rain forests, China  or the Americas, it is those trees and shrubs native to this part of Europe that will house by far the greater number of insect species in your garden.

Not only will your little residents appreciate your consideration, so will the birds who’ll then flock in to eat them.

We kept that knowledge uppermost when considering the plants for our garden.

The woodland edge

Like any keen birdwatcher, I enjoy going out with my bins and gawking at the birdlife on display, whether at the coast, waterside or farmland.

Of those habitats I enjoy most, my favourite is the woodland edge. Stand quiet in the shadows, binoculars ready and it isn’t long before you are presented with an impressive variety of bird species.

The woodland realm

It was inevitable then that, in planning our wildlife garden, a mini ‘woodland realm’ and adjoining grassland meadow would feature prominently. And they have. Planted about ten years ago, both are now well established.

The miniature woodland features a Whitebeam, Rowan, Birch, Hawthorn, Crab-apple and two Hazel Nut bushes (to keep the squirrels happy, too). There’s also a ‘woodland floor’ of Forget-me-nots, Ferns and many others to give valuable cover to ground feeders such as Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Chaffinches.

The meadow

Nearby is the grassland meadow – about twenty-five feet by fifteen but, despite being a meadow in miniature, or daily visitors love it. It houses masses of invertebrates and each day is alive with activity. It’s at its best in May and early June. But even after a summer and wet autumn, the huge and heavy seed-heads attract grateful finches stocking up on quality nosh before winter closes in.

Bugingham Palace

In addition to providing quality, traditional housing for our aboriginal invertebrates, we’ve laid out other sanctuaries and havens for them, too. A wildlife garden is not a tidy one. A disorderly pile of logs or bricks quickly becomes home to countless crawling citizens, adding to the bounty and giving more reasons for your feathered visitors to flock in.

During a trip to one of Yorkshire’s RSPB reserves I saw my first insect palace. It was nothing more than a pile of old pallets, among which were bricks, roof tiles, logs, sticks, straw, you name it – it was all there.

An insect city teeming with life, yet occupying only a four-by-four footprint. A must for any wildlife garden, whatever its size.

I knew I had to have one and on returning home, began to assemble my building materials.

Bugingham Palace – home fit for a queen bee.
Just one apartment …

Now, several years down the line, my own ‘Bugingham Palace’ is home to countless thousands of insects and invertebrates – themselves a valuable food supply for dozens of garden visitors. And it didn’t cost me a penny.

… and here’s another

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very important neighbour

In addition to structuring our outdoor space to accomodate a valuable food source for birds, our plant selection has also been made with another, vitally important creature in mind. The bee.

Bees are vital to the health of our planet. They go about their work, tirelessly pollinating and cross-pollinating plants and it’s crucial we do all we can to ensure they are safe and well-provided. All it takes is a little careful planning when deciding on how to stock our plots and borders.

The bees ask for nothing in return and are content to fend for themselves.

This time of year, one part of our garden is constantly a-buzz with their to-ing and fro-ing and it’s taken no effort on my part to house them.

They built their own homes in an old, nineteenth century brick wall, part of the pub outbuildings flanking my property. And like all who share that tiny part of planet Earth, all they ask is they be left alone.

So, if like my Facebook contact you’ve struggled to attract birds to your garden, I recommend you pick up a copy of Chris Baines’ book. It contains a wealth of information on how to build a wildlife garden, irrespective of your plot-size. The whole endeavour is interesting and enjoyable and will net positive returns almost immediately.

High-rise apartments, honey-bee style
Just a brick wall – but plastered with spiders’ webs and buzzing with activity
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