Wildlife in the Garden

March 18, 2019

Picture thanks to Joe Clark

Like the rest of the country ,East Lothian would naturally be covered in forest. That  means that most of our native wildlife lives in trees and bushes. The variety of wildlife we have is less than on mainland Europe as until a few thousand years ago, Scotland was covered in ice. When the ice melted there was a short period when some plants and animals colonised before rising sea levels created the British Isles.


As  people cleared  the forest and began farming,  opportunities for  plants such  as poppies and cornflowers  were created. What we now value as cornfield annual wildflowers were weeds to early farmers.  East Lothian Council uses  annual mixes to good effect on many roundabouts and grass verges though these have other  non-native plants such as Californian poppies and cosmos added to give greater variety and a longer flowering  season. You can do this on a smaller scale in your garden but  you need to cultivate the ground and sow fresh seed every year.


Wildflower meadows are different. All were originally permanent grass for grazing and making hay. You can try to create one by leaving an area of grass to be cut once in late summer. Rake off the cut material to reduce the fertility and encourage other flowers. The wildflowers that will appear will vary according to what soil type you have.  You can try adding plug plants or seed to speed things up.  You can sow yellow rattle to parasitise  the grass but you need to scrape bare areas for it to germinate in.


Bees and butterflies will use  plants whether native or not if they provide nectar . Any garden  with a succession  of flowers over as long   as possible will hold a good variety of insects . Some plants  are better nectar  and pollen providers  than  others and there  are plenty  of lists  on the internet .  Although sterile or  double  flowers  are poor nectar  sources they  flower for much longer periods and are usually  the best   choice  for  hanging  baskets or tubs.


The most effective way to encourage birds into  a garden  is to provide food and water – the last  for bathing  as well as drinking. Garden  ponds, even very small ones ,will attract  wildlife; put in a few appropriate aquatic plants and you will be surprised how invertebrates,  amphibians etc. will colonise.


 The variety of garden birds will increase if you feed  seeds  such as sunflower and niger as well as scraps.  In the breeding season  confine  peanuts  to wire feeders to stop birds taking  whole nuts to nestlings which might choke  on them. For insectivorous birds  fat is a good  food or you can buy special  products. People  often ask about the effect  of predators  on garden  birds. Sparrowhawks will kill smaller birds while magpies will take eggs and chicks  but there is no evidence  that they have any significant  effect on songbird populations  which, like most wildlife, are controlled by food supply. 


The small birds that are most dependent  on humans now are swifts,  house martins and swallows as so many of them use  buildings for nest sites. Putting  up nest boxes is only worthwhile if birds use them! The most common   box is only useful to a few hole nesters  such as tits. Open fronted boxes can be used by more species  like  robins or wrens.  Often it is more useful to erect special boxes e.g. for owls or swifts.


 Trees and shrub give cover which  most of our songbirds need.  There are many that can also provide food as well as looking good, notably   berrying  types like   rowans, cotoneasters  and crab apples . Some seed  sources  such as sunflowers  and teasel look good  in a garden setting .This is less true   with  thistles , nettles and brambles though these are of great value to wildlife. That is why it is  important  to consider the countryside  beyond the garden gate. We have two excellent  examples in East Lothian with the Pencaitland and Longniddry railway walks.


The idea that encouraging  wildlife will control  pests  is not realistic.  Most gardener grow a variety  of plants unlike farmers  who have large fields with only one crop which is  more vulnerable.    If a plant suffers unsightly damage move it perhaps  into a pot  which is one way to keep slugs away from hostas.  


The reason  for attracting  wildlife  into your garden is simple – just  enjoy seeing it!

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