The observant garden enthusiasts amongst us will have noticed that our outside spaces are shared with a large community of other creatures including insects, birds, hedgehogs, toads and of course, slugs. The conditions that enable these creatures to thrive vary, and though we may be resistant to accommodating them all amongst our home-grown flowers and vegetables, their habitats are at very real risk of harm through the warming of our climate and ever-increasing extreme weather events.

Further threats include increased development encroaching on habitats in both urban and rural areas, and wider afield than our gardens, countryside habitats face erosion from intensive agriculture, deforestation, and pollution of our water courses with waste matter, pesticides, and plastics.

Gardens as wildlife habitats

Gardens are nationally important habitats

The British Trust for Ornithology summarises the importance of gardens in Britain by suggesting that if we added the area they occupy together, it would result in a land mass bigger than Suffolk, and so gardens can be considered as nationally important habitats. Their website (link below) provides a wealth of information about identifying garden birds and how to encourage them and other creatures into your garden.  Similarly, the Natural History Museum describes 87% of households as having a garden and that these exceed the combined area of all our nature reserves.

Creating welcoming habitats

We know a garden left to its own devices is a haven for wildlife, but perhaps not for us humans! There are many ways we can create gardens we enjoy being in and looking out on to whilst enabling our non-human visitors to thrive. In my garden in Bath, I use raised beds around the edges of a small square lawn to grow herbs, vegetables, and flowers, and leave the lawn itself unmown, and never treat it with chemicals because this could harm wildlife. I place an outdoor rug over it to allow us to eat outside in the summer. I have noticed fewer ladybirds and butterflies in my garden over the years, and though I live in a much more suburban and greener place than I did as a child, I haven’t seen a hedgehog for many years though they had been abundant in our garden in the London Borough where I grew up. I did, however, spot a grasshopper last summer, which was wonderful to see! 

Planting hardy flowers and plants to attract bees such as lavender, rosemary, roses, crab apple trees and spring bulbs has worked well, and in turn, we are lucky to enjoy the songs of blue tits, great tits, sparrows, wrens, blackbirds, and robins chirping away on the garden fences and washing line in between munching on insects. Not so musical are the magpies and wood pigeons that pillage the neighbours’ bird feeders.
Daisy
Snails in the garden

My perennial struggle is keeping slugs and snails from eating all the shoots and leaves of my vegetables, which I plant in hope every year. Natural deterrents are holly leaves, ash from the fireplace, coffee grains and even the needles from our Christmas tree, which I saved to scatter in my flower beds in Spring. All are biodegradable, building up the soil as they decompose so good for our friends the earthworms, and avoid using pesticides.

Ladybird

Invertebrates

Butterflies, bees, and moths enjoy the nectar from most flowers, and it is good to ensure you have flowers of different shapes and sizes so there is a variety for different insects. For example, bees enjoy the bell-shaped flowers of foxgloves, and butterflies are attracted to the long tubes of honeysuckle. The trusty buddleia is also known as the ‘butterfly bush’ because its nectar is in plentiful supply for flying insects.

 

Lavender and honeysuckle are great food sources, and grasses provide habitat for a huge variety of insects. I leave a few fruits to rot on my apple trees for insects too. It can be a good idea to keep a few weeds in reserve for the caterpillars because they are pickier than butterflies! The National History Museum recommends nettles for the caterpillars of comma, painted lady, tortoiseshell, and red admiral butterflies.  

Worms, slugs, snails, woodlice, spiders, millipedes, and any other mini beasts you can think of will thank you for a compost heap, wood pile and for keeping your grass long to protect the soil. ‘Bug hotels’ are popular, created by binding lengths of hollow wood together to provide nooks and crannies for insects to live. These creatures make an excellent meal for other wildlife in the garden such as hedgehogs, birds, and bats so you can encourage these to stay with an abundance of insects.

Spider

Birds

Many people enjoy hearing the chirping of songbirds, and the Spring dawn chorus is a favourite sound in my household. Different birds enjoy different habitats, and some, like house martins and swifts are only visiting for the summer. They enjoy making their nests in nooks, crevices, under overhangs and in the eaves of buildings, but there are also many nesting boxes suitable for them available on the market – though you cannot guarantee they will use them! Nest boxes should not be put in direct sunlight or in areas prone to strong wind. Setting up bird feeders will attract birds with appropriate foods such as suet balls for robins, sunflower seeds for house sparrows, niger seeds for goldfinches, mealworms for blackbirds and peanuts for tits. Include a bowl of fresh, clean water that allows a good view of cats and other predators.

Birds in the garden
Robin in the garden

Birds are good natural predators for pests so attracting them with food and water and encouraging them to stay with provision of good habitats could work well for the discerning gardener. The obvious habitat is trees that are also home to many insects and fruit for birds to eat. Shrubs and hedges are similar, especially if densely packed for good shelter and enclosure, and those with berries are a bonus. Climbers like honeysuckle and ivy create cover from predators and are popular with small birds like robins and wrens.

Mammals

The mammals that visit my garden are mostly nocturnal. Maximising opportunities for insects to flourish and reducing artificial light encourages bats to visit at dusk. Bats tend to roost in buildings but use gardens, ponds, allotments, parks, and riversides as foraging grounds.

Allowing a small gap between yours and your neighbours’ back gardens can give hedgehogs safe passage through, and in a larger garden, a compost heap may make a good environment for hibernation so be careful if you are moving compost in the winter. Animals that are unlikely to live in your garden but may pass through are urban foxes, badgers, and squirrels. They may be attracted by household waste, though they do eat insects, fruit and worms too.

Mammals in the garden

Reptiles

This might not be your usual group of animals to expect in your garden, but habitats of decaying matter such as wood piles, leaf litter and warm compost heaps can be a haven for slow worms, a lizard native to the UK. They also enjoy long, dense grass and deep plant cover. Slow worms feed on slugs and other pests, so encouraging them in could be of mutual benefit!

Grass snakes may also visit gardens with a pond in them, in search of frogs, toads and newts to eat. Their preferred habitat is wetlands, however. Slow worms and grass snakes are harmless to people and pets.

Amphibians 

A garden pond is a good way to keep frogs, toads, and newts happy, and you may be lucky enough to attract dragonflies as well. They feed on insects that gather by the water and these can also attract other invertebrate eating creatures such as bats. Ensure your pond has sloping sides however small it is, to ensure animals that fall in can get out again.

Garden wildlife habitats

Further Reading:

World Wildlife Fund: 5 Threats to UK Wildlife

https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/5-threats-uk-wildlife

Wildlife Watch: Animal Habitats

https://www.wildlifewatch.org.uk/animal-habitats/towns-and-gardens

British Trust for Ornithology: Garden Habitats

https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/gbw/gardens-wildlife/gardens-habitat

Natural History Museum: Creating a Wildlife Friendly Garden

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/seven-ways-to-create-a-wildlife-friendly-garden.html

The Wildlife Trusts: Bringing Wildlife Back on Land.

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/on-land

Woodland Trust: How to Attract Birds to your Garden.

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2020/07/attract-birds-to-your-garden/

Gardeners’ World: Habitats for garden birds

https://www.gardenersworld.com/plants/habitats-for-birds/#

North Leeds Garden Designs guide to encouraging wildlife into your garden

https://northleedsgardendesign.co.uk/how-to-encourage-wildlife-into-your-garden/

 

Blog by Funda Kemal

Photographs/copyright by Justin Towell