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  • Writer's pictureWatlington Climate Action Group

WCAG Green Drinks: understanding wildlife gardening

Getting more wildlife into your garden doesn’t have to be complicated but the

dividends for you and nature alike are numerous, writes Nicola Schafer, Chair,


Our May Green Drinks on Wildlife Gardening was a discussion led by Iain Naismith, who

studied ecology at university and wrote several articles on wildlife gardening for the

Watlington Times during the lockdown. His interest in the subject began as a boy when he became fascinated by the aquatic life that found its way into an old Belfast sink that he buried in the garden to make a pond.

The discussion he led at our most recent Green Drinks event addressed why wildlife

gardening is important in the bigger picture of biodiversity and the practicalities of applying it.

The way wildlife sees our world of houses and gardens is different from us, for example,

where we see a building or fence, birds see cliffs. Gardens are to animals a ‘mosaic’ habitat of woodland, scrubland and patches of grassland. A garden pond is a stepping stone for colonisation by amphibians and insects. So, a garden can be an oasis that helps species to spread.

A couple of weeks before the meeting, Iain had flown back to the UK on a clear day over the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in what was Mesopotamia, the ‘Cradle of Civilisation and

agriculture thousands of years ago.

He was struck by how from the air you can see evidence of field systems that cover almost every inch of the country, and that looking down on the other countries on the route across Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria and so on, the field systems are continuous. It is probably possible to walk from Watlington to the Persian Gulf just by crossing from one field to the next, on what was once wilderness.

Fields used for monoculture crops are poor habitats for wildlife, whereas gardens offer the opportunity for much greater richness and variety. From the original small villages

surrounded by farmland, our urban areas are continually expanding field by field as

development is allowed. The gardens we create actually offer the chance for net

biodiversity gain over the use of the land for crops.

You might think that this is just the case in small villages and towns like ours. However, even in London, there is actually so much green space in the parks, playing fields, gardens and tree-lined streets, that some people are proposing its future designation as a National Park City.

Looking at a map of London, you can see how housing development progressed one field at a time as pockets of land were sold off and developed, creating potential for wildlife habitat.

The same is continually happening as Watlington grows and the new development brings opportunities for wildlife in the new gardens being created.

Nationally there is a move away from just trying to protect wildlife in designated reserves as these can be isolated areas. What is really needed is joined-up corridors for wildlife to move about and help the spread of species.

The new approach is landscape-scale nature protection, taking a wider view of how areas

can be connected. For example, there is an Oxfordshire Nature Recovery Strategy that is led by the County Council and is working with organisations such as Wild Oxfordshire, CPRE and RSPB. As well as looking at what areas can be improved for nature, they are looking at how these can be linked up.

Agriculture is also changing, with more nature-friendly farming, natural flood management, and biodiversity net gain projects (e.g. where areas of less productive farmland are being managed for wildlife, funded by the offset schemes from developments, etc). Iain pointed out that here in Watlington, if we can't look after our chalk stream, and if we can’t improve for nature the land we own and local government owns, then we do not really have any right to criticise other people or other countries not taking action. Apart from taking action on land we own, we have a choice to lend support through how we vote, how we give to charity and how we volunteer. Through personal decisions and collective ones, we do have the ability to make a difference and play our part in deciding what sort of natural world we will leave. One of the most direct ways we can make a difference is in our own gardens.

In terms of the wildlife value of our gardens, hedgehogs for example are actually doing

better in towns because in the countryside they have to compete with badgers for the same limited resources, but badgers avoid urban areas.

The simple measure of providing hedgehog holes in property boundaries opens up more

garden habitats for hedgehogs to hunt in, especially if you can talk to your neighbours and link a few gardens together. Having water available is important, especially in hot weather, and leaving wild areas with logs can provide good places for hedgehogs to hibernate and insects to over winter. 

Swifts are a bird we are fortunate to see in Watlington, but populations generally have

declined by 60% between 1995 and 2020.  Swifts are incredible birds - as well as flying all

the way from Watlington as far as Africa, they are constantly on the wing - they even sleep whilst flying. 

One way to help them is to put a swift box up as they can't walk on the ground or build nests and their nesting sites in the eaves of houses are being continually lost to home improvements. 

Another thing you can do if you are considering wildlife gardening is to look at what your

neighbours’ gardens contain and do something different, which helps provide that mosaic of habitats that supports a richer biodiversity.

So, if your neighbour has a lawn, you might consider planting more trees, or vice versa.

People are starting to look at gardens differently and embrace flowers like dandelions which were previously thought of as weeds but are coming to be appreciated for their value in providing early nectar for bees, as well as being cheery yellow beacons.

‘No Mow May’ has caught on and extended into ‘No Mow June’ too. If you are concerned

about such areas still looking neat, this can be achieved by mowing a defined edge to a wild area, and mown paths through areas of longer grass can look beautiful and be delightful to walk through. Then in Autumn, leaving some dried stems standing in flower beds and leaves on the ground until Spring provides shelter for insects, and can provide interesting visual structure to otherwise empty beds.

A key thing is that wildlife gardening does not have to be ‘wilderness gardening’. Wildlife

can be encouraged in well maintained gardens, for example including flowers that are good for pollinators.  

One of the best things you can do for nature is to put in a well-designed pond, ideally with different depths and sloping slides to mimic a natural shape which provides habitat for a greater number of species. Initially, mosquitoes may arrive, but these will then be followed by dragonfly larvae and other insects that will eat them, and a natural ecosystem will develop. But remember to fill it only with rainwater, not tap water, as this minimises the addition of nutrients and so reduces the risk of it turning green with algae!

Citizen scientists may be interested by the various surveys that you can take part in, the

Garden Bird Survey is one, and there is also the Big Butterfly Count which begins on Friday 12th July 2024 and will run until Sunday 4th August. There is the Buglife Survey, frog and toad surveys and even a national worm survey. All of these can be found by searching online.

There are many tips on the internet for things to do in your garden to help nature. Check

out BBOWT’s 30 Days Wild, or our series of wildlife gardening blogs on the Watlington Climate Action Group website.

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