July, 2012

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Preparing for a Butterfly Bonanza

    Butterflies, wow, love them - if only there were some around!

    After a dearth of butterflies for weeks and months in my garden, the last two weeks have been such a pleasure - and a relief. As the sun finally came out, so did Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Holly Blues, Large Whites, Small Whites, Green-veined Whites, a Comma (below), and a Red Admiral.

    Of course the sun has now gone back in, and the garden appears empty again. But at least I got the sense that this year isn't going to be a total disaster for them.

    However, this last weekend I visited a couple of very well known, large public gardens, both on relatively still and partly sunny days, and in one I saw not a single butterfly, and in the other just one Green-veined White and one Meadow Brown.

    Their poor showing will be in large part due to the rubbish summer so far, but I think there are other factors too (so I won't name the gardens but I do intend to contact them to see if anything can be done to improve things).

    Their lack of butterflies is most certainly not due to a lack of flowers, of which they had plenty. No, there are some other key factors which are vital if they - and us - are to have gardens full of butterflies.

    And it is all down to habitat. If we want butterflies in our garden, they have got to have somewhere suitable to breed nearby.

    If you live near unspoilt meadows or open woodlands or nature reserves or 'waste ground', then many butterflies can start life there. But if those habitats are nowhere near you, then where will the butterflies start life?

    Here's what various of our commoner garden butterflies need:

    * Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, skippers and Speckled Woods need quite large areas of unmown coarse grasses, so the gardens I visited where all the lawns were tightly mown are no use

    * Holly Blues (below - note the telltale black-speckled silver underwing) need Ivy and Holly, and I saw neither in either of the gardens

    * Nettles are often quoted as being caterpillar food, but actually only for the Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock (below), and the latter three species prefer big sunny beds of nettles, not a few straggly plants tucked away in a dark corner. There certainly weren't those in any of the gardens I visited.

    * Common Blue needs Bird's-foot Trefoil in a meadow large enough for a small colony

    Orange-tips need areas of Cuckooflower or Garlic Mustard

    * and Brimstones need fresh young Alder Buckthorn or Buckthorn trees.

    So for butterfly success, think 'nursery' as well as 'nectar bar'.

  • Smaller gardeners, give us your tips!

    Do you look at gardens at places like Chelsea and Hampton Court and wish yours looked just as immaculate?

    The thing is that while many of us would like to see lots of wildlife in the garden, we'd also like our gardens to look nice.

    And I think that those of us with smaller gardens have a particular challenge in that respect, and some photos I took this week illustrate this nicely.

    They are from the Bishop's Gardens in Chichester, a wonderful public garden.

    And when you look at the herbaceous beds, they look fantastic - all billowing flowers and foliage in a beautiful tapestry.

    The thing with a large garden like the Bishop's is that while our eye is drawn to the overall effect, if you look closely at areas more representative of a small garden, you begin to see bits that just would look sloppy or unkempt.

    For example, in a big garden, beds can afford to have gaps where things have been removed or have yet to be planted, like below - the eye just passes over them to the bits that do look good.

    Likewise your eye moves on quickly where plants have gone ragged, like this Hyssop with its bare heart...

    ...or this Lychnis coronaria that has flopped over a path.

    But in a small garden you'd notice all these flaws. Everything is under the microscope, week in, week out.

    It makes the choice of plant all the more important in a small garden. Ideally you need plants that have a long flowering season, and don't go scraggy once over. And of course you want them to be good for wildlife too.

    So come on 'small gardeners' (ie those with small gardens rather than those who are vertically challenged) - what are your perfect wildlife plants for a small garden?

  • A very British butterfly

    There are some species of wildlife that may not have the 'wow' factor, but have an understated charm that I feel is rather British.

    This is one of them:

    It is the Ringlet butterfly (no prizes for guessing why).

    And right now is its peak season. It emerges in mid June, peaks during July, and goes over rapidly in August, one of the most predictable butterfly flight seasons of any species.

    As a kid, this was a butterfly I used to count in their hundreds on a transect survey our family did in a local woodland nature reserve. And they were in the lane near our house. But rarely did they ever make it into our garden.

    As always, we must look to their Home Needs for a reason. What did our garden not have that the local Ringlets needed?

    Well, what they like are moderately shady, damp grassy areas where the grass grows tall and lush. Here the females gaily jettison their eggs willy nilly into the vegetation, where the caterpillars will feed on the coarse grasses in spring (ie not on your regulation lawn grass, Perennial Rye Grass).

    And they need enough of this habitat to form a close-knit colony. This butterfly is not a wanderer - it stays very much close to its friends and family.

    So had I understood this as a child, perhaps I could have encouraged (= harassed) my parents to let me develop a Ringlet area.

    There are no Ringlets near enough to where I live now, but perhaps you are lucky enough to have them visit, and maybe you even have a colony breeding in your garden. Let me know!

    PS Don't confuse it with Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper or Speckled Wood. It is the underside that is really distinctive, but here's what a Ringlet looks like from above, showing fainter 'ringlets' on all-chocolate wings: