Gardening for wildlife

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Sparrows in Paradise

    Regular readers, please excuse my bad case of AWOL-ishness as I disappeared for two weeks. Yes, I went away sunning myself, and here I am freshly tanned thanks to the sun, wind and rain of what for me counts as the tropics - the Isles of Scilly.

    Have you been? The place is simply glorious. Here for example are the Eastern Isles last week - I might as well have been in the Caribbean!

    The islands are famed for their mild climate, where snows and frost are almost unheard of. It allows plants to grow in gardens that you can only dream of elsewhere in the UK, and the subtropical gardens on Tresco are a treasure-trove of flowers from across the globe.

    There's something about Scilly that also seems to work wonders for House Sparrows. You see them everywhere: in gardens, in fields and farms, out on the maritime heaths, on the beaches.

    This was a flock of 28 waiting on a porch roof to come down to some seed on the ground. Well, it's a long time since I've seen a flock that large where I live, and there were some flocks I saw on Scilly that I think were closer to 100.

    You're probably well aware that the House Sparrow is one of those cause celebres, a species that we once took for granted but whose numbers plummeted. We lost an estimated 68% of our sparrows between 1977 and 2011; in other words, for every three sparrows there were, just one remains.

    We still don't know the reasons for sure, although changes in agriculture practice in rural areas and shortages of insects in urban areas are implicated. The good news is that the decline seems to have bottomed out, with signs of an increase in the west and north although it is still not translating into a nationwide bounceback.

    Big Garden Birdwatch in January will give us another massive snapshot of how well they are doing, to add to the figures collated in the BTO's Breeding Bird Survey.

    How are your sparrows doing? Can you beat a photo of 28?

  • Are you ready to go oding?

    Yes, in my mission to give you yet more words you can use in Scrabble, I give you ‘'oding'’. You might already have done it without realising it, for it means to go looking for dragonflies. Honest!

    Ok, so it is a term that hasn'’t quite caught on in the UK yet, but it will if I have anything to do with it, and I certainly have been enjoying oding around my new garden. Apparently, that makes me an 'oder'.

    In the past few weeks, one species has been particularly prominent – the Migrant Hawker,– and what a beauty it is. It is one of the biggies of the dragonfly world. When I say big, it is still only about 6cm long and weights about 0.5-0.75 grams, which means that about 15 would weigh the same as a pound coin.

    Here is a female, perched on one of my bamboo canes:

    And here is a male on an old apple tree.

    I thought it would help to point out some of the features that make it a Migrant Hawker. So, from a to e:

    a: Males have blue-tinged eyes

    b: Migrant Hawkers have a short yellow bar on their 'shoulder' - it is called an 'anti-humeral stripe'.

    c: The 'golf tee' shape just behind the wings is diagnostic.

    d: The abdomen is then patterned with pairs of spots all the way to the end - blue spots on mainly black in the mature male, small yellow spots on brown in the female.

    e: Migrant Hawkers have very long 'anal appendages'. You can tell male dragonflies from females by the appendages - males have three, females have two.

    It is a dragonfly that your grandparents wouldn'’t have seen in their gardens because it was just a rare visitor to Britain until about 1940, but it has since spread and prospered, such that it has now just about made it into Scotland and Ireland.

    Numbers here are boosted each year by influxes from the continent - isn'’t it amazing to think of these things migrating potentially hundreds of miles and crossing seas?

    One of the things I really like about Migrant Hawkers is that you can sometimes see several in action together because, unlike many dragonflies, they tolerate each other.

    My new garden already has two ponds and a stinking old swimming pool, but none are in a fit state for dragonflies to breed, so this is one of the things I intend to rectify this winter. My prediction is that I can increase the number of dragonflies and damselflies in my garden ten-fold - I'll let you know if my confidence is well placed in due course!

    So, go on, while the Indian summer is still with us, there's plenty of time to be an oder!

  • Could your lawn become a meadow?

    One of the beauties of giving nature a home in your garden is that there are things you can do that are very simple but, if you like a challenge, you can try some pretty tricky things too.

    My blog this week is a tribute to a couple of friends who, I’m delighted to say, have given one of the most difficult things in wildlife gardening a try and delivered superb results. It is like the wildlife gardening equivalent of the quadruple toe-loop in ice dance or doing the splits in Strictly – they have turned their lawn into a wildlife meadow.

    There are three main ways of creating a wildlife meadow, all of which can be mixed and matched. The overall aim is to stem the vigour of grasses which can otherwise overpower all the meadow flowers you were hoping for.

    • Method 1 is to simply let your existing lawn grow long and see what flowers are in there, removing all the cut grass each rare occasion you mow to gradually reduce the fertility. You can boost your efforts with a few plug plants of favourite meadow flowers.
    • Method 2 is drastic – it involves removing all of your turf and taking it somewhere else! This gets you down to subsoil where you can sow your meadow from seed and add plug plants.
    • Method 3 involves using nature’s own magic grass-suppressor – Yellow Rattle. Once found in meadows across the UK, this annual ‘weed’ taps into the roots of grasses, helping itself to some of the water and nutrients the grass is trying to use and so sapping it of its brutishness.

    And it is a combination of Methods 1 and 3 that my friends tried, with the following wonderful result.


    Now I should quickly explain that in midsummer this would have been chock full of Yellow Rattle flowers, an excellent nectar source for bumblebees. What you see now are the dried seed pods of the Rattle in what I think still makes a pleasant and interesting tapestry.

    You can hopefully spot there is barely any grass to be seen because, in amongst the Rattle, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Lady’s Bedstraw have prospered. The former is the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Common Blue butterfly and, sure enough, there in the meadow were a couple of males, a little tatty at the end of their season but still gorgeous.

    There’s the chance too that Six-spot Burnet Moths, whose larvae also feed on the Trefoil, will take up residence, while Hummingbird Hawkmoths may breed on the Bedstraw. The 'meadow' also has glorious Cowslips in spring and Harebells in autumn.

    The Rattle, being an annual, needs the turf scuffing a little each year to let the seed make contact with the soil. but then can be left to do its thing, topped up with a bit of supplementary seed each spring.

    The next goal for this meadow is to plant Horseshoe Vetch; it is the foodplant of Chalkhill Blue and Adonis Blue butterflies which breed within half a mile of the garden. Wouldn't that be something?!

    Have you given wildlife meadows a go? Once established, the management regime is quite simple, mowing only from July through to the end of the growing season (for a spring meadow) or from September (for a summer meadow), and removing the cuttings for compost after they've lain on the ground a couple of days.