Wildlife in gardens

A wide variety of insects and other invertebrate animals, birds, mammals and amphibians can be found in gardens if they are provided with a suitable environment.

Hedgehog

Quick facts

Fewer than 1% of Britain’s insects are garden pests
Creating a garden pond is the single best way to attract wildlife
Leave some dead wood in the garden
Both native and non-native plants help support wildlife

 

How gardens help wildlife

Private gardens in Britain cover about 270,000 hectares (667,000 acres) so their potential as a haven for wildlife is considerable. They provide food, shelter and breeding sites for a wide range of animals which increases the interest and enjoyment of a garden.

Thankfully, relatively few of Britain’s 22,400 species of insects are garden pests; of the rest, some of the others are beneficial as pollinating insects, or as predators or parasites of pest species, while the majority feed on dead or living plant material without having any detrimental effect on gardens.

By incorporating some native plants into planting schemes, especially those that already occur in the locality, it is possible to encourage wildlife that is dependent on these plants.  Planting native plants in a garden helps to link the garden and its wildlife to the wider countryside.

 

Garden habitats

Gardens contain various habitats which can be important for wildlife:

Garden ponds

Installing a pond is the biggest single contribution that can be made to increase the wildlife interest in a garden.

A pond provides:

  • A breeding place for frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies and all the other aquatic fauna
  • A drinking and bathing area for birds and other animals

Do:

Don’t:

  • Add fish, such as goldfish or koi carp, as these are voracious predators of tadpoles and pond insects. However, very small fish, such as sticklebacks, can be included
  • Introduce rampant non-native plants, such as Canadian pond weed (Elodea canadensis), floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides), parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) and New Zealand pygmyweed (Crassula helmsii, sometimes sold as Tillaea recurva), and rapidly-spreading floating plants such as duckweeds (Lemna spp.) and water ferns (Azolla spp.)
  • Regularly clean out the pond. When necessary, remove excess plant material in small quantities and leave it on the side if possible, to allow some of the pond life to escape back into the water

Lawns

A lawn provides:

  • A nectar and seed source for insects and birds if left unmown and lawn ''weeds''allowed to flower
  • Larval food plants (various grasses) for butterflies such as the skippers, meadow brown, speckled wood, gatekeeper, ringlet and small heath
  • A place for birds such as green woodpeckers and blackbirds to search for ants and earthworms

The addition of other flowering plants will increase the wildlife value of lawns. These establish best if raised as small plants in seed trays and transplanted into the lawn.

Attractive wild flowers for short turf;

bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
eyebright (Euphrasia spp.)
self heal (Prunella vulgaris)
violets (Viola spp.)
wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus)

And for long grass left uncut for most of the summer;

devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis)
field scabious (Knautia arvensis)
hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)
hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
knapweeds (Centaurea spp.)
mallow (Malva sylvestris)
teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)
wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)

Fertilizers and weedkillers should not be used on wildflower lawns or meadows.

Hedges, walls and fences

Living boundaries, such as hedges, are of greatest value to wildlife but fencing and walls are also useful if clothed with climbing plants or shrubs.

Hedges and boundaries provide:

  • Cover and nesting sites for birds and small mammals
  • Shelter the garden from strong winds
  • Habitat for spiders and insects and hunting opportunities for their predators

The ideal wildlife hedge is achieved by using a mixture of plants such as hawthorn, field maple, blackthorn, beech, hornbeam and holly, with rambling plants such as wild rose, bramble and honeysuckle, growing through them. Trim berrying hedges every other year to allow them to fruit in alternate years.

Trees and shrubs

Trees and shrubs provide:

  • Supports for climbing plants such as clematis, roses and ivy. Ivy flowers in the autumn when few other nectar and pollen sources are available to insects
  • Nesting and roosting sites for birds and bats
  • A large leaf surface area for aphids and caterpillars – themselves a large part of the diet for birds and their chicks
  • Nectar and pollen for insects from flowering trees and shrubs

Forest trees such as oak, ash and beech, while excellent for wildlife, are too large for most gardens. Instead, consider planting;

Buddleja
cherry (Prunus avium)
Cotoneaster
crab apple (Malus)
goat willow (Salix caprea)
hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
hazel (Corylus avellana)
holly (Ilex aquifolium)
mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia)
Pyracantha
silver birch (Betula pendula)
spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
wild roses (Rosa)

Flower borders

Flower borders provide:

  • A source of nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other flower visitors
  • Seed heads for seed-eating birds and insects
  • Hollow stems and foliage for overwintering insects and spiders

Stock beds with a range of annuals and perennials which flower over as long a season as possible. Avoid double-flowered forms as these often lack pollen and are shunned by bees. Leave seed heads on into winter and delay cutting back until late winter.

Useful garden flowers are sedums, scabious, sunflower, Michaelmas daisies, wallflowers, aubrieta and golden rod. Native plants, including foxglove, meadow cranesbill, primrose, cowslip, hemp agrimony, knapweeds, teasel and red campion, can be incorporated into flower beds.

Compost heaps

All good gardens have a compost heap. Decaying plant material seethes with insects, worms, mites and other invertebrate animals. They are part of the composting process and, along with bacteria and fungi, will convert the vegetation into a rich, crumbly compost. The heap will also be an important feeding area for birds and insectivorous mammals.

Fruit and vegetable areas

Where possible, grow annuals around the edge of the kitchen garden to encourage beneficial insects such as hoverflies. Many hoverflies are beneficial as their larvae prey on aphids, which are common pests on many fruit and vegetables. Leave some fallen fruit in the autumn to be eaten by overwintering migrant birds, such as redwings and fieldfares.

Dead wood

Dead wood provides:

  • Habitat for approximately 20% of Britain’s woodland insect fauna
  • Food for wood-boring insects that in turn are eaten by woodpeckers
  • Nest sites in hollow trunks and branches for certain birds and bats

In a garden dead trees or branches should be checked for signs of disease. Dead material may need to be removed on the grounds of safety or to prevent disease spread. However, where dead wood cannot be left in situ, it can be stacked in a shady part of the garden.

Action points for encouraging wildlife

  • Provide as wide a range of habitats as possible
  • Incorporate some native plants, taking care to ensure they are of British origin and not forms of British wildflowers imported from elsewhere
  • Allow plants to go to seed and leave dead plant stems in the border for overwintering insects
  • Reduce the use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Be tolerant of some pest and disease damage. Where available use natural enemies (biological control) and/or short-persistence pesticides
  • Provide food for wildlife. In addition to that provided by growing plants, supply food in the form of seed mixtures, fat balls and peanuts for birds. Meat-based pet foods are better for hedgehogs than milk and bread
  • Birds need a source of shallow water for drinking and bathing throughout the year
  • Provide nest boxes for birds. A range of box sizes and entry apertures will encourage tits, robins, flycatchers, owls and other birds to nest. Also put up bat boxes
  • Solitary bees will make use of bundles of hollow plant stems or paper straws, or holes drilled into blocks of wood

 

    BlackbirdBird boxHoverfly on anemoneInsect homeLog pile

    RHS policy statements

    • The RHS recognises and actively promotes the valuable contribution that gardens make to wildlife, believing that with thoughtful management it is possible to enhance the wildlife potential in any garden without compromising the gardener’s enjoyment of it
    • The RHS actively supports the fostering of local biodiversity in gardens, by promoting knowledge of a wide range of native fauna and wild flower species, their ecology and conservation
    • The RHS promotes the discriminating use of chemical pesticides, mindful of their possible detrimental effects on wildlife
    • The RHS adopts and demonstrates these policies in the management of its own Gardens and, through RHS Gardening Advice and RHS website, provides advice on gardening with wildlife in mind

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