What is a wildlife garden?
Surely all gardens are wildlife gardens really aren't they? Are insects, birds and wildflower respecters of boundaries? Do they stop when they meet a leylandii hedge and look for something more...well 'natural'? Wildlife will exploit hundreds of niches in even the most formal gardens.
When you look at it like this, the comparison between 'wildlife' and 'normal' gardens is a bit artificial and that's because the really significant differences are not in the gardens themselves, but in the outlook of the people who inhabit themthe comparison between 'wildlife' and 'normal' gardens is a bit artificial and that's because the really significant differences are not in the gardens themselves, but in the outlook of the people who inhabit them.
In fact, many people use the term 'wildlife garden' to describe a garden designed and managed as, what is more properly called, a 'naturalistic garden'. I prefer to think of 'wildlife gardening' as the application of principles and techniques that can be applied make any garden more amenable to wildlife.
A 'wildlife garden' is a garden, of any idiom, which is cared for by someone who is willing to share their space with nature rather than control it.
Native plants in the garden
People often think of wildlife gardens as gardens which are dominated by native plants, but I would argue that it is not necessary to include a lot of native plants in the garden be considered as a wildlife gardener (see feature article on Principles of Wildlife Garden design). However it is true that, very often, the most significant visible difference on the ground between gardens designed and managed with wildlife gardening principles in mind and gardens that are not, is the inclusion of native plants.
Every garden includes plants that are native to its part of the country. Many of these may be planted, or at least accommodated, deliberately by the gardener. Others persist despite the gardener, maybe even without their knowledge. Most wildlife gardeners deliberately use native plants for a number of reasons, but the following are particularly significant.
- The gardener likes them! Obvious really, but fans of native wildlife are usually fans of native wild plants.
- They promote biodiversity. Thousands of years of evolution have led to intricate webs of dependencies between native plants and animals. Establishing a native plant of one species can alter conditions to favour many other plants and animals. Using native plants helps your garden to support the life cycles of wild animals, particularly insects and other invertebrates.
- They do well. Native plants are generally well adapted to the conditions prevalent in the areas where they naturally occur. As such they will readily establish in gardens - and you can find the right ones for even the most awkward spots.
Marble galls on oak. The tree produces these in response to eggs laid by tiny wasps.
An often quoted example of a native plant supporting large numbers of other species is that of the oak, which is thought to be associated with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of invertebrates. One study (Southwood 1961) looked at five groups of insects and found 284 species associated with Oak compared to 15 for Sycamore and none at all for Plane. The latter two species are non-natives, although both were introduced hundreds of years ago (over 700 years in the case of Sycamore) but the oak has been co-evolving with its associated fauna for thousands of years - since the last ice age.
Despite the obvious advantages of planting native species in the garden, only the most dogmatic wildlife gardener would concentrate solely on themonly the most dogmatic wildlife gardener would concentrate solely on them. Many plants introduced to gardens, particularly those with nectar and pollen bearing flowers, are very attractive to our native invertebrates, and by providing 'refuelling stops' probably do more than the natives in terms of increasing the number of the more mobile insect species visiting the garden. I would not want my own garden to be without Buddleja davidii, for example, which acts as a magnet for butterflies like red admiral, small tortoiseshell and peacock. Others provide structure for shelter and breeding (many a blackbird would not be here but for the concealment afforded its nest by an 'alien' shrub) and fruits attractive to many animals.
Wildlife gardening means gardening too!
We have to make a distinction between wildlife gardens and wildlife reserves. For me, gardening is a creative activity not to be constrained by dogma from any quarter: the garden is an expression of an individual's feelings, imagination and fantasiesthe garden is an expression of an individual's feelings, imagination and fantasies. On the other hand, custodians of wildlife reserves have a wider duty to the environment and the community: self-expression does not figure highly. Wildlife reserves bear the mark of man, often very heavily, resulting from the long-term interaction between the human community and the local ecology, but generally, we go out of It doesn't have to be like this!
our way to ensure that they do not bear the marks of individuals. But in our gardens, the mark of the individual is very important: most gardeners, including wildlife gardeners, are expressing something of themselves through their gardens.
Encouraging wildlife in the garden is a form of self-expression - whether overt or sub-conscious. Even the most hands-off wildlife gardeners are making active choices about how they want to project themselves in their gardens. As a species
we have a predilection for design and orderliness and the majority of wildlife gardeners will not be happy to turn their garden completely over to nature. Indeed, in this country, even nature reserves require a great deal of active intervention from man in order to keep them special places for wildlife - there are very few true wilderness areas left. For most wildlife gardeners, gardening is the operative word: both gardening and wildlife are essential constituents of the complete package.
Seeing things through different eyes
Read a book about wildlife gardening, or visit a web-site, like this, and the chances are you will come across this advice: relax! - it's the single most important thing that you need to do in order to create a garden that is more amenable to wildliferelax! - it's the single most important thing that you need to do in order to create a garden that is more amenable to wildlife. How difficult is that? Well actually, it seems, very difficult. Despite the fact that nearly everyone who has a garden would probably agree that its raison d'étre is to provide a place for relaxation, most gardeners would also admit that there are times when, upon entering the garden, the prospect of relaxation recedes even further away.
What do you see?
It seems to some gardeners that the more they try to exclude certain plants or animals, the more they appear to be targeted by them! But its all in the eye of the beholder - if you are determined to exclude every last dandelion from your garden, then you'll see them popping up everywhere because they're at the forefront of your mind. The sight of a dandelion pushing its determined head above the 'real' plants in a flowerbed can be enough to send many a gardener to battle stations. Why? Isn't the dandelion beautiful in flower? Isn't it beautiful when it fruits? Doesn't it attract a host of wonderful insects and even birds? Doesn't it rejoice in a rich folklore? Doesn't it bring to mind fond childhood memories for most of us? After the heat of the garden battle, with feet up, a nice cup of tea and time for reflection, most gardeners would probably appreciate the paradox - and I admit to having been there myself.
Why can the dandelion and other plants of its ilk engender such negative emotions in many of us? The problem is its ilk: ask most people what a dandelion is and most will not answer 'a flower' or even 'a wildflower', but most likely 'a weed'. The Oxford Dictionary says that a weed is "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted" (my emphasis). That means no plant can be a weed simply by virtue of its species - it is only a weed if it's not wanted. It's a nonsense to say "I don't want that growing there because it's a weed", since it can only be a weed because you don't want it there!
Its 'received wisdom' that labels the dandelion as a weed without qualification. To be a successful wildlife gardener you must challenge this notions like this. Dandelions which are growing where you don't want them are weeds, but the ones growing in places where you decide you can accommodate them are not - they are just flowers.Dandelions which are growing where you don't want them are weeds, but the ones growing in places where you decide you can accommodate them are not - they are just flowers. You can reach this place by freeing yourself from the shackles of received wisdom, the expectations of other people and any sort of dogma. Making the decision to strive for an attitude like this will enable you to see things through different eyes. If you become more inclined to let a few dandelions slip through the net here and there or if, even better, you can appreciate the beauty of ones you leave, then you are the lucky custodian of a wildlife garden!
Are gardens important to wildlife?
Estimates of the total area represented by Britain's 15 million gardens range from one to three million acres. By dint of total acreage alone, the potential benefit of gardens to native wildlife is huge, but also, in terms of biodiversity, the 'garden habitat' is unrivalled by our 'natural habitats'. None of our natural habitats can match the average garden for the number of species of plants and animals in a given area. The rich diversity of garden plants, artificially produced and maintained by the gardener and often rich in nectar and pollen, provides an irresistible draw to many of our native invertebrates. Most of the native plants and animals which occur in gardens are opportunists, exploiting the artificial conditions they find to their
The now not so 'common' frog relies heavily on our gardens
immediate advantage, but there are other native species for which gardens now constitute an immensely important habitat: if we took away all the gardens, animals like the common frog and even the once ubiquitous house sparrow would now be relatively uncommon or even rareif we took away all the gardens, animals like the common frog and even the once ubiquitous house sparrow would now be relatively uncommon or even rare.
The latter part of the 20th century saw a degradation of the British countryside on an unprecedented scale. Wetland habitats suffered more than most, often being seen as inconvenient, dangerous or just plain useless. They have been drained, filled, canalised, abstracted and polluted to such an extent that garden ponds now provide a very real refuge for some of the wildlife that once flourished in these places. Other animals which have, for millennia, been intimately associated with man in both rural and urban environments have declined as we have polluted or otherwise degraded the very spaces we ourselves inhabit. Numbers of house sparrows and starlings have plummeted alarmingly over recent decades, so that they are now included on endangered species lists (RSPB 2003 [house sparrow] and (RSPB 2003 [starling]). Yet both these species occur in urban and suburban areas in densities an order of magnitude higher than on farmland - its hard to overstate the importance of the garden environment for these and other species (Raven et. al. 2002).
The red-listed house sparrow
In the last few decades a new discipline of the biological sciences called 'landscape ecology' has emerged. Landscape ecologists look at the influence of landscape features, at all sorts of scales, on the abundance and distribution of plants and animals. One of the key concepts to emerge from this new way of looking at things is that of 'wildlife corridors'. A wildlife corridor is a more or less linear landscape feature that acts as a highway for plants and animals to disperse and travel from one area to another. Two woodlands linked by a hedgerow form a much more stable and robust habitat than two isolated woodlands. In many ways, the hedgerow is the classic wildlife corridor.
Our one to three million acres are even more significant in wildlife terms because they are spread over 15 million gardens linked together to form a network spreading throughout our major towns and cities.
The historical abundance of hedgerows throughout much of Britain is one of the single most important landscape features to shape the distribution and abundance of the plants and animals that we see around us today (Pollard et. al., 1974). Tragically, during the second half of the 20th century, changing agricultural practices tended to favour larger fields and many of our hedges (some of them landscape features of more than a thousand years standing) have been grubbed out.
Other changes in the landscape have given rise to new wildlife corridors, most obviously railway and road verges. And what about gardens? We tend to picture the urban and sub-urban environments as largely hard-landscaped wildlife wastelands, but look over any major city from a high vantage point and it is striking just how much of it is green. Most of this green space is comprised of gardens and, significantly, they are generally linked together to form green corridors. Our one to three million acres are even more significant in wildlife terms because they are spread over 15 million gardens linked together to form a network spreading throughout our major towns and cities.
The starling: gardens are an increasingly important haven for this once shy, woodland bird
But we could disregard all the evidence pointing to the direct impact of gardens on native wildlife and still make an unassailable case for their importance for one simple reason: gardens are spaces which have the power to shape peoples attitudesgardens are spaces which have the power to shape peoples attitudes. For a host of reasons, the carefree access to the countryside that many lucky people can remember from their youth is increasingly denied to children today. Now more than at any time in this nation's history, children get much of their first-hand experience of nature from gardens. Every one of us can probably think of a time when we've seen a child fired up by some encounter they've had with nature and those experiences,
however fleeting they appear to be, change that child for life. Strangely enough, as we get older, these kind of encounters can still engender a child-like fascination and curiosity within all of us, making us reassess our place in the natural world and our responsibilities towards it. Make no mistake, important as nature reserves national parks and the like unarguably are, the ecological crisis facing us today is above all, a battle for hearts and minds and gardens may well end up being in the front line.
|First published December 2002. Last revised December 2003.|
Copyright Richard Burkmar 2003. Permission is hereby granted for anyone to use this article for non-commercial purposes which are of benefit to the natural environment as long the original author is credited. School pupils, students, teachers and educators are invited to use the article freely. Use for commercial purposes is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holder.|
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