As spring arrives many of us are venturing back out into our gardens, perhaps tidying up after winter, sowing seeds or considering a redesign. It’s important that gardens work for us, but spare a thought for their year round inhabitants too. For this reason, we are proud to announce the launch of the Didcot Garden for Wildlife charter.
Why is gardening for wildlife important?
One of the issues our town faces is the loss of our local countryside as it gets consumed by new housing and industrial developments. This land was once habitat for birds, mammals, insects and so on. Where can they live if their homes have been built on?
Most of us have back gardens and they play an increasingly important role in stopping habitat fragmentation. A recent study in Bristol showed that small gardens were great for pollinators, primarily due to the diversity between multiple small gardens. Another study has shown that although hedgehog populations have plummeted in the countryside they are recovering in some urban areas. We can all make a difference, in our own gardens, by providing the habitats that creatures need.
My wildlife gardening journey
I have always been interested in wildlife, but often focussed on visiting reserves or national parks to get my nature fix. I became a convert to wildlife gardening during the spring 2020 lockdown. Spending more time than usual in our garden meant I became attuned to its inhabitants. Indeed, all the photos on this page were taken in it.
What changes have I made?
Over the last two years I’ve introduced a small pond and log pile, which almost immediately became a home for frogs, newts and dragonflies. Similarly, after cutting a small hole in our side fence, providing a water bowl and kitten biscuits, we are now on the hedgehog stop-off route.
Plant wise, the ivy is home to nesting birds and the flower border attracts plenty of butterflies. Our ‘lawn’ primarily consists of moss, daisies, clover and dandelions, which the bees love. I’ve left parts of it to grow long in the summer, and been surprised by the appearance of several wildflowers. Some gardeners would throw their hands up in despair, but I enjoy watching the ants making their nests in it.
Sadly, our front garden remains a paved desert, primarily used for parking. Aside from the addition of pots I’m not really sure how to improve it. Suggestions welcome!
How did the wildlife charter idea come about?
Wildlife sometimes gets a raw deal in our gardens. An obsession with tidiness, the ever increasing use of plastic grass and 6 foot high fences mean it can be difficult for nature to get a look in.I thought a wildlife charter would help signpost residents as to how they can improve the habitats in their back gardens, by making some small simple changes.
After floating the initial idea at a Didcot Garden Town meeting, and gaining their support, I’m now working with Wild Didcot (part of Sustainable Didcot) to launch and promote the charter.
So what’s in the charter? Read on to find out…
The Didcot Garden for Wildlife Charter
Can you pledge to work towards the following actions?
1. Provide wildlife with access to your garden
Whilst birds, bugs and butterflies can fly into your garden, hedgehogs and frogs will find it hard to access if it’s surrounded by impenetrable fencing. The solution is to create hedgehog holes in your fences or gates. They don’t need to be large, 13x13cm is sufficient. Another alternative is to dig a small channel under the fence, but do discuss with your neighbours first. There is a good hedgehog population in many parts of Didcot, so there’s a high chance of a visit if you provide access.
2. Leave an area of your garden to grow wild
I’ve taken part in No Mow May over the last couple of years, by not mowing the grass for a month. This gives plants the chance to flower, providing welcome nectar for pollinators. I now appreciate a garden full of daisies, rather than rushing out with a lawnmower!
From experience, I’d suggest that leaving your whole garden to its own devices all the time is a step too far. After all, most of us have pretty small gardens and we still need a space to sit out and enjoy the sun, hang washing, play games etc. Instead, it’s better to choose one small area of the lawn to grow long or to leave an area around a log pile to go wild.
3. Stop using pesticides, weed killers and peat
When I visit a garden centre I’m horrified at the shelves full of chemicals, designed to kill the living things in our gardens. Whilst pesticides and weed killers may kill the specific bug or weed that you’re trying to eradicate they also affect the entire ecosystem. Aphids, weevils and the like may eat your vegetable plant or roses, but in turn they’re eaten by the wildlife that visit your garden. If you’ve killed them off, the birds, bats, hedgehogs and frogs have nothing to eat (and you risk killing them too).
It’s a similar situation with peat. Huge areas of bog and moorland are dug up to provide a growing medium for our seeds, but at what cost to the environment and to the wildlife that already existed in these areas? Peat free compost is now cheaper, better quality and easier to find; do make the switch this year if you haven’t already done so.
4. Provides water source (a pond or bowl)
Putting a pond in has been by far the biggest attractor of wildlife to our garden; I was surprised to find newts in ours relatively soon after creating it. There are some very good guides on how to create ponds; I used this one from Pond Conservation, and a book called ‘Wild your Garden’ by The Butterfly Brothers to help me. These also provide advice on the best plants to put into your pond for wildlife.
If a pond is isn’t appropriate for your garden do leave out water bowls for visiting birds and hedgehogs. Keep them clean and topped up for thirsty visitors.
5. Nurture existing trees and plants, and add nectar and pollen rich flowers
The general consensus is that it’s better to leave existing trees and plants in place rather than to pull them up to start a wildlife garden from scratch. Even if you’re not keen on your privet hedge, the sparrows may be using it for shelter and ladybirds may overwinter in it. There are exceptions of course, but consider carefully before you dig anything up.
If you have room, plant a tree. You’ll be providing food and shelter for a myriad of species. The Woodland Trust publishes a list of wildlife friendly trees that are suitable for gardens. For example, crab apple, rowan and elder can work well in smaller gardens (with pruning).
Plant as many nectar producing flowers and shrubs as possible. Aim to have something in flower for as much of the year as possible. Whilst it’s not necessary to solely choose native flowers do make sure that the plants you choose are attractive to UK wildlife; the RHS publishes lists of plants for pollinators. Remember to provide food for caterpillars too; nettles, ivy and many native trees are great.
Sign up to the Didcot garden for wildlife charter
Have I convinced you? If so, please do sign up! The link below takes you to the Sustainable Didcot website, where you can pledge to work towards following the Didcot Garden for Wildlife charter:
We’ll use the postcode information in the sign up form to create a map of wildlife friendly gardens in Didcot. Plus, there’s the opportunity to add your email address to receive occasional updates from us, regarding wildlife gardening.
If you are making changes to your garden, do take photos of your before and after wildlife gardens, plus pictures of any wildlife you spot in the garden. We plan to run a photo competition later in the year.
You might also like to tie a green ribbon around a post or tree in your front garden to signify that you are signed up to the charter.
Save the date – Didcot’s first wildlife cafe
The Didcot garden for wildlife charter will be formally launched at the inaugural wildlife cafe at Didcot Civic Hall on Saturday 14 May. Organised by Sustainable Didcot, it will feature stalls and information from local wildlife organisations, children’s activities and refreshments. Do pop this date into your diary.
And, don’t forget, sign up to the charter here!