Gardening for wildlife

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!
  • Grow a fruity harvest for winter thrushes

    I'm often asked if I have a favourite bird, to which I normally say "The last one I saw". While that is often true, I do admit to having a lingering soft spot for Redwings and Fieldfares.

    For someone like me, born and brought up in the countryside of the English Midland shires, these were birds that had a tangible mystique about them. Completely absent all summer, there is then that point in October when loose flocks of these thrushes appear, moving purposely across the landscape during daylight hours. It is so astonishing to thing that they are fresh in from Scandinavia, having crossed the North Sea maybe only hours before.

    The Fieldfares announce the flocks with their exuberant 'chak chak' calls, and then on autumn nights if you head outside after dark, you hear the Redwings continuing to pass over, their thin high 'seeeeeh' calls emerging as if from the stars.

    Now that I'm on the south coast, I generally don't get to see that daytime spectacle, although I do still hear some night-time Redwings as they pass over. Instead, what I must hope is that fog or harsh weather will force them over the South Downs and into my garden to feast on berries. Both species are so dapper in appearance, the Fieldfares with grey heads, chestnutty backs and chevron markings on their sides...

    ...and the Redwings with their bold creamy stripe above the eye and reddish feathering on the flanks either side of their densely streaked breast.

    My love of them, and my desire to help them, means that ensuring my garden is rich in berry-bearing shrubs and fruit-laden trees is a top priority aims. So which berries do these winter wanderers most enjoy?

    Well, if they have the chance they love to gorge on Sorbus berries, especially the native Rowan (Mountain Ash). However, these tend to get stripped very quickly once they ripen by resident Blackbirds, meaning few are left by the time the Redwings and Fieldfares arrive, so the skill is in also growing those fruit which ripen late.

    Good options include Crab Apple, whether the native tree or one of the many cultivars such as Golden Hornet or Evereste (below, on a waist-high tree I only planted last year).

    A fascinating study was done by Barbara and David Snow in the 1980s, and they found that Fieldfares fed mostly on haws (the berries of Hawthorn), rose hips, and Ivy and Holly berries. For Redwing, Holly and Hawthorn were the preferred berries, but a study in Scotland pointed to the value of Rowan berries early in the winter, and Whitebeam was important in some areas.

    Well, the rose hips are certainly thick on the branches this autumn:

    I grow several single-flowered climbing varieties that bear a range of different sized hips - Redwings can only eat small hips whole, and would have to pick at the larger ones which isn't as energy-efficient for them. Rosa 'Frances E Lester' is particularly good, but my favourite is Rosa helenae, which has great trusses of small, slightly orangey fruit.

    In contrast, my Rosa Seagull may be a mass of single flowers in summer but is very shy when it comes to hip production, so you do have to pick your roses well.

    Holly is certainly an important food source in my gardens, but in a real cold snap, especially with snow, Redwings and Fieldfares will take what they can find. Here is a Fieldfare I photgraphed feeding on the tough fruits of the Handkerchief Tree, Davidia involucrata.

    Ornamental rowans can also be good, especially those I find with pink or white berries, as they often hold onto the fruit well into winter. Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' and Sorbus vilmorinii I find especially good.

    But if all else fails, the one thing you can turn to that they are guaranteed to love are windfall apples, laid out on the lawn.

    So if you have a lack of berry-rich bushes in the garden, add one (or two or more). The sooner the better - with trees and shrubs, the quicker they go in, the quicker they get to maturity, so I always say not to dally but act instead.

    And if the weather does turn bad, then cut in half some old apples and prepare yourself for winter thrush heaven.

  • Just bugging...

    When it comes to insects, the glamour-pusses such as the butterflies, bees and dragonflies tend to command our attention, but in the last couple of weeks, it has been some more unsung creatures that have caught my eye in my garden.

    They belong to the group of insects called 'the bugs' - not the way we tend to use the word these days to mean anything small and creepy-crawly, but 'true bugs' or the hemipterans. There are like beetles, but instead of having wing cases that cover the whole body like a shell, with true bugs the wing cases tend to finish half way down the back, creating a 'V' shape.

    The most obvious ones in the garden at present are the Dock Bugs. All bugs have mouthparts like a sharp straw that they use to puncture plant stems (or in some cases other insects), and my Dock Bugs have taken a particular shine to my Rhubarb flowers.

    All ages are congregated there, and over the last few weeks the Rhubarb flower stalks have gradually wilted as the Dock Bugs suck away to their hearts' content.

    With my bug eyes now focused, my next find was these beauties:

    They are one of our 30 or so species of shield bug, but are much smaller than the typical green shield bugs you see, and with a most attractive ruby metallic sheen on the back. These are the Woundwort Shield Bug, and indeed they are sat on the leaf of Hedge Woundwort, a weed in many of our gardens. You may know the plant best for its smell  - as you pull one up when weeding, the crushed leaves emit a herby scent of the most whiffy kind. (As you can see, shield bug sex is not of the intimate, stare-into-each-others'-eyes type.)

    My next bug has been hanging around one of my earth mounds for a couple of weeks, looking very dapper indeed, in a Chelsea Pensioner kind of way.

    This is called the Cinnamon Bug, Corizus hyoscyami. Once a southern coastal specialist, it is spreading northwards, so might turn up in your garden soon.

    And my final buggy treat of the month was when I saw a whole cluster crammed onto a leaf of my Alder tree.

    Now it is not very often that you see insects piled together in this way, and if you don't know this creature, I think you may be rather charmed. For this is the Parent Bug. Or at least these are Parent Bug babies.

    They get the name because, in a very unusual piece of behaviour, the mother bug lays her eggs in a clump and then guards them. When her brood hatches, she continues to diligently watch over them. These in the photo are well grown youngsters who have just shed their skins - you can see some of the old cases looking like little spiders around the edge of the cluster.

    By the next day, they were gone, and they have just one more skin-shedding to go to turn into adults, ready to begin another round of bug-creches next year.

    So it is worth taking a closer look in your garden at this time of year for little buggy wonders of your own.


  • Nature's tonic

    In over eight years of writing this blog, I think I’ve only previously missed one Friday morning’s posting, and yet I’ve just been silent for two weeks on the trot.

    I have a very good excuse. The doctors called it viral labyrinthitis. which inflames the canals of the inner ear. For those who have had it, I can now fully empathise with the horrors of what feels like being trapped in the washing machine of doom – on full spin cycle.

    It struck at a time of year when there are so many garden wildlife stories to tell, but also when I had so many projects planned in the garden. I was due to prepare the next area that will be wildflower meadows, and I was intending to finish the boat garden, which is to be filled with British native seaside plants. None of that got done; it has been as much as I could do to get out of bed!

    But the thing with creating a garden is that it is a flexible thing. A garden is never finished so it is all about enjoying the journey, and the journey will now be a little bit different in its timings.

    But – and this is the real reason for sharing the gory details of the last three weeks – is to give thanks for the therapy that a wildlife-filled garden brings. Every day, even at the virus’s worst, I hauled myself into the garden, and felt a little bit better for doing so.

    On some days, I was able to focus my eyes well enough to see some of the butterflies. Some, like this Peacock, were looking rather like how I felt - battered!

    I would sit in the sunshine on ‘The Mound’ where the steep banks mean my eyes are close to the ground where I could marvel at grasshoppers ‘felling’ giant blades of grass by gnawing at the base, like Beavers chopping down trees.

    On many occasions I just sat by the pond in my haze, distracted by the dragonflies zipping backwards and forwards, or the little shoals of Sticklebacks darting about under the lily pads.

    The wildlife seemed to become quite blasé, given the snail-pace I was restricted to.

    Overall, the smell and feel of the grass, the colour of the flowers, the hum of insects, and the gentle lowing song of the Woodpigeons and the autumn Robin melodies – they were worth a thousand drugs.

    And with the colour beginning to flush the chest of this year’s young Robins, it is nature that is beginning to bring colour back to my cheeks.