How to create a wildlife-friendly garden

19 June 2016
It is a myth that wildlife-friendly gardens have to be scruffy and unkempt. Many creatures are just as happy in beautiful, stylish gardens as they are in long grasses and old logs.

You just need to make sure that their needs are taken into consideration. Step one is to ensure small animals can get into your garden. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and People’s Trust for Endangered Species suggest that a hole just 13cm2 will allow access for hedgehogs and a whole host of other small animals.

A few wildlife garden ideas

Here are some good things to include in a wildlife-friendly garden:

  1. Water – provide a bird bath, a saucer of clean water, a pond or water feature that is safe to drink from. Ideally let them fill with rainwater.
  2. Make sure the sides of the pond aren't too steep for wildlife to climb out of – if they are, provide materials to help them climb out like a piece of chicken wire, some wood or some stones.
  3. Plants to attract insects will also attract birds, bats, hedgehogs and many other creatures.
  4. Plants with fruit and berries provide food for birds and mammals.
  5. Plants providing nesting materials – hedgehogs like medium-sized deciduous leaves or long dried grass, and birds will use twigs, dried grass and moss.
  6. Hedges provide perfect habitats for all sorts of animals, especially if you leave a few old twigs and fallen leaves under them.
  7. Log piles placed in a quiet place are attractive to insects that will attract mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians to the garden.
  8. Nest boxes will make birds, bats, hedgehogs, and various insects welcome and provide them with a safe place to go over winter to rear their young.
  9. Feeding stations (including bird tables and hedgehog feeding boxes) are widely available or can be home-made easily. Just remember to place your bird table away from shrubs and fences where predators could wait and pounce.

How to identify wildlife in your garden

Read up

There are lots of great books to help you identify your garden visitors, many of which may be found in your local library.

Set up a footprint tunnel

Certain animals visit after dark and can be shy and cautious, so you may never know they are there. You can track your visitors with a footprint tunnel – a corrugated plastic tube (usually triangular in cross section) with some tasty food in the middle, non-toxic ink pads at either side and plain paper at each end.

Invest in a wildlife camera

Wildlife cameras have recently become relatively inexpensive and can operate for many hours before recharging the batteries. Footage can be downloaded onto the computer, or for some models, sent live to your TV.

How to attract birds to your garden

How to attract birds to your garden
Image courtesy of  Miroslav Hlavko / Shutterstock

Putting food out will increase the variety of birds visiting your garden almost immediately. Try adding different types of food to attract even more species. Birds particularly love berries from plants such as holly, hawthorn, honeysuckle and cotoneaster.

Some of our common garden birds are so beautiful and exotic looking it's hard to believe they will happily visit us daily. Populations change over time. So the once common house sparrow are now less numerous, while goldfinches, with their jewel bright plumage and
unique giggle-like call, can be seen and heard throughout most of the UK.

Other beautiful common birds to spot in the garden are:

  • The blue tit
  • The robin
  • The starling
  • The chaffinch
  • The collared dove

How to attract butterflies and moths

How to attract butterflies and moths
Image courtesy of Guner Gulyesil/Shutterstock

There are 59 species of butterfly and about 2,500 species of moths in the UK. Many are in decline and some are even threatened with extinction –so our garden habitats (and their nectar supply) are very valuable.

Some of the most beautiful species include the red admiral, peacock, cabbage white, wood brown, blue and comma butterflies. Moths can be equally spectacular – look out for the hummingbird hawk, cinnabar, garden tiger, swallow-tailed and elephant hawk moths.

There are several things you can do to attract butterflies and moths into your garden:

  1. Plan your border to include flowers through the seasons.
  2. A variety of different flowering plants look great in the garden and will attract a wider variety of species. It's easier for butterflies if you plant a few of the same plants together in a group.
  3. Place your nectar plants in a sunny, sheltered spot because butterflies love warmth.
  4. Keep the flowers (and nectar) coming by deadheading and keep the plants well-watered.
  5. Don't use insecticides and pesticides as they kill butterflies as well as other beneficial insects.
  6. Provide some caterpillar food plants too, such as nettles for the comma, red admiral and small tortoiseshell, or wild thyme for the small blue and large blue varieties.

Amphibians you can find in your garden

Amphibians you can find in your garden
Image courtesy of Mark Mirror / Shutterstock

There are just six native species of amphibians in the UK. Some are more common than others – the ones you are most likely to see in your garden are:

• The palmate newt – hibernates in September, often uses garden ponds for breeding.
• The common frog – breeds in water including garden ponds and enjoys shady damp spots.
• The smooth or common newt – live near their breeding ponds.
• The common toad – a regular garden visitor from March to October.

A few facts about amphibians

Do you know how to spot the difference between a common toad and a common frog?

  • Toads walk
  • Toad spawn is laid in a long string of double eggs
  • Frogs jump
  • Frogs lay their eggs in clumps

Reptiles to look out for

There are just six native species of reptiles living in the UK. The most likely reptiles you will find in your garden are:

  • The common or viviparous lizard – found all over from gardens to countryside.
  • The slow worm – often found in gardens and waste land.
  • The grass snake – harmless, and occasionally visits gardens.
  • The adder – unusual though seen occasionally.

There are also several introduced species of reptile now living wild in the UK, including things like turtles and tortoises, some of which pose a threat to our native wildlife.

Did you know that releasing exotic species into the wild is a criminal offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981?

British mammals and how to encourage them into your garden

Image courtesy of Richard Monnery

Of the 101 or so species of mammals found in the British Isles, there are only a small number that you are likely to see in your garden. Opinion is divided about which of these are welcome... but they are all most entertaining to watch and all contribute to the ecosystem of your garden.

Here are a few examples...

  • Fox – opportunists who are very tolerant of development and disturbance. They offer a great glimpse of wild nature on your doorstep.
  • Hedgehog – numbers are in sharp decline. You can encourage them by providing a safe area to feed and drink and plenty of dense planting for cover and nesting. They like non-fish varieties of cat food or raw mince mashed with an egg. But remember to offer them water rather than milk to drink.
  • Badger – they enjoy a neatly mown lawn where they can claw the surface to look for earthworms.
  • Deer – relatively common in the UK, though many species are non-native.
  • Bat – will appear from their roosting place around 20 minutes after sunset and like gardens where there is access to mature trees or hollow walls for roosting and nest boxes.
  • Squirrel – you are most likely to see the grey squirrel as it's more common that it's red cousin. They will happily eat bird seed or nuts and acorns.
  • Common dormouse – actually quite rare. They like a good selection of plants of different heights and some fruits and berries or nuts.

Image courtesy of  Miroslav Hlavko / Shutterstock

We've put together a few top tips to help you encourage these animals into your garden:

  • Create a log pile or pond to invite wildlife into your garden.
  • Allow wildlife a wider habitat by creating links to your neighbours' gardens at ground level.
  • Avoid using pesticides as they can disrupt the natural ecosystem of your garden.

 And once you have worked out how to make life easier for the wildlife in your garden - the next step is to work out how to make life easier for you.

Hedgehog image courtesy of Miroslav Hlavko / Shutterstock