Enabling Environments: All about ... Creating a wildlife area

Mary Whiting
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The best way to get children to think about our disappearing wildlife is to have them take an active part in its resurrection - and it's really simple to do, says Mary Whiting.

Britain's rich heritage of wild flowers, birds and insects is shrinking at a rate of knots. However, even a small wildlife patch can work wonders. And it can be really easy to create.

There are at least five good reasons for having a wildlife area

1. It's delightful. And it could influence children's thinking for years.

2. It's easy. As all the plants are native wild ones, they're tough and self-reliant.

3. It's urgent. Chiefly because of modern farming methods, our beautiful wild flowers are in decline and many are now rare. Since 1945, half of our woodlands and heathlands, 70 per cent of ponds and 96 per cent of our flower-rich meadows have gone, along with 140,000 miles of hedgerows and large areas of wetlands.

4. A multitude of creatures need native plants for their survival. Our two most useful plants are the hawthorn, which supports 149 kinds of insects, and the English oak, which supports 280 kinds. By contrast, the imported holm oak supports only two and the eucalyptus none. With fewer insects to eat, birds suffer too.

5. It's a great opportunity. One-fifth of London is garden and there are 15 million gardens in the UK. That's one million acres, so gardens and gardeners can do a lot.

WILDLIFE PATCH PLAN

1. Try to do something straight away, even if it's just leaving some grass unmown or always having water for birds. It all helps and you can always do more later.

2. Have the largest patch you can and encourage your neighbours to get involved. The bigger the area, the more stable it will be.

3. Have a source of water and always keep it topped up: visiting creatures may depend on it. Birds can fly a circuit of 'pit stops' each day for food and water, so a gap means a wasted journey and calorie loss. This is especially serious in winter.

4. Wild plants prefer poor soil. Ideally, use a soil test kit (from garden centres) to see whether your soil is clay-ey, chalky or sandy, so you'll know which plants will do best.

5. If possible, provide a variety of habitats: some creatures need more than one type to complete their lifecycle. For example, birds need berries and seeds for food, and they need hedgerows, unclipped bushes or mature ivy as roosting and nesting sites. Have a pile of dead wood in a shady spot and just see what grows on it and lives in it. Have a wild flower area (even in a tub) to entice butterflies. A bramble patch has an enormous range of uses - even fallen, mouldy berries are useful.

6. Try to link habitats together with 'wildlife corridors' such as hedges or bushes, if possible linking up with outside land (hedgerows, railway embankments, woodland), so that small creatures can travel safely from one area to another.

7. Try to get native plants that are as local as possible, as species can vary from area to area. Swap plants, take cuttings and save seeds from known sources. Or buy from ethical suppliers: garden centre 'wild' plants may be from abroad and therefore genetically different. Never take plants or seeds from the wild: it can be illegal.

8. Don't believe that stinging nettles are essential - they're not. However, a clump of them in a remote corner can only be beneficial.

A RAISED MINI-POND

A pond is hugely beneficial to wildlife, and having a raised one is good when there are small children around. Almost any deep watertight container will do (check local skips for old baths, and so forth); even a half barrel is fine. Although they're made for carrying things, large plastic Tubtrugs (45cm or 57cm in diameter) work well, too.

- Select a fairly sunny place away from overhanging trees. If possible, partly embed any containers in earth for stability and for coolness in summer.

- Line non-plastic containers with butyl rubber pond liner, although if you soak a wooden tub until the wood swells, the tub will then become watertight.

- Cover the bottom with 5cm of ordinary soil, then use pebbles or paddle stones and (untreated) wood to build a ramp both inside and out, so that frogs and other small creatures can come and go and unwary intruders don't drown.

- Fill to about 7cm from the top with rainwater. If using tap water, let it stand for 48 hours before you add anything else. A bucketful of wildlife-rich water from an established pond will give it a good start. Trickle the water in slowly to avoid disturbing the soil.

- Now buy some plants. These should cover at least one-third of the pond's surface, and try to include the endangered native bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), planted 15cm deep. Have at least one oxygenating plant, such as curled pondweed, and drop in a surface-floating plant such as fairy moss. A dwarf papyrus could look good at one side. Then simply wait for pond dwellers to arrive.

- If possible, group a few raised ponds together, keep the area between them moist and plant it with tall, pondside plants such as marsh marigolds, purple loosestrife, yellow water irises and meadowsweet. And don't forget that frogs need hiding places around a pond or they simply will not visit. If your pond is near a logpile, your frogs will have a hibernation site.

- Small ponds heat up more and freeze faster than larger ones, so drop in barley straw pads in summer and float a small ball on the surface in winter. Never break pond ice - it shocks the creatures underneath; instead, stand a pan of hot water on the ice to make an air hole. If you want fish, then give them a separate pond: fish and other wildlife don't mix. Top up your pond(s) as necessary with rainwater as above.

Even if you don't have a pond

Having some water is essential. Perhaps have a birdbath or two and a 'butterfly bowl'. A butterfly bowl is simply a tray of water containing a few large pebbles and a tuft of grass, which enables butterflies to drink safely. Alternatively, try a bog garden. Follow the same procedure as for making a pond, but half fill the container with soil that is kept permanently wet. Put in pond-side plants as above.

A WILDFLOWER MEADOW

Meadows are grassed areas containing perennial or self-seeding wild flowers. They can be stunningly beautiful, but we have almost none left. Creating a small meadow area is very straightforward, especially since many wild plants will probably just appear. Thin, poor soil is best and there are two approaches to creating a meadow.

Using an existing grassy area

Select your 'meadow area' and mow the rest of the grass as usual to avoid it looking neglected. If your soil is rich and clay-ey, impoverish the grass by mowing it often and keeping it very short for a year beforehand, otherwise it will overpower other plants. The next year, let it grow tall and see what appears. Expect buttercups, daisies, clover, cow parsley ('Queen Anne's lace'), dandelions, hawkbit, shepherd's purse, vetch and, of course, a mass of delicate, swaying, flowering grasses.

You can either leave it at that or put in other plants in small groups. Just clear a space in the grass to give them space to establish. For each group, dig out some grass, fork over the soil and put in sizeable plants. If the plants you buy are small, grow them on in pots for a year first. Choose whether you want a spring meadow or a summer meadow, or (slightly harder) both.

A spring meadow is easier. In autumn, simply plant groups of wild daffodil and snake's head fritillary bulbs to a depth of three times their height. Perhaps add some other springtime plants. Don't mow between winter and midsummer.

For a summer meadow, stop mowing in April and put in the new plants. In late summer, after the flowers have died and the grass is golden, cut it down and leave it for two days to enable the flowers' seeds to finish dropping. The hay is good for both pets and compost. Mow the grass lightly until the next April.

A meadow from scratch

Dig over your chosen area of soil and rake smooth. Put in your chosen plants in small groups of the same kind and water well. Or sow seeds, 1g per m2, mix them with silver sand and scatter them evenly over the plot. Rake in lightly, water well and leave to grow naturally. Perhaps add scarecrows to protect them from birds. Cut them all down in late summer and mow as above. Your meadow should get better each year.

Or try a 'cornflower meadow'. In late autumn, clear away that year's crop and sow the seeds then, or if the soil is heavy or wet, wait till spring.

Spring meadow flowers
- wild daffodil
- snake's head fritillary
- germander speedwell
- cuckoo flower
- oxeye daisy
- cowslip
Summer meadow flowers (perennials)
- bird's foot trefoil
- eyebright
- field scabious
- greater knapweed
- meadow cranesbill
- yellow rattle
- harebell
- meadow barley
- meadow foxtail grass
- quaking grass
Summer cornfield flowers (grow from seed each year)
- ragged robin
- barley
- corn-cockle
- cornflower
- corn marigold
- field poppy
- meadow grass
Fruiting small trees and shrubs for insects and birds
- elder
- cherry
- crab apple (try 'John Downie')
- elder
- hawthorn
- Japanese quince
- rowan (mountain ash)
- snowberry

Even in the smallest space

Have tubs or patches of wild or 'butterfly' flowers. Let children sow seeds of insect-attracting alyssum, marigolds, Canterbury bells, nasturtiums, candytuft, chives, love-in-a-mist, harebells and Shirley poppies; they'll all self-seed the next year. Have a raised tub-pond and a log pile. Have a bird bath and squirrel-proof peanut feeders for small birds (buying nuts in 25kg sacks saves money). Have (north-facing) nest boxes and maybe a bat box. Hang a trellis on big nails 3-5cm away from a sunny wall; train nasturtiums, runner beans, sweet peas, jasmine, golden hops or a vine up it. Every year add something new.

Warning

The red berries of both hawthorn and rowan may cause a mild stomach upset if ingested raw. Foxgloves contain digitalis, which is toxic. Where (and whether) to have such plants depends on each nursery's situation.

IN THE WILD

A nursery wild area, a school garden and rough patches of untended ground around the school sports field provide children at Montalbo Primary School, in Barnard Castle, with ready access to a wide range of plants and wildlife.

Wild flowers grow on the edges of the sports field, hedges line part of the school grounds, while in the school garden, where the children grow various fruit and vegetables, there are fruit trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and a wild area.

The garden, which also includes features such as willow sculptures and story chairs, was developed using money raised by parents and a ú5,000 Award for All Lottery grant and was opened by botanist David Bellamy.

'The children thoroughly enjoy using the space and they all learn such a lot,' says head teacher Mrs Gillian Bainbridge.

Growing plants at school makes them more aware of nature beyond the school walls, she believes, while they also enjoy the adventure of looking for minibeasts. 'It's wonderful to see that excitement when they actually find some,' she says.

A COUNTRY HEDGEROW

An informal, mixed hedge of native plants provides a wealth of benefits, including nectar and berries, and travel, nesting and hibernation sites. There is good website advice on planting and maintenance, but in short:

- Put in the plants in autumn, 30-45cm apart in runs of three to five of a kind in two staggered rows.

- Keep the hedge well watered and closely trimmed the first year to make it bushy.

- Clip it every other year in late winter. Never trim from the start of March to the end of August, when birds are nesting. It is an offence under the Countryside Act to damage a nest that birds are building or using.

- When it's established, introduce flowering climbers. Around the hedge, primroses, bluebells, foxgloves, herb robert, wild violets, meadow cranesbill, red campion, wild strawberries and wood anemones will look enchanting and may just arrive.

- Destroy any bindweed before it takes over. In autumn, stuff twigs and fallen leaves under the hedge to create hibernation sites for small creatures.

Native hedgerow plants
- hawthorn
- hazel
- guelder rose
- elder
- field maple
- wayfaring tree for chalky soil
Flowery climbers
- dog rose
- sweet briar/eglantine
- old man's beard
- native honeysuckle

A BUTTERFLY BORDER

Colour and scent attract butterflies and bees, which is crucial as bees are in serious decline. Explain to children that bees can't see well, so if they fly towards you they're only trying to see if you're a flower. When they find you're not, they'll soon fly off. They only sting when they feel attacked, so no flapping at them.

Lacewings and hoverflies also feed on pollen and nectar. Hoverflies can be mistaken for small wasps, but they don't sting.

Choose 'open faced', 'single' flowers: 'double' versions have little nectar. Butterflies prefer blue, purple and yellow flowers. In winter, leave flowering weeds such as deadnettles and groundsel for early-awakening bees.

Easy butterfly nectar plants

These are perennials and/or self-seeders. Most thrive on poor soil.

Spring: aubretia, columbine, honesty, primrose, sweet rocket, sweet William, wallflower (try the perennial 'Bowles mauve'), Welsh poppy

Summer: buddleia (butterfly bush), alyssum, aster Frikartii Monch, catmint, fennel, globe thistle, heliotrope, hyssop, lavender, marjoram, phlox, thyme, valerian

Autumn: ice plant (Sedum spectabile), Michaelmas daisy, sweet scabious

MORE INFORMATION:

- How to Make a Wildlife Garden by Chris Baines (Elm Tree Books)

- Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips (Pan Books)

For native seeds, plants and advice

- John Chambers Seeds, tel: 01933 652562

- Really Wild Flowers, tel: 01747 811778, www.reallywild flowers.co.uk, e-mail: info@reallywild flowers.co.uk

- Landlife Wild Flowers, tel: 0151 737 1819, www.wild flowers.org.uk, email: gill@landlife.org.uk

- The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has free advice for schools, including a document on wildlife gardens. To register, e-mail  jackychave@rhs. org.uk

- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds includes gardening advice, www.rspb.org.uk

- Tubtrugs supplier, tel: 01455 848184, www.tubtrugs.com, e-mail: sales@faulks.co.uk

- Wiggly Wigglers supplies a range of products from seeds to wormeries, www.wigglywigglers.co.uk

- The Wildlife Trusts, www.wildlifetrusts.org.

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