12 easy ways to help wildlife in your garden now

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: April 3rd, 2016 In: Wildlife & eco

When did you last wash out the bird bath? I keep walking past mine, thinking ‘must do something about that.’

It’s so easy to forget. Time goes by. So this weekend is my ‘wildlife friendly audit’.  

There are about a dozen easy little tweaks you can make that will make your garden a better place for birds, pollinating insects and other essential wildlife.

Easy ways to help wildlife in your garden now

Clean out the bird bath and bird feeders

For example, dirty bird baths spread disease, and may be a factor in the decline of some species.

Experts suggest rinsing bird baths out regularly. Once a week would stop it turning green (as it is at the moment).

My ‘bird bath’ is an upturned dustbin lid balanced on an old chimney pot. It’s a bit deep for smaller birds, so I have added a few stones.

Bird feeders should be cleaned every few weeks, and definitely always in the spring. It’s a good time of year to clean your terrace or patio generally anyway.

Make sure there is a source of water

All wildlife needs access to water. You can make a mini wildlife pond in a barrel, a bucket, an upturned dustbin lid or a baby bath (for full details, see here). Make sure that creatures can get in and out safely.

Babies and toddlers can drown in a few inches of water, so make sure your ponds and mini-ponds are safe.

Mini-ponds for wildlife

I’ve introduced horned snails and oxygenating weed to my mini-pond – they help to keep it fairly clean.

If you need to change the water in a mini-pond, use rainwater from the butts, not tap-water.

If you only have tap water, let it stand in the watering can for 24 hours for some of the chemicals to evaporate.

There are organic pond cleaning products, such as Envii Pond Klear.

Stop pruning trees

From now on, birds are starting to make their nests. Pruning hedges and trees destroys their habitat, says the RSPB.

So put away the loppers and chain saw until autumn.

Plant bird-friendly shrubs and hedges..

Are you torn between wanting to feed the birds and not wanting to encourage rats?

We have occasional rat problems. It doesn’t stop us from feeding the birds, especially in cold weather.

However, the more you can feed the birds by planting shrubs that will feed them, the better. One solution is ‘a rich hedge’ – shrubs and hedging that give the birds natural food, as well as shelter.

A ‘rich hedge’ means a hedge made of several different species, especially if it’s not clipped too tight. Best4Hedging have worked with the RSPB to come up with rich hedge packs in ‘approved bird-friendly bundles’, designed to attract the widest range of bird life.

Good hedging plants and trees include hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, guelder rose, wild cherry and other shrubs. Traditionally hedges were always mixed – it’s believed you can tell how old a hedge is by how many species are in it.

Or a dead hedge…

If you’ve got a bit more space a ‘dead hedge’ is also really helpful to wildlife. Pack dead twigs and branches into a ‘hedge’. You can always grow green climbers over it in the summer.

Use prunings to help wildlife with a 'dead hedg'e.

Prunings and dead branches secured by chicken wire make a dead hedge at the Abbey Physic Garden, Faversham.

Think hedgehog

There’s a reason why they’re called hedgehogs. They need hedges.

Both hedges and their hedgehogs are in decline.

Although modern intensive farming doesn’t help, most hedgehogs live in urban and suburban areas. Our smaller, neater ‘designed’ gardens means more hard landscaping and solid fences.

Hedgehogs need a bit more greenery.

In particular they need sheltered corridors so they can scuttle about unseen by predators (underneath hedges) and they need little holes between gardens in order to cover enough territory.

Hedgehogs can't roam through solid walls and fences

Our predecessors in this garden tried to introduce hedgehogs but it is walled and in town. In spite of being spaciously ‘middle-sized’, there still isn’t enough room for hedgehogs to roam, so we have had to give up on the idea.

But if you are able to have the smallest of holes at ground level (discuss with your neighbour), that could make all the difference. You would give hedgehogs a territory to roam in.

In return, they will munch your slugs and snails.

You can get more advice for hedgehogs from The British Hedgehog society . They are currently asking people to check carefully for hedgehogs before using strimmers.

Help wildlife with your butterfly garden…

I am conflicted between the joy of seeing butterflies fluttering around the garden and the woe at seeing my chard munched by caterpillars.

But it’s no good encouraging butterflies if there is nowhere for them to feed their young.

My solution is to net most of the leafy greens. But I let nasturtium romp through the veg patch as a companion plant, and it’s a good host for caterpillars, along with violets.

I bought a packet of nasturtium seeds about five years ago, and spread it over the veg beds. It now self-seeds into gaps and is, apparently, good at keeping blackfly off the beans, too.

Provide caterpillar food.

Nasturtiums self-seed in the veg beds and feed caterpillars.

In the US the concept of planting a ‘butterfly garden’ is popular, and there are lots of posts (eg on the Birds and Blooms blog) on how to plant to encourage butterflies (or hummingbirds).

In Britain, we’re a bit further behind, beyond knowing that butterflies like buddleia.

The headline advice is to plant nectar-rich plants in sunny spots (the Butterfly Conservation Society has a list). Once again, blocks or drifts are better than individual plants. Three of my favourite plants – lavender, wallflower Bowles Mauve and verbena bonariensis – are good butterfly plants.

And don’t use peat-based composts because it destroys butterfly habitat. I am currently trying out Westland’s Gro-Sure peat-free garden compost.

Talk to the neighbours

Wildlife usually roam across an area bigger than your garden, so if there’s any chance of getting together in a street and having a wildlife policy, it will really help.

It’s difficult to have a bee-friendly garden if next door is busy spraying pesticides every weekend. However some people don’t like insects. I have actually seen posts on how to plant flowers that bees won’t like!

Some people don’t think there’s anything they can really achieve because their plot of land is too small to make a difference (but the RHS says that even what you do in your front garden helps, and you don’t get smaller than that.)

And some people associate ‘wildlife gardening’ with leaving land to get overgrown and unkempt.

They’re all entitled to their opinions. Gardening is a very personal issue.

If you can get local schemes, community gardens or residents’ associations to take wildlife gardening on as a philosophy, then that will help.

Many of the participants in our Faversham Open Gardens & Market Day (June 26th this year!) make a point of emphasising what they’re doing to help wildlife when they write their few lines about their gardens in the visitors’ guide book.

Otherwise, chat it through informally with neighbours and see what they think, but it would be counter-productive to try to stop them planting double begonias if that’s what they really like.

Apply for a wildlife gardening award…

Many of the UK wildlife trusts offer wildlife gardening awards for private gardens.

They’ll come and check your garden, offering friendly friendly advice on where you could improve. Before you know where you are, you are ‘an award-winning garden (like Faversham resident Frances Beaumont).’

If your neighbours are like-minded, you could always apply collectively.

The link to the Kent Wildlife Trust awards entry form is here. Go to your regional Wildlife Trust to find out what they do.

Create a blaze of colour with wildlife-friendly seeds

If your front garden has a colourful wildlife seed mix in it, then people will feel much happier about it than if it’s a patch of dandelions and weeds. Friends who have tried wildflower mixes – such as the Thompson & Morgan Classic Meadow Mix – report four months of ever-changing floral glory for very little effort.

Plant in big blocks or drifts…

It looks stunning and will help pollinating insects. Bees make a separate journey for each different kind of flower, so blocks are better than having lots of different plants in ones and twos.

And when you’re choosing plants, make a habit of checking how wildlife friendly they are. It’s often on the label or in the catalogue these days.

A huge range of plants are good for pollinators – generally (although not always) those with open petals and easy access to pollen. The RHS has extensive ‘plants for pollinators’ lists.

See more birds by giving them better bird food

We all like nicer food.

So I don’t know why I was so surprised that we got more birds (and more different types of bird) when we upped our bird food from sacks of the cheapest basic to something more gourmet (Peckish was one successful brand we tried).

(And apparently the cheap bird foods with lots of coloured bits are sometimes filled up with dog biscuit crumbs, which is less nourishing for birds as well.)

Better food on our bird tables is even changing the birds themselves. Research by the University of Freiburg in Germany suggests that birds are changing their winter feeding destinations because of the UK’s better bird feeding habits.

Some Blackcaps, a German species of  warbler, now migrate to the UK to over-winter on British bird tables instead of sunning themselves in Spain in the warmer weather. Other Blackcaps still go to Spain.

The British-wintering Blackcaps get home to Germany earlier for the breeding season, because the journey is shorter. And their beaks are even changing to deal with our bird food rather than the Spanish olives! 

So that birdsong over your head might be a discussion on how the food has improved in Britain, and comparing it to the sunshine on Spanish beaches.

There are more wildlife-friendly garden tips in this video:

If you’ve found this helpful, do spread the word to help wildlife by sharing using the buttons below. Thank you!

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