Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: bird watch
Winter is tough on our feathered friends, but with a few simple steps, we can help them through the harsh months
As you tuck into leftovers from yesterday's Christmas feast, spare a thought for the sparrows outside. We are in the heart of winter and the autumn plethora of berries has diminished quickly. And with all of our recent storms the poor birds don't know whether they're coming or going.
Wildlife plays an important role in balancing the ecosystem of our gardens and needs a helping hand to survive the bitter months. This is when you can make a virtue out of some garden untidiness - the perfectly swept and groomed garden provides no hiding places for hedgehogs to hibernate.
To help develop your own healthy garden ecosystem, begin to think of gardening with nature and forget perfection and neatness.
A few logs, branches and fallen leaves will provide the requisite cover for our resident garden wildlife. Similarly, overgrown bushy areas can provide cover from inclement weather and predators. Even an uncut area of lawn can be a rich source of insects for hungry birds to peck away at.
Garden centres have realised that we like to encourage wildlife and so they stock a great range of products to help. The best seller is bird feeders. These are generally constructed in one of two ways. The first feeder hangs from a tree, usually with wire mesh that birds can peck through.
The second is a platform feeder, in effect a tray that rests on a pole stuck in the ground. Steel poles are good as they are slippery and therefore difficult for cats to climb.
The feeder should be situated in an area that acts as a good lookout post for the birds for potential predators. Near your kitchen window is ideal so you can enjoy the show yourself. And if you don't have a garden, a windowsill is as good a spot as any for scattering some bird seed.
Bird feeders can also be objects of beauty. I particularly like those on quercus.ie - the seed pod feeders are beautifully shaped objects, hand turned in native oak and come pre-filled with high energy bird seed cake. A contemporary bird feeder by Eva Solo, evasolo.com, would be a very stylish addition to the modern garden.
At the other end of the scale, it is very easy to make your own feeder and it's a fun project to do with children (see guide above on making your own).
You can buy seed mixtures and bird cakes or make your own using sunflower seeds, peanut granules (not roasted or salted), flaked maize, uncooked porridge oats, grated cheese and soft fruit. What you mustn't give is desiccated coconut - which can swell up inside the birds - cooking fats or margarines, milk or salt. And always leave out some water as it can be particularly difficult for birds to source when ponds are frozen over.
It is to our benefit as gardeners for the birds to flourish. They are avid eaters of aphids and other bugs that torment us gardeners through the year.
There are three basic requirements for wildlife - shelter, food and water. Ponds are great but a half-barrel or old sink planted up will do the job as well. If you do this in your garden, and then your neighbour on one side, for example, puts up a bird box and your other neighbour plants winter berrying species, all together you are creating a wildlife neighbourhood.
Big woody plants such as trees, shrubs and hedges are good hosts providing shelter and food. Native hedges such as holly, beech and hawthorn provide permeable barriers for wildlife to pass from garden to garden and can make a great alternative to wooden fences.
We've all heard by now of the decline in bee population which will affect our plant life enormously if it continues, but we can help turn this around by planting pollen and nectar-rich plants. A small open sunny patch can be turned into a wildlife meadow. Clear the area of weeds, especially perennial ones with big roots or they will compete with the wild flowers. Gently till the soil and scatter (from spring onwards) with a selection of native flowers. One of my favourites is poached egg plant (Limnanthes) with its bright yolky centre. This plant is a favourite of hoverflies who love to snack on aphids.
We like our gardens neat and tidy but nature doesn't work like this. Habitats as simple as a few paving stones piled up to create a miniature dry stone wall will provide cover for beneficial insects such as beetles. If you don't have a lot of room, even a small pile of dead leaves will make a home for these insects.
Put up a nesting box for birds this spring - for tits, sparrows and starlings these should be sited 2m to 4m up a tree or wall. Robins and wrens prefer boxes below 2m, well disguised with vegetation such as ivy. Or how about a bat roosting box? These creatures are very important for biodiversity. Plants such as evening primrose that attract nocturnal pollinators like moths will provide food for the bats.
Our gardens collectively cover a bigger land mass than all our nature reserves put together. Over the last 30 years there has been a sharp decline in native species of wildlife and flora. In our quest for low-maintenance gardens we have decked over lawns, cut down trees and removed herbaceous borders, and in doing so have made our gardens less attractive to wildlife than they used to be. So it's time to introduce some wildlife-friendly practices into our gardens and in doing so, help look after our planet.
Homemade bird feeder
Get an old plastic bottle or milk carton, wash it out and cut a hole in the side which will give access to the seeds. Pierce a few drainage holes in the bottom, fill with birdseed and hang with wire or string from a tree branch.