Our wildlife garden

How to Create an Amazing Urban Wildlife Garden
– what we’ve learned in 15 years

Gerry Thompson

In 2002 we moved our family home from Brighton UK to a nearby town. The reason? – we didn’t have a garden. Our new home had two gardens, neither very large. The rear would be the domain of our lively cocker spaniel Rosa, and the front space would be for …wildlife!

Now, 16 years later, that front patch is a wildlife paradise – a veritable jungle among many houses with more sterile gardens or hard-standings for their cars. So what better than having wild nature right where you live?

We have a large resident flock of sparrows ,plus blackbirds, wrens, starlings, robins and blue-tits, as well as many other bird visitors – including sparrow hawks (not so welcome among the residents, but still wildlife). There are also resident frogs, slow worms, wood mice and – more scarce – stag beetles and hedgehogs. Foxes visit regularly. There is an abundance of plant biodiversity, which supports rich reserves of invertebrates, in turn supporting birds and mammals all year round. We have fruit-bearing apple, plum, wild cherry and blackberry bushes, plus hawthorn, honeysuckle and other native shrubs.

Nature is pretty much self-maintaining and self-advancing, if you get out of its way. Everything in our garden is really healthy. Additional plant species are brought in by birds and animals. And now, as populations of wildlife have expanded within our patch, the overflow has spilled out into nearby local gardens.

The wildlife in our garden brings us pure joy. Hearing the sparrows chatter cheerfully in the undergrowth from dawn to dusk (they sound cheerful to us, but are actually bickering and squabbling – a sign of a healthy community) is sheer delight. We can see passers by stopping and wondering where all the natural noise is coming from.

Encountering a hedgehog bumbling up the garden path late on a warm summer’s night, and watching it snuffling in search of woodlice underneath the thatch of long grass under the trees, is an even greater delight – these creatures are so scarce these days, and they’re undeniably cute and adorable as well; they don’t seem to mind our presence at all. It gives us the feeling that something is deeply right about this little part of the world, at least.

Here then are nine principles we’ve learned over the years, which may help you establish your own rich garden wildlife habitat – even in town or city, even if you haven’t much space.

  1. Tidiness is the enemy of nature. Insects and other creatures need food and cover all the year round, and especially through winter – so leave dead flowers, leaves and fallen twigs. Grass in nature never gets mowed. We just cut back the perimeter trees and bigger shrubs every few years, to stop them completely crowding everything else out.
  2. Have water present all the time – this can be a small pond, or a dish or other shallow receptacle, kept free of ice in winter.
  3. Plant native species of shrub and other plants, in as much variety as possible. These will naturally provide food for insects and animals in the form of foliage, seeds, berries and fruit. Include those that provide food in winter, such as ivy and holly.
  4. Resident birds need four things to keep them happy – somewhere to nest, somewhere safe to roost at night, something to eat, and somewhere to hide from predators. We have allowed trees and shrubs to grow tall and dense round the perimeter of the garden, simulating the rich natural habitat of the thick hedgerow or forest edge, with a more open, sheltered space in the centre, like a woodland glade.
  5. If you start offering additional food, keep providing it as the birds will become dependent – especially when naturally occurring food is scarce such as winter, and in early spring, when there are young to feed.
  6. To attract certain species, special measures can be taken. For frogs and other reptiles, make woodpiles. For stag beetles, bury hardwood logs in the ground. To encourage hedgehogs to visit, provide places where they can stay by day or hibernate for the winter. These can be large heaps of decomposing vegetation, or purpose made ‘hogitats’; naturally occurring food can be supplemented by treats such as mealworms, or cat food – not milk or bread.
  7. Get a trailcam – you’ll be amazed at who is coming to visit your garden throughout the night. Cameras inside nest boxes are great too. These are what we used to record the video clips in this article.
  8. Some results are achieved quickly – like installing bird feeders – while others, such as growing dense shrubbery or attracting hedgehogs, develop organically over a longer time. Be patient.
  9. Encourage children to visit your garden and learn about wildlife – its future depends on people in the future caring about it.