Wildlife in Gardens
With over 16 million gardens throughout our increasingly crowded country, our gardens are a vital habitat for beleaguered wildlife. A mature garden may be home to up to 60 bird species, 300 plant species and thousands of insects.
It is estimated that gardens occupy over a thousand square miles of Britain’s land area, representing a huge, largely safe space for wildlife.
Gardens vary enormously in the opportunities they offer wildlife. Most, however, are suburban and so can quickly become colonised by the flora and fauna of the surrounding countryside nearby. Where two habitats meet, the border zone – in this case between the urban hard landscaping and the surrounding countryside – is often especially rich in wildlife because it provides features of both habitats.
A newly plotted garden will contain little more than the few invertebrates – earthworms and snails, for example – that inhabit any patch of bare soil. A garden put down to lawn offers little more, but as the gardener introduces herbaceous plants, vegetables and shrubs, the habitat quickly increases in complexity and is able to support a surprising diversity of wildlife. Many herbivorous insects and other invertebrates are very specific about what they like to eat. Each invertebrate is, in turn, preyed upon only by certain sorts of other animals, so that even a small mixture of plants can generate an elaborate series of food chains.
The richest garden habitats are often those that have been cultivated for long enough to include mature shrubs and trees, which can each support a huge variety of wildlife. The pooled effect of lots of neighbouring gardens, each with different plants and microhabitats, creates a complex patchwork habitat and attracts larger mammals and birds whose needs can be met over a range of gardens.
One of the easiest ways to attract wildlife to your garden is to provide a permanent body of water. Even a small, simple water feature – such as a bucket sunk into the ground – can immediately boost the number of insects and other creatures visiting the garden.
Wildlife have four main needs of their habitat:
- A source of food – this may range from nectar-rich flowers that attract bees and butterflies to trees and shrubs laden with edible berries and fruit.
- A source of water.
- Shelter – taller plants, shrubs and trees are particularly good for providing shelter. Year-ground cover can also be invaluable, providing protection for small mammals and insects.
- A place to raise their young – these can often be created in quiet corners of the garden, for example, log piles, bird and insect boxes, and hedgehog houses.
With so many different habitats blended into one, there are few animals that we may call typical of gardens in the sense that they are more common there than anywhere else. One, however, is the blackbird. Over the last 150 years, the blackbird’s preferred habitat has shifted to gardens and parks where it lives at much higher density than in its traditional woodland haunts.
The garden contains fewer blackbird predators. In the wood, weasels, squirrels, hedgehogs and rats all raid their nests, whereas in the garden, the domestic cat is the worst threat. Young blackbirds are particularly vulnerable for the few days after they first leave the nest, when they spend most of their time on the ground.
Another, perhaps more controversial animal that has made itself very much at home in urban gardens is the fox. In Britain, foxes were first established in cities such as Bristol and London during the 1940s and today most cities have their own populations of urban foxes.
Fox populations have adapted so well to urban life that in many parts of the country, there are more foxes living in urban than rural areas. One reason for this is that foxes are not limited by food in urban areas. They may eat a large range of foods, sometimes scavenged from dustbins, but more often provided by sympathetic householders. Foxes also eat a large variety of wild food stuffs including fruit, invertebrates, and small mammals and birds.