What you can do to make your garden more wildlife friendly
One simple way you can do your bit to encourage and support your local wildlife is to make small changes in what you do in your garden.
Even in rural areas gardens can provide rich habitats for wildlife - this is because they provide lots of places and surfaces for animals to feed on, places to hide away, places to lay eggs and build nests. Particularly in towns, gardens and parks are vital for all types of wildlife. When planning a garden, please remember your garden is a resource where lots of different types of wildlife find something to eat, somewhere to hide and somewhere to reproduce. Make sure that your garden is a source of all these things, and not just somewhere that some animals find useful for a small part of their daily lives. Your garden should have value for wildlife throughout the year, not just in the spring and summer.
Consider leaving part of your lawn uncut for most of year. Perhaps cut it just once in the autumn and once in the early spring . Long grass is an excellent habitat for grasshoppers, beetles and young amphibians. Long grass also provides roosts for insects such as damselflies and food plants for the larvae of some butterflies. However, some short grass is also useful for many birds when they forage for soil insects, so a mixture of long and short grass is ideal. Grasses and nettles are also important food sources for the caterpillars of some butterflies.
Dead wood is a valuable habitat, especially if it is allowed to rot. It will support a wide range of fungi, invertebrates and mammals. Birds such as wrens or robins will use a woodpile as a nest site. Dead wood can be used to create a simple wood pile or interesting sculptural feature and is best left undisturbed for a number of years.
Birds can be provided with supplementary food, either bought seed or food scraps, throughout the year. But in the breeding season they all want lots of insects and soil invertebrates for feeding their young so encourage scruffy corners where these will be found. Remember your food is only ever a supplement for the birds they must get most of their food from natural sources.
Help hedgehogs by supplementing their natural food, particularly during dry or cold periods when insects and earthworms are scarce. A particular favourite is dog or cat food (non fish), but you can also try small amounts of cake, biscuits and peanuts as well as fresh and dried fruits. NEVER feed them bread and milk. Another way to encourage hedgehogs to spend more time in your garden is to provide them with a home. The box should be sited out of direct sunlight with the entrance facing away from prevailing winds, in or under thick vegetation or behind or under a shed.
Create a water feature in your garden. A pond, without fish, will enable amphibians and dragonflies to breed. If a pond is not practical, a simple bird bath or pebble fountain will provide a place for animals to drink. Also consider creating a bog or permanently wet area in your garden next to the pond. Perhaps bury some plastic sheeting about 30 cm below the surface to impede drainage, and keep the soil moist by directing rainwater to it from the roof of the house, shed or garage.
Grow a mixture of native and non-native plants to provide nectar and pollen for bees and other insects. Choose plants that flower at different times of year to ensure that pollen and nectar are available over a long period. Select trees and shrubs with autumn berries for birds and other animals. Encourage ivy to grow up a fence or over an outbuilding. Once ivy gets high is produces a lot of flowers and berries in late winter and early spring and these are very valuable for early insects and many birds.
Think carefully about the origin of anything you buy for your garden. Ensure that plants come from cultivated stock and have not been taken from the wild. Think also about the origin of any material, such as potting compost: where has the compost come from? has its extraction put a wild habitat elsewhere under threat, whether in the UK or abroad? Peat free products are now freely available. Always avoid using peat.
Tidiness is the enemy of wildlife. Make your garden attractive but not excessively neat. Leave deadheads on flowers in the autumn, only cut back your shrubs lightly, do not sweep up every fallen leaf. Do not have an intensive garden tidy and clearance in the spring, that is when the vital insects and other invertebrates are starting to reproduce and will soon provide the food for young birds. If your garden is diverse in both plant types and structure it will be a haven for wildlife.
Berberis, hawthorn, ivy and holly make good informal hedges for birds to shelter.
Pyracanhta produces lots of berries which birds love in autumn.
Sunflowers (the seeds once they have flowered) are a great treat for birds.
Herbs such as rosemary and thyme are great for butterflies.
Fruit trees provide blossom rich in nectar for insects in the spring, and then fruit to feed a variety of animals in the aumumn.
Flowering bulbs in the spring support bees emerging from dormancy.
Hedgehogs in decline
Hedgehogs are the most common animal we get in at HART. With their population in rapid decline, getting these hogs back to the wild is particularly important now more than ever. If we can get healthy hedgehogs back to the suitable locations in the wild then they have a good chance of breeding and increasing hedgehog numbers which will help to secure their future.
If you would like to help the hedgehogs in your area, you can encourage them by:
- Keeping a wild corner for them as a safe place for them to nest and forage
- Accumulating materials - garden rubbish, leaves, brushwood, etc. suitable for hedgehog nests (hibernacula) and supplementing their natural diet of slugs, snails, beetles, worms, caterpillars and suchlike with some protein (e.g. meat based pet food, minced meat, crunchy hedgehog/cat biscuits or mealworms), particularly in periods of unseasonable weather. A bowl of drinking water should also be available at several sites around the garden.
- Driving carefully at night - curling into a ball is no defence against a car
- Avoid using pesticides and slug pellets - there are plenty of natural alternatives
- Make sure they can get out of your pond with a small ramp or sloping side
- Remove any litter such as yogurt pots which hedgehogs can get stuck in, or elastic bands and beer can plastic rings that can cause nasty injuries as hedgehogs get entangled.
Most people are probably aware by now that hedgehogs are in decline. Conservationists believe that hedgehogs are on their way to becoming extinct unless we actively do what we can to prevent this outcome. We need to limit/prevent the damage done by extensive farming, urbanisation and the population fragmentation. Initiatives such as Hedgehog Street, have done a lot to raise awareness of their plight, but given that HART only sees a proportion of the many hedgehogs that are in need there is going to be an uphill struggle to try and save this species. Hopefully, together hedgehog lovers, conservationists and rescuers can help protect this unique animal that has been around for about 28 million years.
Hedgehog nest disturbance - how to avoid it and what to do if it happens
Hedgehogs are mammals that can produce two litters of young each year; the first are born around May/June and the second litters are born during August/September. Litter size is generally between two and six young. Babies are born defenceless with eyes and ears closed; no fur and initially no spines making them totally dependent on their mum and very vulnerable. They stay in a family group for approximately 2 months after birth; for the first month they are reliant solely on their mothers’ milk but by about 4 weeks old they start to wean and grow rapidly. Female hedgehogs take their babies on foraging trips to show them how to hunt for food and to familiarise them with the local area. Once they can feed independently they disperse and start living separate lives.
During 2015 we took in four family groups; four nursing mothers with 19 babies between them. These nest disturbances happened for a variety of reasons including gardening activities. One of the mums was caught by a strimmer and arrived with a nasty wound on her head, one family was displaced from a compost heap, one group was found in an air raid shelter that was being cleared out and another was hit by a lawn mower. Luckily they have all survived the trauma of being disturbed/injured, picked-up and moved into the hospital and all did amazingly well and were later released back to the wild. These babies were fortunate to have been kept with their mother. Sometimes if a hedgehog mother feels threatened she can reject or eat her own babies.
We have also taken in many babies either found with no mum or where the mum has been disturbed and abandoned her young. We care for many youngsters at the hospital and these orphans, have a much lower chance of survival if they are very young on arrival. At the hospital they are fed formula milk with added probiotics which offers adequate nutrition but lacks the vital colostrum present in mother’s milk. Colostrum provides a degree of immunity to the common diseases the babies are likely to encounter in the first few weeks of life giving them protection from illness until their own immune system matures. The formula is obviously different in makeup from the mother’s milk and can cause digestive problems, however the hardest aspect of hand rearing baby hedgehogs is making sure they don’t succumb to aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia can occur if the baby inhales the milk leading to fluid pooling in the lungs. If this happens they develop breathing problems, become lethargic, stop eating and often do not recovery from this leading to death. At HART we have been looking into developing extra small teats to try and combat this problem. Newly born hoglets may need feeding every two to three hours to ensure they are hydrated and fed enough. As they grow the intervals between feeds can be extended and the quantity of milk increased – it is always a relief when they reach the weaning stage and can start to feed themselves as they are past the critical stage.
Female hedgehogs will nest in some very strange places but generally in areas that have been undisturbed for a good length of time. Nesting sites can include un-used sheds, thick undergrowth, Pampas grass, under tarpaulin or log piles etc. These areas are classically the ones which people start to clear out as the summer progresses so it is vital to check that a nest isn’t present before starting work. If you do disturb a nest and have no opportunity to repair the damage and leave well alone, then the next best option is to gather the whole family up together and bring them into a centre such as HART. It is very important not to touch the babies with your bare hands as the scent may lead the mother to reject the babies, or in the worst case scenario eat them. If the babies are under ten days old then they have very little chance of defending themselves as they don’t have the ability to curl up into a ball and this is when they could be eaten by their mother. If you have to gather them up keep them in any nesting material the mother has collected, place everything into a box and keep them as dark and quiet as possible. It may be tempting to keep peeking at the babies but resist the urge as you are putting their lives in danger. Once they are all safely contained contact your local rescue and arrange for them to be brought in.
If you disturb a nest and there is no mother present then initially try putting everything back as it was and wait to see if mum arrives. If the babies are very young i.e. have white spines and are only a couple of inches long or smaller, then there is a chance that something has happened to mum and the babies have been truly orphaned; mothers usually stay with their young constantly for the first couple of weeks. In this instance it may be necessary to act quickly and pick up the babies but please ring for advice before taking this course of action.
The problem with slug pellets
A hedgehog dying through slug pellet poisoning is extremely distressing to see. Garden chemicals and modern garden practices take their toll on all wildlife, so please consider gardening organically. A sprinkle of sand or crushed egg shells around precious plants is effective for keeping slug damage down and is harmless to other wildlife. The use of any toxic chemicals in your gardens can have nasty effects on all sorts of wildlife, so please think twice before using weedkiller and pesticides. If you have to get rid of the weeds then pull them out or dig them up whenever possible. The same is true for wood preservatives on sheds and fences, please use a non toxic brand and do not spill it on the soil.
Bonfires and strimmers
We have had quite a few hedgehogs brought in that have been ‘strimmed’, and other garden creatures such as frogs, toads and grass snakes very often get sliced up by strimmers. A few recover from their strimmer injuries but sadly, those that have lost limbs have to be put to sleep. So, before starting any land clearing work, please check thick undergrowth for inhabitants! And be particularly careful with bonfires as many creatures will make their homes in them if you pile up rubbish over several weeks. If you have to burn your garden rubbish rather than using it for mulch or compost, burn it in a fire basket or incinerator which you feed gradually and so let any animals escape as you go.
For more information:
http://www.wildaboutgardens.org.uk/ - a website produced by the Royal Horticulatural Society and the Wildlife Trusts in partnership about all things to do with wildlife gardening.
http://www.bigwildlifegarden.org.uk/ - a project set up by the above Trusts for people to submit their ideas and successes with wildlife gardening.
Home for wildlife - RSPB project - a website from the RSPB with useful tips and an opportunity to tell them what you are doing for wildlife.
http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlifegardening - a wealth of handy tips from the Wildlife Trusts.
http://www.joyofplants.com/wildlife - information about which plants are best for attracting wildlife to your garden.
Other ways to use your garden to help the environment
Have a compost bin - not only will less waste go to landfill, but you will have free top quality compost to use in your garden.
Fit a water butt - then you can use rainwater to water the garden, even more important when we have drought warnings.
Use your washing line - drying clothes outdoors will save on electricity - the Energy Saving Trust has calculated that line drying just 4 loads of washing per week in the sunnniest months of the year can save £17 from electricity bills - and your laundry will smell fresher too!
Grow your own - you don't need a large garden to enjoy home grown produce, you can even grow a few salad leaves on a window sill, or tomatoes in a hanging basket. This will not only give you delicious home grown veg, but also reduce food miles and packaging.
Leave a lawn - Opt for lawn or soft landscaping such as gravel or bark chippings to let the rainwater through to the water table. Concrete and decking can prevent this, leading to both flooding and droughts.
buy only forest friendly wood products - such as garden furniture, fencing, sheds and charcoal, to do your bit to protect the world's forests.