The wilderness outside our back doors

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Nature gives us so much. We can give back to it in our gardens and other urban green spaces.

Like many a western tourist, I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing wildlife overseas and here in Britain. But some of my most memorable sightings have been in the garden of various suburban homes we’ve lived in over the years.

The staggering, whirring flight of the stag beetle, the UK’s largest insect, in early summer. Young foxes up on their hind legs wrestling each other late on an autumn night. Frog spawn turning into myriad wriggling tadpoles. A heroic blue tit couple resisting a woodpecker attack on their nest box. The underwater courtship dance of the male common newt.

A nest full of baby robins in a garden shed. Thousands of flying ants emerging from the earth and taking off, bringing clouds of birds. A swarm of honeybees clumping into a football-sized blob up a tree. Hedgehogs, pipistrelles, dragonflies, herons, grass snakes….

All we ever did in order to enjoy these amazing things was to have a garden – never a big one – and not pave it over. And, once, we dug a pond – hard work, but greatly worthwhile for the wildlife it brought us.

At Bioregional, I’ve just researched and written a report on nature and our gardens commissioned by long term partner B&Q. The Nature of Gardens is published today. Having looked at dozens of scientific studies, we conclude that gardens are hugely important in connecting people with nature. Furthermore…..

  • Gardens do real good for Britain’s declining wildlife, more than we realise.
  • Wildlife and nature do real good for people’s mental and physical health, and our gardens are one of the most important places – perhaps the most important place – where this happens.

Before I began this review of gardens, nature and people I knew that gardens could bring people and nature together. But I didn’t imagine that they could do anything really significant to support UK wildlife. I’ve changed my mind.

Gardens cover only about 2-3 per cent above the UK’s land surface (about the same size as Norfolk) and they are very far from being protected nature reserves or cossetted Sites of Special Scientific Interest. They are hard-working, multi-tasking little patches with prowling cats and marauding toddlers.

But given that nature is still on the run in the wider countryside, mainly because of industrialised farming, gardens are gradually assuming a bigger role in the overall conservation picture. They are becoming increasingly important habitat for declining species like the starling, song thrush, sparrow, hedgehog, stag beetle and common toad.

Gardens, along with other urban greenery, help to combat air and noise pollution in our towns and cities. They lower the temperature during heat waves and reduce the risk of flooding caused by rain storms. They may help buffer us against climate change, and they may help some wildlife species to cope better with climate change.

Yet everything in the garden is not rosy. Our gardens are getting smaller, and we appear to be increasingly inclined to cover them in hard surfaces in order to park our cars and make them easier to manage.

There is also a concern that children and adults are becoming more detached from nature, harming themselves and leaving them less inclined to protect it. There was a good piece about this in the Guardian recently.

The aim of our report is to recognise the great but under-appreciated contribution gardens are already making to people and to nature, and then to try to make them contribute more.

We’ve distilled what we have learned into ten simple top tips (below) for everyone, especially those who are novice gardeners or who lack confidence in gardening and in attracting wildlife. We argue that it is easy, affordable, educational and fun for adults and children. And you don’t even need a garden; greening up a balcony or a front doorstep all adds to the good.

One of the nicest things about writing The Nature of Gardens was to have it reviewed by four leading voluntary organisations – the RSPB, the Royal Horticultural Society, Butterfly Conservation and The Wildlife Trusts – who really know their stuff on wildlife and gardens. They improved it, they liked it and they support it.

The whole thing takes a while to read, but you get lots of beautiful pictures and some surprising statistics. There’s also a useful summary which you can zoom through in a couple of minutes.

If we can get more people helping nature and more people benefitting from nature, then we create a virtuous circle with the power to halt environmental degradation and save the planet. It starts in our gardens.

Our top ten tips to help garden wildlife

  1. Look out for wildlife and share your discoveries

Becoming a citizen scientist by taking part in wildlife surveys is a great free way to become more aware of what’s already out there.

The more you talk about what you are doing and what you have seen and encourage others to join in, the more fun it becomes.

  1. Pop up a bird café

Offering food and water is the fastest and easiest way to attract new visitors to your space

  1. Plant for pollinators

Nothing says summer like the sound of bees buzzing and the sight of butterflies. Fragrant flowers in a pot or a bed are an irresistible attraction.

  1. Give wildlife some shelter

A log pile is great for butterflies, bug houses provide homes for mini beasts, a leaf pile for hedgehogs, or install a bird or bat box – for best results make sure you are careful with positioning.

  1. Get nature savvy with your shopping

Use fewer garden chemicals

Look out for pollinator-attracting plants

Insist on forest friendly wood and peat free compost to help nature near and far.

  1. Just add water

A pond can be any size, even a buried bowl can provide a home for various mini-beasts and insects like damsel flies

Constructing a pond using a pre-formed shape or flexible liner will give much greater variety. Create shallows so that plant life can flourish and allow wildlife to enter and leave. If you have small children, wait until they are older before creating a pond

A bird bath provides water for birds to bathe and drink.

  1. Max out the green

Nurture what trees and shrubs you have and bring more in whenever possible. Nature needs habitats at all levels, so trees are fabulous but climbers are super space-efficient

  1. Help wildflowers flourish

Plant a mini-meadow in a pot, wildflowers in your borders or just spare a patch of lawn to let the grass and flowers grow long.

  1. Open hedgehog gateways at the bottom of your fence

One of our most loved species, hedgehogs love to roam but fencing can be a barrier. Creating a gateway either in or below your fence will make life easier for them.

  1. Make your cat safe and seen

The UK is home to 7.5 million cats. Cats can be a threat to wildlife, but a bright collar and a bell can reduce risk, as can keeping them indoors for one hour before sunset until one hour after sunrise.

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