Gardening for wildlife – some things not to do

23 May 2013

A friend has just moved to a few miles outside Weymouth, down towards the Fleet, in a nice rural, sheltered spot, surrounded by trees. The strange thing she is finding is, though there is lots of shelter for birds and you can hear some around the garden, virtually none are coming into the garden. She knows the previous gardener kept the grass mown very short all the time, so presumably that ceased to be a good habitat for the seeds or the insects on which birds feed. It also seems likely that herbicides were used, certainly on the patio area, again killing off the very things which might have tempted birds to visit.

One suspects this was the usual “well I only use weedkiller where I have to” sort of argument, but the people who say this sort of thing don’t stop to think of the knock-on effects of what they are doing; if you kill the plants, you remove food and cover for insects, and if you remove the insects, local birds will have less food. We also have no idea of the incremental damage we all do, together with the farmers using similar herbicides/pesticides, and the effect it may have on the very planet which supports us. I have some sympathy with people who make their living from the land, but little for a garden ownder just wanting a pretty view.

Left: eight starlings - we see up to 20 at a time now, whereas they used not to be here at all. Right: adult starling collecting large mouthful, presumably to feed its nestlings.

Left: eight starlings – we see up to 20 at a time now, whereas they used not to be here at all. Right: adult starling collecting large mouthful, presumably to feed its nestlings.

Gardening for wildlife isn’t just some things to do, it’s things not to do as well, and most of them are good in that they reduce the time your garden takes up or save you expense:

  • Don’t use weed killers or pesticides. I personally won’t even use the supposedly hedgehog-friendly slug pellets: as far as I can ascertain, there isn’t any conclusive research to prove or disprove how “safe” these slug pellets are, and I certainly don’t trust what the companies selling them to us say – they are bound to be biased. Our hedgehogs are in a lot of trouble, so I don’t think it’s worth taking any risks with them.
  • Minimise the use of nitrogen-rich fertilisers: the nitrogen is seeping into our water courses, causing problems, and you will end up with soft-growing plants which aphids and snails find particularly yummy.
  • Don’t use peat. What right have you got to help ruin precious habitats elsewhere just to make it easier to grow things? If you set yourself the rule “no peat” you will find ways round the problems, and if it’s not quite so easy, so what?
  • Be less controlling. If serried ranks of begonias with absolutely no weeds please you, OK, have some, but compromise – leave other areas of the garden less ruthlessly controlled. For example, all that leaf litter around your herbaceous plants in the autumn, or round the edge of your patio, isn’t just “rubbish” –  it probably contains a lot of insect pupae, which are aiming to spend the winter hiding from predators and from which the adult insect will emerge next Spring. Leave it on the herbaceous bed where it can rot down and feed your soil naturally: you can always just pull it back from the crowns of any plants you fear will rot, though personally I think it’s good cold weather protection for them. By all means sweep up the patio, but tip the sweepings under a bush somewhere, so anything in it will survive.
  • Stop pulling up every last “weed”. Many of them are British native wild flowers, which are useful to wildlife in a multitude of ways. Again, if you like things very neat and tidy, try to compromise a bit – you might even find you come to like it!
Left: baby starling waiting to be fed. Centre: robin. Right: chaffinch to the left and goldfinch to the right.

Left: baby starling waiting to be fed. Centre: robin. Right: chaffinch to the left and goldfinch to the right.

When we moved in here, the garden was nothing but grass, and the total bird life was one pair of blackbirds. The photos on this page were all taken here a day or two ago, so you can see how the right habitat, some food and no poisons, can bring in the winged wildlife. And yes, I know custard creams aren’t good bird food – they get very nutritious food most of the time: the biscuits were a bribe so I could photograph them!

Jackdaw defying all comers to steal his bit of custard cream.

Jackdaw defying all comers to steal his bit of custard cream.

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4 Comments to “Gardening for wildlife – some things not to do”

  1. I wonder whether the seed we routinely feed to our birds was grown with the use of pesticides or not? Do they claim to be “organic” on the packaging?

    • Good question, Dom. I buy from Vine House Farm because they seem genuinely wildlife friendly, they grow all they can on their farm, rather than importing it – and they give 5% of their takings to the Wildlife Trusts, which they report as being worth more than half a million pounds in the last five years. As with everything, the important things are often those not said, rather than said, but they certainly seem to score on a lot of points (and they don’t charge anything for postage).
      Lyn

  2. The production of flower seed is interesting too – there must be a temptation to use pesticides and fertiliser in abundance but on the other hand they must rely on insects for pollination to some extent. All within the carefully controlled confines of a polytunnel obviously!

    • Talking of polythene, what are the strips of what look like polythene in lines over a lot of field all about? Drove past one field today and it looked like maize was coming up through the strips of whatever-it-is.

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