DIY & crafts

Gardening for wildlife

11 Jul 2024 | Written by Marina O'Shea

The Joy Club member Roger Davies shares his top tips on gardening for wildlife.

We gardeners are strange people, invariably if asked, we are all in favour of protecting our native British wildlife. We are appalled by the destruction that has been wrought over the last century. But as soon as slugs decimate our Hostas, we are on a mission to destroy slugs and all their kind. But I would urge you all to stop before you reach for the killing potions and investigate things in a greater depth. 

Every garden is part of an ecological system and if you remove one part then your actions can have major repercussions down the line. At our age we can use our own memories to reflect on some of the changes we have seen in our lifetimes. Just think back to the sixties and seventies and going on any road trip in a car. At the end of any journey the front of the car would be encrusted with the black and yellow remains of untold thousands of splattered insects. I have just driven on a two-hundred-mile journey at the start of our summer and there is hardly an insect body to be seen. 

The reason for this is clear. Back in the eighties great strides were made in farming and new insecticides were produced. This enhanced the production of food for our growing population by getting rid of many of the invertebrates that were feeding on our crops. However, when the population of insects crashed, so did the populations of their predators. Every year we hear about the disappearance of our garden birds. The young of most of our garden birds are fed on insects plucked from our plants. Neonicotinoids are great for crops but not so good if you are a bee. 

When I first moved back to to my childhood town of Wrexham in 2014, we had a small back garden but even so I took a great delight in sitting in my little office overlooking the garden and watching the variety of birds that came to it. I provided a birdbath for drinks as well as putting out bird feeders to encourage them. I gave them fat balls and seed feeders. As usual the seeds got scattered over the earth, but I was not too bothered as the ground feeders like blackbirds scuttled around the undergrowth clearing them up. Then my first major surprise came in the form of a male pheasant, that regularly came to visit, to have a go at the wheat and barley seeds on the ground. In fact, he perched on my fence enough times that I was able to get a photo. 

Bird bath

The pheasant

The office view

Then one afternoon I was in the office, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A peregrine falcon came and perched on the fence staring straight at me with that piercing gaze. It was a real wow moment then she was gone. I was not sure that I had really seen it, so I rang the RSPB to see if they knew about peregrines living in Wrexham, ‘oh yes’, I was told. ‘They used to nest on the North Wales Police tower now they nest on the Parish Church.’ It appears that by feeding the small birds I was providing sustenance further up the food chain as the peregrine came to see if it could have one of the small birds I was feeding.  (Sorry, no I did not get a photo.) 

Then I learned a little more about food chains, I discovered that something was tunnelling under my fences into my neighbors gardens, I hoped that I had got hedgehogs, but on reflection, and an examination of the tracks, behind my shrubbery from one garden to another, I came to the conclusion that I had found out the origins of the phrase, “rat run”. Rats were coming to my garden to get at the fallen fat and seeds from the bird feeders. We do have hedgehogs in the front garden though, they leave their droppings on my front lawn. Did you know that there are online sites that help to identify diverse types of poo (for the moment the bird feeders have been removed while we negotiate their benefits. I like the birds – Joyce is not keen on rats.)

In an ideal world all our gardens would be used to help our wildlife. But we do not live in an ideal world, and we are not going to turn our gardens into a wilderness just to benefit and attract the creatures we like to watch. If I speak to friends and neighbours, they all agree that they want more of the nice birds and mammals. But how much are they prepared to give up, to help them?

A few years ago, I had three separate wasp’s nests built under the tiles on the top of my roof. The wasps buzzed around the outsides of the nests and flew around our gardens doing what wasps do. I was fairly relaxed about them as I am convinced that if I left them alone, they would leave me alone. Wasps for most of the season attack other insects and bring their catch back to the nest to feed their young and they do love to catch aphids. However, my neighbour was terrified that they would come into her house and attack her. So, the “man” was sent for, and the nests removed. 

I was talking with another neighbour and I had noticed that she had a house martins nest built under her eves, and I was jealous. However, she was not best pleased, the young start chirping very early in the morning had disturbed her sleep. I was only just able to stop her sending for the “man.” The next year the martins saw sense and nested under my eaves, so all was well. 

To encourage and help wildlife into our gardens we need to look at the food chain in depth. If you remove any link, then it can have unforeseen repercussions. The plants in our gardens feed a multitude of species, some birds and mammals but mostly insects. Some insects feed on dead and decaying vegetation, helping turn it into nutrients for the soil. If you have a compost heap it will be full of these small creatures like wood lice munching away and converting your waste into compost. Even if you do not go the whole compost route, just by leaving piles of pruning, twigs and leaves in a hidden corner you can make an environment for the bottom link.

The young of many insects, caterpillars and such like will eat your plants, but they have a two-fold benefit for you and your garden. They feed our garden birds, and they turn into the butterflies you love to watch flittering around your garden. Some of the loveliest of the butterflies’ young feed on what you would call weeds. Nettles, ragwort and fennel are hosts to some spectacular species. 

The key to a successful garden is to try to get everything in balance. One of the gardener’s biggest enemies are slugs, they can devour your crops and plants in a very short time. However, slugs in their turn provide food for many species. Birds like blackbirds, thrushes and robins feed on them. Hedgehogs fatten up for the winter on a diet of slugs. Frogs and toads cannot get enough of them. Some of the invertebrates like ground beetles, centipedes and nematodes love eating slugs. And even some slugs like the leopard slug, eat other slugs.

The slugs themselves play a significant role in the garden breaking down rotting materials and recycling nutrients into the soil. If you remove the slugs completely from your garden, then the rest of the ecosystem also takes a hit. Back in the day the fight against slugs took an unbelievably bad turn for the predators, they were eating the carcasses of the slugs we had killed with our chemicals. These chemicals then built up in the bodies of species higher up the food chains and killed them. Nowadays the ‘blue pellets’ have different active components. In theory, they do not kill the slugs at once but let them get back to their underground hiding places before they die so their bodies are not eaten but rot down into the soil. I love my Hosta plants as much as the gastropods do but I have found that in most cases the Hostas, though eaten, survive well enough without killing their predators.


Another issue for many gardeners is the green and black fly infestations that can occur on a variety of plants from broad beans to roses. These fly infestations can build up very quickly but, in my experience, I have found that if you wait before reaching for the spray, the build up of insects is very quickly followed by a build up of their predators. I love ladybirds and they love greenfly, black fly and aphids. Their larvae (ugly looking beasties) can soon be seen munching their way through the sap sucking insects. If you like small songbirds, then watch them alighting on your plants and carefully plucking beak fulls of small insects off the leaves to take back to their nests to feed their young. 

So, in conclusion, we need to find a balance between our perfect garden/veg-plot and the wildlife we also want in our lives. It is too easy to think that my small patch is not going to make difference to the overall picture. But if you add together all the small gardens in our country than it becomes an incredibly significant amount of land that can be used to help and encourage our wildlife. 

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