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The Wildlife

The very heart and soul of our garden.

What is meant by Wildlife? I guess the answer would be - undomesticated animals. Perhaps it would be better referring to wildlife as an Ecosystem. The definition of Ecosystem in the dictionary; “A biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment”.

With ecosystems needing our gardens for refuge, we need to create a garden aimed specifically for those needs. In other words, a garden nature reserve.

Lets have a look at the groups of creatures we are aiming to provide somewhere to live:

The beautiful Grassnake

The first and most important group are Invertebrates. These are the oldest creatures around, with many varied types in any kind of habitat. The survival of higher life-orders (Vertebrates), depends in some way or other on invertebrates. This could be as a direct food source or indirectly due to the good they do in enabling plants to grow. That said, some of our insects are beneficial and some are not so beneficial to plants but we must not forget, particularly as gardeners, that ALL are a necessary and vital part of an ecosystem.

It’s fair to say that of the least useful group to plants are the so-called Bugs or the Homoptera order. This is the group that consists of plant-sucking insects and includes; leafhoppers, scale insects and aphids. Whilst this group may not be a plants best friend they are, particularly aphids, a primary food source for many birds. Other orders include:

• Oliochaeta - Segmented worms
• Mollusca - Slug / Snail
• Myriapoda - Centipede / Millipede
• Odonata - Dragonflies / Damselflies
• Diptera - Two-winged fly’s
• Coleoptera - Beetles
• Lepidoptera - Butterfly / Moth
• Hymenoptera - Wasp / Bee
• Arachnida – Spiders / Mites

The list above is in no order of importance but the Oliochaeta order would still top the list if it were! Without them there would probably not be the range of plants we have, and without plants there could not be life! Following a detailed study of the earthworm (in his back-garden), for his book in 1881, Charles Darwin was one of the first prominent figures to sing their praises. "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures".

The next group are the Vertebrates. It is widely agreed that Fish were the first vertebrates to inhabit our world, with fossils found dating more than 500 million years! Then came Amphibians, who were the first vertebrates to venture onto land. They are thought to have emerged from the oceans almost 400 million years ago. The class, with about 4400 species worldwide includes tailed amphibians - newts and tailless amphibians - frogs and toads. Tailed amphibians may be mistaken for lizards but unlike reptiles, amphibians have no scales on their skin and must therefore stay close to water to keep their skin moist. Amphibians are cold-blooded and as such in cool regions must hibernate throughout the winter.

Then we have the Reptiles, all of which have characteristic scaled bodies. They are also cold blooded so their body temperature will vary with the temperature of the environment. They therefore need to get their body heat directly from the sun as against the food they eat. As they rely on external sources of warmth, in cool regions they hibernate throughout winter. There are in excess of 2000 species worldwide, and they are of course - the snakes and lizards. They still have an unfortunate and mistaken reputation and as such are probably the least welcome inhabitants of our gardens.

Which is why they are all now protected.

Next come the Birds; vertebrates containing animals with feathers and unlike our previous groups of animals birds are warm-blooded. Believed to have evolved from the largest reptiles, dinosaurs, they still share a common link... they develop from embryos in eggs outside the mother's body. However unlike most reptile eggs, those of birds have hard shells. There are many birds to be found in gardens and their dependents on gardens is perhaps more than most of our other animals.


The final order are the Mammals; the name applied to warm-blooded animals that nourish their young with milk. Mammals are covered with varying amounts of hair. They also have the most highly developed nervous systems of all animals.

Habitats

So that’s the wildlife groups we shall accommodate in our gardens. The conclusions we have reached so far is that ALL our wildlife is important but the invertebrates are the most important. As we develop our garden nature reserve the features of our garden such as a lawn, flowerbed or water-feature, will become their habitats.

Native plants form the backbone of the local ecology. Insects, birds and other animals cannot survive without the food and shelter they provide. They have 'single' flowers that make it easy for flying insects to feed on their nectar. Many of our introduced plants have 'double' flowers and as such, disrupt food webs by depriving wildlife their customary diets.

Many of our native plants are referred to as weeds and as such, not welcome in our gardens. We must try to remember though, that they are vital for our wildlife. For example, thistle seeds are a favourite food of the colourful goldfinch, butterflies love nectar rich stinging nettles and bees will make a bee-line for clover flowers.

Whilst it is generally accepted that non-native plants in the wild has been detrimental to our wildlife, it is not all bad news! Many of the plants introduced into the country over the years to be grown in the garden have single flowers and become valued by wildlife. The butterfly-bush, lilac, poached egg flower, love-in-a-mist, sedum, thyme, oregano, lavender, forsythia and honeysuckle are just a few plant introductions that our wildlife have adapted to. Many of these Escapees found our conditions so much to their liking they thrived and spread into the countryside and have now become Semi-Native. Plants such as buddleia and lilac for example, have become as familiar in the wild as they have in the garden! As they are also decorative, semi-native plants would make extremely worthwhile additions to the wildlife garden. In my own garden, the vast majority of plants are a mix of native and semi-native with single flowers.

The native Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), a highly desired food source for our struggling Bumble Bees.
The native Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and semi-native Shaster Daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum), are loved by bees, hoverflies and butterflies.
The semi-native Michaelmas Daisy (Aster novi-belgii), has become an essential late food source for bees and butterflies.

Native hedgerows play a vital role in the countryside and will in your garden. A vast assortment of animals, birds and insects depend on them at some time in their life. Butterflies and predatory insects lay their eggs or survive the winter in hedges, and of course birds nest in them. A mature hedgerow is in fact a complete ecosystem in itself. Try to avoid trimming hedges between March and September to allow birds to nest and fledge in safety. Do not be too tidy when you finish hedge trimming – leave some of the clippings underneath the hedge as it provides habitats for a variety of insects and creatures - the dormouse for example. It’s also a good source of organic matter.

Any good wildlife garden should have a pile of old rotting logs! Very soon after its creation, log piles will be utilized by a vast range of creatures. It will provide shelter to invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals with many using it when hibernating and over wintering. Its other virtue is that the log pile is also a valuable food source and breeding ground for many insects.

A vast amount of our natural ponds and wetland areas throughout the countryside have already been lost, and will probably continue to do so during the future. About 80% of all ponds in Britain today are now to be found in gardens, which has been a lifesaver for our amphibians. As garden ponds are often in sheltered places with fewer predators, amphibians have a good chance of surviving. No wildlife garden would be complete without a pond. Apart from providing welcome drinking and bathing sites for birds and mammals, and a much-needed habitat for frogs, newts and toads - it will also provide a home for many invertebrates and aquatic flora.

The pond aimed at helping wildlife should try to replicate natural ponds i.e. be informal with gently sloping banks for ease of access for vertebrate fauna and have plenty of cover. Careful consideration needs to be given to where the pond should go, particular with regards to the proximity of trees and shrubs and the safety of children, pets and wildlife. Ponds will always look best at the lowest part of the garden, but bear in mind there may be a problem of water running from further parts of the garden into the pond. The best time of year to start work is in the spring.

Always bear in mind the risk ponds pose to young children.

Cross-section of a typical pond for wildlife

The pond should have shelves for planting and at least one gently sloping side. An area of bog would also be a good idea as many creatures will like this type of habitat, particularly amphibians and reptiles.

Leave the water to settle for a few days to allow the pH to reduce before fish are introduced. Plant up the pond and bog garden. As well as providing food, refuge and spawning grounds for pond life, submerged and floating plants release life-sustaining oxygen directly into the water as a result of photosynthesis. The plants also absorb the carbon dioxide released by animal, fish and plant waste and compete for the mineral salts which helps prevent the build up of algae. Use water surface covering plants, e.g. water lilies, to help filter the light and stabilize water temperature in summer.

Predatory Pond Skaters will be one of the first invertebrates to appear as they skip along the surface catching it’s unaware victims! Water Boatman will not be far behind - characteristically rowing across the water. Capable of spending some time underwater and along with it’s larvae, fiercely predatory, even taking small fish.
Though not strictly limited to the aquatic environment, the Great Diving Beetle will soon find it’s way to the pond. Often flying from one pool to another at 3-5cm long this is the largest and most voracious predatory aquatic beetle; feeding on tadpoles, small fish and other insects including their larvae. It’s own larvae reaches 5cm long and continues the adult’s fearsome reputation.

A pond, invaluable for wildlife
My pond after just five years from completion - now an integral part of the garden and home to the beautiful grass snake pictured at the introduction!

Perhaps one of the nicest sites in late spring is from a visit of the Dragonfly or the Damselfly - the latter hold the wings along the body when resting, and dragonflies hold the wings spread-out when resting. Dragonflies drop their eggs into the water or attach them to the stems of aquatic plants and damselflies make slits in the stems of plants at or below the waterline to deposit elongated eggs, which then hatch into voracious nymphs. As the nymphs slowly mature in the water they feed on all forms of aquatic life; including small fish and tadpoles. The length of time dragonflies are in the nymph form varies from one to three years or sometimes even longer, during which the nymph molts several times. Once mature they leave the water by climbing up a stout plant stem, and whilst attached to the stem, metamorphosize into the adult form.

Frogs, Toads and Newts will soon come to depend on this wet habitat and their tadpoles will spend their entire lifecycle in water. The gras snake will use this to it's advantage!

Fish will eat the eggs and larvae of most aquatic animals and therefore should not be introduced until the pond has begun to establish, perhaps six months or so. Goldfish are not really the best fish to have in the wildlife pond, better suited would probably be Sticklebacks and Minnows. Rudd will help control surface midges and Tench scavenge helping keep the bottom clean.

NEVER TRANSFER FISH OR FROGSPAWN FROM GARDEN PONDS TO THE WILD

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