Diarmuid Gavin: Our native wildlife need helping hand - here are simple things you can do
Thoughtful gardeners help nurture our native wildlife
Acouple of weeks ago, I was disturbed by the sound of the dog barking in the garden. That's not unusual... it's her territory and whether it's a bird in the tree, a deer in the field over the fence or a neighbour at the door, she lets us know! However, this was different, with a slight manic tone inhabiting the bark so I couldn't ignore it. Wandering out, I discovered Roxie, our huge teddy bear of a Goldendoodle, peering into the pond, which remains drained since the summer drought. Stuck in the centre and unable to escape was a terrified hedgehog. Worried that the little thing would die of fright, I shooed the dog away, wrapped a towel around the extended ball of bristles and placed the hedgehog in the shrubbery. This little animal is of real benefit to all who love nature, wildlife and gardens. He and his mates must be protected at all costs and, as gardeners, we have a role to play.
Last year it was revealed that 60pc of 3,148 animal and plant species assessed in these islands have declined rapidly over the last 50 years. Hedgehog numbers, for example, have fallen by a third since 2000, and house sparrows, starlings and common frogs are all becoming less common. The drought of this summer and recent storms caused chaos not just for us but for all creatures. How we garden on a daily basis can impact in a positive way on the environment. I've saved a hedgehog! You can too.
Smaller garden creatures need a hand also. Butterflies happily feast on nectar- rich plants such as sedums, fuchsia and Michaelmas daisies at the moment, and in summer they love verbena, buddleias, marigolds and lavender (pictured above). But they also need places to breed and for caterpillars to feed, so if you have space for a little wild area in your garden, nettles, sorrel, thistles and bird's foot trefoil will provide good cover. Plant spring bulbs, such as crocuses, alliums and muscari, now to provide continuous supply of nectar.
Bees love many of the same plants as butterflies, and different species prefer different varieties depending on the size of their tongues. So, if you can, include some of the following in your planting plans: clover, honeysuckle, catmint, toadflax, borage, chives, mint, echiums and larkspur.
If you don't have time to cut back all your grasses and perennials, you will really be doing wildlife a favour. Seed heads will provide food, and the vegetation gives cover for insects to overwinter. This includes every gardener's friend: the lacewings and ladybirds who feast on aphids, our common enemy! You also have an excuse to let the grass grow long; research has shown that the lawn contains more native species than any other garden feature.
And, tucked away in a corner, create a woodpile - just a few bits of cut wood arranged higgledy-piggledy fashion will make a cosy place for the common toad to hibernate and breeding grounds for stag beetles and the woodlouse. As well as your choice of what to grow, how you garden makes a big difference. For example, if you're operating a chemical-free policy, you will help to let nature re-establish the balance between the various insects.
If you'd like to make a huge difference... plant a tree -especially a native one. Autumn is a great time to plant either container or bare root specimens. If you've got the space, your choice is enormous: hornbeam, birch, alder, hawthorn, rowan/mountain ash, crab apple, wild cherry, beech, box, holly, oak, willow, yew, juniper. Or all of them!
So, take a moment to consider the thousands of other creatures and lifeforms which enjoy your garden as much as you do, and give some of them a helping hand.
One thing that will attract wildlife more quickly than anything else is a pond. My pond is home to a fascinating variety of insects that swim or hover - dragonflies and water beetles.