Wildlife Gardening – for biodiversity and people
In the past, most people thought wild creatures in gardens were generally a damn nuisance, except perhaps for songbirds and butterflies although not the cabbage whites. In 1966, the great British ecologist Charles Elton wrote in his book “The Pattern of Animal Communities”. “Broadly speaking the Domestic habitats are in the direction of biological deserts, or at any rate very unnatural surroundings, though this fact is a bit concealed by the multitude of exotic plant species that inhabit our gardens and parks, yet have so few animals attached to them.”
Elton wrote this because no-one then had seriously studied garden ecology. They weren’t proper habitat, so obviously wouldn’t be good for wildlife.
That gardens are at last being recognized as important habitats is largely down to two series of studies. Over a 30 year period, Jennifer Owen recorded a total of 2,204 insect species in 34 groups in her ordinary Leicester garden, but allowing for the many groups she could not study (eg most flies), estimated that 8,450 species of insects alone could be found in gardens. There are few nature reserve species lists to match these figures. Her book (Jennifer Owen “Wildlife of a garden; a thirty year study” RHS publications) is essential reading for anyone interested in urban ecology. She found 20 species new to Britain and four previously undescribed species which shows how scientifically neglected garden habitats have been.
Working from Sheffield University, the BUGS (Biodiversity in Urban GardenS) projects looked in depth at wildlife in about 250 gardens in five major UK cities. Their work abundantly confirmed Owen’s conclusions, and showed for example that plant species diversity in all sets of city gardens exceeded that in four traditionally conserved semi-natural habitats and that of urban derelict and brownfield grassland. Preliminary data from the Freshwater Habitats Trust shows that garden ponds can be comparable in diversity to high quality countryside ponds of similar size. The BUGS work also destroyed several wildlife gardening myths: that only native species of plants were of biodiversity significance, that all gardens should contain nettles, and that only large suburban gardens were of any value.
What is more, gardens are a large habitat. The urban environment in England and Wales occupies about the same area as all semi-natural habitats put together. Gardens occupy about a quarter of this space, adding to an area one fifth the size of Wales. In combination with their high species richness, gardens constitute a massive wildlife resource.
Managing gardens and urban greenspace for wildlife has significant environmental benefits in water management and flood control, air quality and outdoor and indoor temperature. The UK’s population is predicted to increase to 77 million by 2050, making it the largest and for England the densest population in Western Europe. Such populations are only manageable with high density urban settlements. It is essential that the value of gardens and green infrastructure are properly understood if this increase is to be accommodated without environmental degradation. The great opportunity is that each private garden will have its own resident ranger(s), who with appropriate guidance can manage their plot to maximum environmental benefit. This could be significant as climate change impacts bite. Individual gardeners will be able to sustain habitat quality at pinch times in the year when reserve managers cannot – by recycling water and protecting plants against extreme weather. Gardens could provide a network of connected “stepping stones and corridors” which will facilitate species migration.
However, garden wildlife faces many threats. Over a third of UK homeowners move house between 3-10 times in their lives, and many engage in wholesale “garden makeovers” at the cost of established wildlife. Paving and decking can cause complete habitat loss.
Infill and new development result in small gardens isolated by roads and concrete which do not form a coherent area for wildlife. The most pervasive issue remains that gardens are seriously undervalued as habitats by ecologists, planning authorities and conservationists and do not receive adequate consideration as important habitats for generalist species.
Gardens are where most children get their first experience of biodiversity and develop real sympathy and understanding of environmental issues. Much more needs to be done to help parents and teachers make the most of this opportunity and for all, turn a developing interest into action for their local environment to develop sympathy and understanding of environmental issues in the young. Studies in many countries are beginning to confirm the importance of contact with greenspace for mental and cardiovascular health. Recent case studies have shown that enhancing biodiversity within cities can reduce vandalism and misbehaviour, while increasing human interaction and perceptions of wellbeing. Getting these messages through to health agencies and planners is a timely and important task.
The Wildlife Gardening Forum was founded in 2005 to encourage wildlife-sensitive gardening, supporting biodiversity in the wider countryside and increasing public interest and awareness of conservation. It is now a registered charity (number 1156608) with about 600 members, representing over 250 conservation, academic and commercial organisations all of which share a common interest in gardens and biodiversity.
The Forum is a low-budget volunteer run coordinating body that helps exchange new ideas and findings, identify research and education opportunities, and engage with national policies affecting gardens. We hold lively conferences twice a year, and issue regular newsletters. Keen members can join one of our working groups, which develop policy in the major topics of Plants and Planting, Research (including citizen science), Education and Training, Human Health and Wellbeing, Local Authorities and Planning, and Horticulture.
The Forum is developing a major website at www.wlgf.org, and Phase One will be launched in November. It is concentrating on providing the science and evidence base behind managing gardens for biodiversity and human wellbeing, and will be a gateway to direct visitors to other useful specialist websites run by Forum member’s organisations.
If you would like to join the Forum (no subs required!), have a look at the small temporary website at www.wlgf.org where you can find out about the next conference and read a recent newsletter. The site also has our Manifesto, which summarises many of our aims for the future.
Finally, it is heartening that David Attenborough, speaking at the RSPB’s “Conference for Nature” stated:
“Where in 1945 it was thought that the way to solve the problem was to create wildlife parks and nature reserves, that is no longer an option. They are not enough now. The whole countryside should be available for wildlife. The suburban garden, roadside verges ... all must be used”
He is right, and we should all take up the challenge of helping wildlife in our gardens and urban areas.
Dr Steve Head, Wildlife Gardening Forum Coordinator.
Updated Information March 2020:
Our website at www.wlgf.org is now very much up and running, with about 200 pages, including a large (and still growing) section on garden wildlife species. The website concentrates on the science and evidence base around garden biodiversity, and included practical ways to manage our garden better for wildlife.