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UK and Ireland Part 1
Your garden and how to help bring back wildlife

(This section of this article can also be found in the "Wildlife Files")

UK and Ireland Menu

you are here> PART 1 - Introduction - your garden and how to help bring back wildlife
PART 2 - Pond life & how to make a wildlife pond
PART 3 - Mammals, birds, plants and insects - environment and care
PART 4 - Reduce food miles and grow your own fruit and veg
Further i
nformation for Schools

The most life-enriching garden on earth is the one that costs almost nothing to create.

As we reported here in the late 1990's, an average of over 60% of the wild bird population had disappeared in the previous 25 years up to that point. Since then the statistics have shown a further decline in bird numbers and there seems no end to this worrying trend.
Farming practices and agricultural pesticides are most commonly linked to these figures, but closer to home over-managed gardens can be just as much to blame for the serious strain we are imposing on our native and transient wildlife. In fact, everything you do in your garden can make a difference to the local environment in ways you may never have imagined. Like the "butterfly effect" every small change you make can cause a chain reaction effecting the survival of flora and fauna across each neighbouring micro-habitat and larger dwellings above and below ground, not just in the garden but far beyond its boundaries.

"The first step is to understand that nature is not what you control but what you leave alone." VeggieGlobal

This wildlife care area of VeggieGlobal and Looking Glass offers advice to gardeners of all ages and experience. Whether you are an just starting out or a seasoned professional, these pages may help you to look at a few square metres of the world in a far less evasive way without ever feeling that you are compromising a garden's appeal as a place of solace and relaxation.
The first step is to understand that nature is not what you control but what you leave alone.
Much of our world has been manipulated by humans and gardens in particular have undergone generations of harsh handling, no thanks to years of soil disturbance, polluted with treatments upon treatments of pesticides, weedkillers and growth enhancers. Conversely, some gardens have been left to overrun and fallen into "neglect". In fact such gardens are far more likely to be teaming with natural flora and fauna - and providing it hasn't been overun by invasive species (nonnative plants introduced by humans over the years and have now spread out of control and become a threat to natural habitats) a "neglected" garden is the ideal local platform to understand the complexity and biological interdependency of its inhabitants within such a fragile, self-sufficient ecosystem.

How do you see your garden?

Unfortunately, many people take great strides to "makeover" a garden to how they want it to look... rather than what might be a suitable environmentally friendly habitat which fits natively as part of the geography and biology of the local area. Garden centre and home designer magazine mentality is part of a mindset which can only be described as the bane of VeggieGlobal and Looking-Glass. The actions of those who blindly follow the garden industry and who also judge a garden by what they think suits their "design" invariably leads to pretentious cosmetic layouts which play no effective part in re-naturing. Much of what diletante gardeners assume and what garden designers and landscaping practices portray as wildlife friendly and "organic" is no more than marketing greenwash. Therefore, the more you begin to understand the close affinity that is required to genuinely tune into the nature of your garden the more you may recognise that nature itself cannot be contrived by sophomoric design. Because of how natural flora and fauna interacts with its close surroundings, every square meter of your garden, your city or village, country and beyond has its own micro-biological fingerprint - unique from one few square metres to the next. This means that what flora and fauna might be biologically compatible and therefore sustainable in one garden may be quite inappropriate in your friend's garden on the other side of town. There are exceptions to this rule if you are trying to kick-start a natural convergence in what was once a lifeless garden - such as creating a wildlife pond - and this is explained later on.
This is not to say that a garden can't look beautiful if it's genuinely tailored to support local wildlife, but to achieve this you need to reflect on what you perceive as an idilic garden scene. Does it include symmetry or asymmetric vistas? Does it mean a closely manicured lawn or otherwise meadow-like grassy areas? Are you envisaging pedicured bushes or else free-growing hedgerows and clusters of self-seeded shrubs throwing dappled sunlight shadows over of woodland floors of wildflowers and broken branches? There can actually be room for both "opposites" in your garden as long as you are able to accept that you should not aggressively control of how the boundaries between natural and manicured vistas begin and end. The way to make this possible is to take a little time to understand the biology of your garden, not just the obvious soil characteristics, but the light that reaches all the different areas, the overall dampness, the slopes if any, and most importantly, the kind of wildlife that visits it already; whether it be birds, mammals or amphibians.
In your own garden, first look at what kind of flora and fauna are native to your local area, source native plants and build habitats to help encourage wildlife. This can all be done to look and feel inviting to the human eye as well as being a perfect haven for a huge variety of flora and fauna. Every plant and creature found in your garden can be considered a friend - even those hardly seen - in fact species so small that the benefits they bring to maintaining the balance of your garden can be seriously overlooked.
A balanced garden, which can also include a sustainable fruit and veg patch, is all to do with how you set it out to accommodate all creatures, because from the tiniest insect to the biggest tree there is a delicate chain that connects all these things ... Read on to find out why.

Garden or Outside Living Room?

Neat and tidy gardens are often environmentally unfriendly places. Some of us treat them like an extension of the inside of our home:
The flowers in sterile beds are like ornaments on dusted shelves, while the manicured lawn or paved features represent neat vacuumed carpets.
First of all, regimented arrangements of one colour coordinated plants won't attract a natural mix of insect species. Secondly, ill-chosen and often expensive shrubs bought from the garden centre for nothing but appearance adds to an imbalance and lack of integration with native species.
Thirdly, faddish stone slabs, shingle and decking are bleak, unapproachable terrain for garden wildlife - from animals to the insects which, almost without exception, should be considered nature's gardeners and not your enemy.
An unnatural uniformity in "designer" gardens can lead to flora infestations such as aphids (greenfly etc.). Aphids, for example are part of the diet of ladybirds, hover flies, lacewings and many other garden insects - Pesticides will also kill these and other welcome inhabitants leading to a spiraling imbalance of the natural environment.
A suburban garden filled with the contents of a garden center, inspired by the latest "home and garden" magazine is nature's worst enemy; furnishing a garden with exotic shrubs and tasteless facades is very costly - not just for the pocket but for the environment too. The growing, the transportation and pesticide treatment of just one plant from a garden centre and subsequent clearing away of the natural growth in your garden to plant it can increase your carbon footprint substantially. Nine times out of ten, there is no positive environmental gain in ornamental-based gardening.

Not in My Back Yard ...

If you have next-door neighbours who treat their garden like an an extension of their neat and tidy living room, then you'll probably hear the usual cursing from the other side of your fence about shrubs and trees dying from disease and aphids or slugs devouring their plants. To attack the problem they will constantly blast their garden full of pesticides and dig up anything that looks like "weed" amongst their manicured flower beds; even sterilizing soil with antiseptic after a shrub has died ... a wretched smell that lingers across neighbourhoods for days. This polluting attack against nature means that chemical-loving gardeners will always suffer from sick plants and trees ... a vicious circle.
To make things even worse, in the UK in particular, more people are fencing themselves in - literally, by surrounding themselves with impenetrable wooden or brick walls - cutting off ground-moving wildlife from the outside. For example, if slugs are already inside such a barricaded garden, they will flourish since their natural predators like hedgehogs, frogs and toads can't enter to feed on them. Slugs, in fact play an important role in the process of decomposting - adding important nutrients back into the soil.
Meanwhile, nesting birds have next to no chance of finding a home in an ornamental Acer tree or other exotic floral eye-candy. The concept of a wildlife friendly garden doesn't mean that you simply can't have an Acer tree to admire, it just means that it should be considered contributory rather than an alternative to native growth. Native growth often harbours and harvests life suitable to your local environment. In other words, what grows naturally in your garden should always take priority - providing it is not invasive plants alien to the country (introduced by humans in the first-place).
If your back yard / garden is currently nothing more than a lifeless pile of flat earth, concrete, or short patchy grass, then you will need to create ... or at least kick-start your wildlife garden into action. You will in effect be helping to reintroduce the growth of plants, grasses and trees which would most likely have originally resided there before the previous house occupants destroyed it.
So, where should you be getting most of your plants and shrubs from when creating any kind of garden?
By mixing with like-minded nature-friendly neighbours gardening  in harmony with the locally-grown environment, you can all share cuttings, seeds and homegrown trees, shrubs and vegetables etc. ... even all-important (un-diseased) wildlife pond water, insects and amphibian eggs. (See more about protection laws in your country
here)
Nature needs every bit of support it can get to help regenerate your local ecosystem, so neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the positive changes this could bring to the planet and even your own health could become one the main factors in helping to revive this ailing planet.
And what if you have just a patio?
You can still play an important role by ensuring that your patio's plants and shrubs harmonize with each other and of course with the flora and fauna native to your area. Airborne insects like bees, which play a life-sustaining role in nature - for the entire planet in fact - will be thankful for the friendly pollen and nectar filled flowers on your patio or roof garden. The bee population is at a critical low. These are one of nature's most important gardeners, but because of the trend towards inappropriate nonnative shrubs in gardens and patios, instead of flower-rich variants suitable for bees, means this can only contribute to their dramatic decline. Whether it was a precise calculation or guesstimation, Einstein said that without bees all life on earth would die out in five years.

"Guardian" rather than "Gardener"... and a Brief Introduction to Natural Convergence.

If your garden is already an overgrown "forest" then the first thing not to do is grab a saw and a fork and begin to cut it all down or smother it with weed killer or rolls of black material laid on the ground to kill off everything in sight.
So before VeggieGlobal guides you further on your way to creating a real wildlife garden, we must reiterate that you first unravel any preconceived ideas of what makes a garden look "nice" and to understand that a wildlife garden creates its own vistas ... and you are its guardian of these natural landscapes. As a responsible guardian or gardener of nature you should not contrive views of the garden that you want to see from the windows of your house. All the plants, trees and shrubbery may already have grown in your "neglected" garden in a complex, natural manner of self-selection, and often partnered themselves with corresponding plants that reciprocally help in maintaining a disease and infestation-free existence. Have you ever seen an insect or disease-infected tree or shrub in a natural wild area? Probably never, unless there is a "wild" infection such as "Ash Dieback" (however many wild tree diseases are spread by contaminated wood imported from other countries).

VeggieGlobal's term,"Natural Convergence", means tuning into the pulse or heartbeat of your garden. Spend some time - days or weeks soaking in the atmosphere and activity of the garden - the comings and goings, the way light (and dappled light through trees) generates little ecosystems in different areas - and see which areas seem to self manage themselves most effectively.
As you begin to explore the growth of your wild garden, the first thing to do is to establish natural path areas. Imagine yourself as just another animal who has entered the wild garden ... like a fox or badger who will often create a pathway that they use each time they visit. You, the human animal, can do the same; so walk through the garden in a natural manner ... which will mean carefully navigating around trees, shrubs and long grasses. Do this a few times and your natural labyrinth should begin to reveal itself. Those paths become your interaction with the wild area. They indicate human presence but also enable both you and the flora and fauna to coexist without one intruding on the other in any negative way. Once this relationship establishes, you and the nature surrounding you in your garden will slowly become reciprocal partners. From this point on, all the work you do in maintaining a partnership as a guardian of your wildlife garden becomes an unobtrusive and most importantly, an environmentally positive exercise.
Of course, Natural Convergence doesn't just mean how we humans have to tread carefully within nature, because it also describes what we can bring into that environment to help not just it, but to sustain ourselves as well. So this may include the planting of an organic fruit and vegetable patch, and determining how this can be achieved without disruption of the surrounding nature of your garden.

Here are just a few examples of how we can converge naturally within our garden or even "allotment" space:
Bee hives, (for all-important pollination).
Wildlife ponds.
Natural style greenhouses.
Natural pest control.
Tolerance of the actions of wildlife such as behaviour and foraging "mess" and therefore acceptance of sustainable losses.
Acceptance of sustainable losses of some plants and shrubs due to growth behaviours of adjacent plants etc.
Native species research, I.e. local food-chain relationship between plants, insects, birds and mammals.
Organic protocols and related applications.
Essential animal / bird habitats and understanding their ideal locations through observation and some proven standard research, i.e. nesting boxes, feeding tables, bird feeders, bird houses, bat boxes, bird roosting, small mammal habitats, wood and rock piles, long grass, untouched ground coverage.

Natural Convergence also means:
Encouragement of fungi growth - (including edible).
Garden tools must only be manual, or if powered only via renewable energy.
Watering should become almost unnecessary, since a natural garden retains almost all the moisture it needs, or else adapts during dry periods.
NOTE: If you use a garden hose for the purpose of regularly watering an average size "terraced house" garden, then you are seriously doing all the wrong things to your garden - and wasting a precious resource at the same time.

Building up the Partnership as Guardian of your Wildlife Garden.

As we've mentioned, as a wildlife "guardian" you should consider yourself in partnership with your garden rather than its controller. As a partner of Natural Convergence, you will begin to learn and appreciate the subtle balance between your actions and the growth and survival of the plant and animal life surrounding you.
As a typical example, various species of plants (usually yellow) will attract aphid eating insects, so plant these adjacent to shrubs which are at risk of infestation. Aphids are also important food for birds such as blue tits and great tits and most importantly their young, which will feed on tens of thousands of aphids as the baby birds grow. But one of the most important things to remember when planting a garden from scratch is that if some shrubs and trees die after a while - even from disease or pests - do not consider this as a gardening failure - and don't blame it on pests. This is all part of natural selection and while some plants will thrive, others may not. Leave nature to take its course as it eventually determines what kind of flora and fauna your garden can naturally accommodate. Once you add a wildlife pond to your garden it will also take on a whole extra dimension - but more on that later.

Natural ground coverage is important in your garden so leave plants to decay and rot down after flowering. Without decaying foliage such as fallen leaves and long grassy areas, the ground cannot regenerate its nutrients or sustain important insect life. If left, the seeds of dead flowers also provide food for birds. But since humans have destroyed so much of their natural food source, wild birds are now more dependent on us for food (and nesting boxes) than ever before.
Once you begin feeding your local birds, keep it up. They will depend on your offerings to rear their young... helping to expand the interdependent circle of life, which over a couple of years will help increase your local bird population. Every bit helps.

As mentioned, gardens without natural wildlife areas are most likely to have problems with disease. In time, a naturally balanced garden will sort out its own problems. Wild areas, and particularly ponds will attract and bring to life an abundance of creatures and wild flowers capable of restoring some ecological balance to your garden.

Birds, hedgehogs, frogs toads, newts and insects alike all play host at keeping everything in order. They are nature's gardeners and do a far better job preserving your flora than any chemicals or over-tidy human gardener. And most importantly our suburban wildlife will begin to have enough native food for themselves and their young. Also remember that slug pellets WILL kill hedgehogs and other animals who feed on slugs. Let the hedgehogs survive and they will dispose of slugs, since they are part of our prickly friends diet. If you need to remove slugs then the most effective method is to occasionally go around at night removing them with a gloved hand or spade.

Note: You may have read elsewhere on Looking-Glass or VeggieGlobal that the world amphibian population is rapidly declining - close to mass extinction. This is through both destruction of their habitats (like garden ponds and wetlands), but also through a fungal disease (not dangerous to humans). If you have frogs or toads, do everything possible to help with their survival (see part 2)

Pesticides are just not necessary. Even if you loose a few of your plants in the first year or two, your garden will settle into a balanced and healthier environment in the future, whereby you will never need to use any damaging pesticides.
So, the number one rule is never use pesticides or weed-killer. That is the worst thing you can do to your garden and its wildlife. For example if you treat your lawn with chemical based "greening" products etc. the poisons and chemicals soak straight into the soil and are absorbed by worms. Birds feed on the worms who pass them onto the babies and they will die. In fact, your garden soil becomes a death trap for wildlife for many years until the poisons disperse.
Research has also found that garden pesticides can seriously effect children's health. Studies have shown that children suffer symptoms like loss of bowel and bladder control for weeks after being in contact with lawns covered with pesticides. Pesticide products can contain chemicals linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma and soft-tissue cancers.

Hedges and hedgerows are home to a huge diversity of animals, birds and insects. If you have to trim hedges or trees then only do so outside of the nesting season (UK nesting season is between beginning of March and end of September)*. Don't trim the flowers or berries from hedges either as this is vital food for hedge-dwellers. Never tidy up underneath hedges. The ground coverage provides habitats for small creatures and insects - and decaying vegetation nourishes the soil to enable healthy shrub regeneration. Some of our rarest wildlife has its home in our hedgerows and feed from its fruits, like the increasingly rare dormouse for example. Rare butterflies also lay their eggs in hedges. So always treat hedges with respect.

* The UK is one of a few areas of Europe where tree pruning and hedge cutting is still allowed during nesting season. In countries like Germany it is against the law to interfere with any hedge or tree during the nesting season (approx. March to October). We would like to see such laws put in place the UK as soon as possible to stop the carnage caused by indiscriminate cutting. We have often received mail from readers suffering the aftermath of hedge and tree cutting along neighbours borders, finding dead and dying baby birds on the ground from nests destroyed by hedge cutters and chain saws. Having experienced such devastation on numerous occasions we wish to emphasize as strongly as possible on these pages - DO NOT CUT OR TAMPER WITH TREES HEDGES OR BUSHES DURING NESTING SEASON.

Cats and Wildlife

Although cats are wonderful companion pets, cats and garden wildlife simply don't mix. Their natural instinct drives them to catch birds and small mammals, regardless of whether they are hungry or not. If you have recently moved to a house where there is an abundance of garden wildlife, you are strongly advised to refrain from introducing a cat into the environment. In fact, it is estimated that in the United Kingdom alone, 300 million wild birds and mammals are killed by cats every year. If you already own a cat it is very important that you keep them indoors at night particularly during nesting season as this simple action will help to protect your garden wildlife from prowling cats late at night and at dawn.
It's very concerning to find that the RSPB is giving out irrational information relating to the mortality of garden birds caused by cats. It claims that most birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season. They say that cats tend to catch only weak or sickly birds. However, consistent evidence and observations show how cats hone in on bird nest locations and wait their opportunity. Once the babies fledge (particularly blackbirds, thrushes and collared doves) and flutter to the ground they are defenseless and the cat will simply grab them with the minimum of struggle. Most of these fledglings are not weak or poorly, simply an easy, victim of a prowling cat. Secondly, many nests and bird boxes are disturbed by marauding cats, which are subsequently abandoned, leaving the eggs un-hatched or, if already hatched, the brood starve to death. Thirdly, parents tend to become far more daring (and even human friendly) when collecting what food they can to feed their young ... focused entirely on the food source, thus unaware of a pouncing cat.
Subsequently, the loss of millions of healthy birds, which would otherwise have either hatched or survived to the next breeding season equate to an unnatural reduction in the annual population of garden-based birds.
While the bird population may have declined in recent years due to other environmental factors, it is imprudent to dismiss or downplay the effects that cats have on garden birdlife. It is even more necessary than ever to significantly try and minimize the death rate caused by cats on an estimated 55 million birds each year. Responsible action needs to be taken to curtail cat attacks on birds and their nesting areas to help counteract the measure of population decline caused by other factors.

So, to summarize:

  • Reconsider your idea of an appealing garden. Learn to recognize the meandering natural elements of your garden as a thing of beauty instead of your enemy.
  • When your new wildlife garden establishes itself you will be able reflect on the difference ... how beautiful it now is; free of garden centre affectations, manicured swathes of shingle and "weedless" flowerbeds. Now you can be inspired by the profusion of colour, the scents of all seasons, of blooming and natural decay. This is the regeneration of wildlife and its constant untouched cycle. This is you "in harmony with nature" the true way, which replenishes the life of a garden as much as the spirit in you.

Continued in PART 2 - Pond life & how to make a wildlife pond

Copyright John O'Donnell (VeggieGlobal.com and Looking-Glass.co.uk)
Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents of these websites in any form is prohibited.

UK and Ireland Menu

you are here> PART 1 - Introduction - your garden and how to help bring back wildlife
PART 2 - Pond life & how to make a wildlife pond
PART 3 - Mammals, birds, plants and insects - environment and care
PART 4 - Reduce food miles and grow your own fruit and veg
Further information for Schools

More Related Areas

Sharing This Planet With The Animals - a useful guide to help you live side by side with your animal friends.

UK and Ireland may also wish to visit the Wildlife Files section here at VeggieGlobal for more advice about wildlife friendly gardens.

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