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!
  • Butterfly birthdays

    Right now in the first couple of weeks of July, garden butterfly numbers tend to rocket. The summer emergence of Peacocks, Commas, Brimstones, together with Meadow Browns and Speckled Woods, plus a surge in the number of 'cabbage white' butterflies, mean that there is a flitting and fluttering going on in a way not seen until this point in the year. The only problem is that it can all be very distracting when you're meant to be gardening.

    You can see the population boom in this graph, which shows the number of butterflies in my garden each week during 2017.

    The tallest bar is Week 29, which is19th-25th July, so you can see how numbers build from a June lull up to their summer peak in the next 2-3 weeks, tailing off again once we get into August. (Last year I also had a bit of an early autumn 'second-coming' when Red Admirals had a great final brood.)

    That is not to say that everywhere in the country will be exactly the same as my graph, but it won't be far off the same basic pattern - butterflies are such reliable timekeepers in terms of the annual calendar. You can predict butterflies' birthdays almost to the day!

    My butterfly of the moment whose numbers help create this boom in my garden is this one:

    It is the Gatekeeper, which when I was a lad used to be called the Hedge Brown. Certainly you see more along hedges than you do opening gates.

    It is very similar to the slightly larger and very common Meadow Brown, but even in its wings-closed position, the giveaway is the tiny white dots on the hindwing in brown circles.

    Also, the black eye-spot on underside of the forewing has two white spots, whereas the Meadow Brown tends to have one (except in Scotland where the Gatekeeper sadly isn't found). Sadly, this is not a butterfly of Northern Ireland, either, although with climate change we could see it expand ever further northwards.

    Here is the Gatekeeper, wings open.

    This is the male, with a black smudge through the bright orange panel on the forewing.

    Females lack this:

    ...and Meadow Browns don't have the orange panel on the rear upperwing. In the female Meadow Brown, there is just an orange panel on the upper forewing:

    And in the male Meadow Brown there is barely any orange on the upperwing at all:

    So here's a chance to put your Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown skills to the test. What do we have here?

    Both species have caterpillars that eat wild grasses. This is where a lawn just won't do - mown bowling greens of Rye-grass aren't to their taste. However, if you can create a patch of wildflower meadow, either in your lawn or along the sunny side of a hedge, you may help provide a home for the next generation. Then your garden can celebrate ever more butterfly birthdays.

    Oh, and our mystery photo? It was Gatekeeper above and Meadow Brown below - the white dots in the black eyes gave it away.

  • Bring on the burnets

    When I moved house (and garden) four years ago, I set out a list of target wildlife I wanted to make a home for. That then determined the habitats I needed to create and the plants I needed to grow.

    This target setting I find is a good game - it gives a focus, and it then gives a sense of achievement when the wildlife you're aiming for arrives and settles in.

    I like to believe my goals are ambitious, but it also makes me think hard about what is likely. For example, I talk a lot about planting Purging Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn as the foodplant for Brimstone butterfly caterpillars, but if you live north of Hadrian's Wall, your chances of success are very, very small as Brimstones are almost unheard of there.

    So I try to choose my targets based on what I know might be possible, which involves considering where you are in the country and how close you are to 'source' populations of your target species.

    It is then a matter of making the habitats to the best of your ability, and then waiting to see if your target species, by chance, comes wandering in your direction.

    One of my targets is one of the most gorgeous insects in Britain. I knew that it could be found up on the downs within a mile or so of where I live. And I knew that what I needed to make it stop, should it ever pass through my garden, was a 'meadow', plus some of its favourite wildflowers for nectaring such as Greater Knapweed, and plenty of its caterpillar's foodplant, Bird's-foot Trefoil.

    Well, I grew my first Bird's-foot Trefoil and Greater Knapweed from seed in spring 2017, and then sowed my first 'meadow' area in autumn 2017.

    So you can sense my excitement when my target arrived for the first time this week:

    It is the Six-spot Burnet. I think it is exquisite. It has metallic green wings, its six spots are pure red, and it has shaggy black fur on its body and giant ladles for antennae.

    It is a moth, and it is widespread across much of lowland UK, including Northern Ireland and coastal areas of Scotland.

    In some areas of the country, you might also try to create conditions for two of its cousins, the Five-spot and the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnets, which are also meadow moths, and for which the main foodplants are, respectively, Bird's-foot Trefoil and Meadow Vetchling.

    Now I am a long way still from claiming success. One moth doesn't make a population! I need others, by chance, to drop in, and especially an egg-bearing female to now come down and establish a breeding colony. It is only when I see the little pupal cases on grass stems in midsummer, like the one below I photographed on the downs, that I can crack open the champers.

    But it was another little sign that I'm on track. My hopes and expectations are raised. Bring on the burnets!

  • A wolf in wasp's clothing

    I was taking a morning breather this week, which involves a quick lap of the garden after a burst of RSPB day-job work (just to let nature replenish the spirit - I find it better than caffeine), when I spotted a handful of flying insects scooting low over a large pile of dry, bare earth that is waiting to be turned into another Buttterfly Border.

    Looking more closely, they looked rather like little wasps, with the tell-tale black-and-yellow banding on the abdomen.

    Every now and then, they would land briefly, and scuttle towards any dark hole in the earth, before flying off again barely a second later. I had to be rather swift with the camera, but here is one, and you can see it is rather attractive with its reddish legs and red band and triangle towards the base of the abdomen.

    It is actually only about a centimetre long, so is much smaller than the usual garden wasps, but otherwise looks pretty wasp-like, don't you think?

    But it's actually... (wait for it)

    ...a bee! I kid you not (and if you already knew that, you can feel very smug). This is a female Painted Nomad Bee. And she's up to no good.

    What she is doing is looking for the active nesting chambers of another type of bee called a Yellow-legged Mining Bee. If she finds a nest, the Nomad Bee will lay her own eggs inside. When they hatch, they kill and eat the egg or grub of the Mining Bee, and then take advantage of the stores of mixed pollen and nectar left by the Mining Bee mother.

    There are about 34 species of nomad bee in Britain, as listed in the amazing Steven Falk/Richard Lewington  Field Guide to the Bees of Britain and Ireland (which I heartily recommend). Most have these wasp-like markings, which is an excellent way of convincing birds to steer clear or them.

    Although few nomad bees make it into Scotland or Ireland, with a warming climate some are expanding their range northwards, and in spring and summer they are worth looking for, either drinking nectar at flowers or roving warm, dry banks and sandy slopes where so many solitary bees nest. 

    So if you see what you think is a small wasp, look again, for it might be nature up to its clever tricks again.