Feed your Garden Wildlife

Throughout the depths of winter the importance of the three crucial elements of wildlife gardening – food, water and shelter - will come into their own.  A sheltered garden is a warm garden (within reason) and I’m sure that anyone who has moved from suburbia to the windswept wilds of the countryside as I have knows the value of shelter.  Water also is vital to wildlife and the small barrel pond outside my window is constantly visited by blue tits, wrens and dunnocks and has needed to be regularly de-iced in the colder weather, such is its popularity as a watering hole.  And the third vital element in any wildlife garden – food – has been and still is constantly in demand.  Sunflower seeds disappear at a rate of several per second from feeders as finches, tits and nuthatches approach and take off in a flurry of activity reminiscent of the main runway at Heathrow.  A peanut feeder sports un upside-down great-spotted woodpecker hammering as though his life depended on it (which it probably does) and a mature Berberis is currently home to a couple of argumentative blackbirds squabbling over the berries while another feeds on a discarded windfall Bramley apple.

Providing food for garden wildlife is important and the view outside my window only reinforces how vital it is in a wildlife garden to provide food in as many forms as possible.  Diversity is the key to attracting wildlife to your garden, and to providing a really good habitat while much of our countryside becomes more and more impoverished.

The period between November and April is the hardest time of year for wildlife, yet it is also the time when many animals are preparing to breed and therefore need to be in good condition.  Birds and mammals in particular have to find sufficient sustenance throughout the winter in order to be in good breeding condition in spring, and many insects especially bumblebees and early butterflies, will be coming out of hibernation in a couple of months.  We can provide two types of food – natural and supplementary - and both are valid and have their advantages. 

Providing natural food entails gardening thoughtfully with the requirements of local creatures always in mind, having nectar, pollen, berries and seeds in the garden, and lastly growing plants upon which the food chain hinges.  These are the plants that insects and other invertebrates feed upon, creatures which in their turn provide food for animals higher up the food chain. 

Gardening thoughtfully is what all wildlife gardeners and organic gardeners do by nature, whether they wish to attract wildlife or not.  We don’t use the chemicals that harm our environment and we take into account the natural rhythm of life outside our back doors.  It also means gardening with our eyes open to the consequences of our actions.  I am always saddened when I hear of gardeners taking out hedges, cutting down trees or destroying an established garden in other ways, simply for a new look or makeover.  No thought is given to the thousands of creatures to which that space was a home, especially the amphibians and invertebrates that depend on the shelter and the existing plants in an established garden.  It is possible to make changes in any garden without creating disturbance on a grand scale; in fact this approach can make the daunting jobs seem a little easier as it is more wildlife friendly to carry out these grand changes a bit at a time.  For example cleaning out a pond is one job where the resident wildlife benefits from a softly, softly approach.  Reducing the plant growth in a quarter of your pond every year instead of tackling the whole thing in one go means that aquatic creatures will still have somewhere to find shelter.  Take this approach to other large jobs and the small mammals, amphibians and invertebrates which will be using your garden, will benefit.

Growing berries and seeds for birds and mammals is something that is frequently mentioned in books and magazines on wildlife friendly gardening.  But what does this mean and is it as simple as it sounds?  The answer to this is probably no, especially where seeds are concerned.  The explosion of the wood mouse population in my garden in the last year has had some interesting consequences, from the very good (tawny owls and kestrels hunting daily – and nightly - over the long grass) to the rather less good (wholesale consumption of newly planted bulbs and destruction of pots containing wildflower seeds), but we can learn something from this.  It also pays to use our common sense.  Many plants have tiny seeds, for example the mulleins, foxgloves and poppies, and in general birds and mammals would probably use more energy collecting and (in the case of mice and voles) storing these than they gained from eating them.  My wood mice have targeted the pots with the larger seeds such as field scabious, teasel and greater knapweed as these are going to provide the biggest meal, so leaving all seeds in our borders over the winter doesn’t necessarily help wildlife that much.  The extra cover provided by the leaves and stems will be very beneficial though, so the answer here may be to cut off seed heads that you suspect to be of little value but leave those with large nutritional seeds.

Berries too are not straightforward, as many berried shrubs have been bred with fruits that ripen very slowly to prevent birds taking them early in the season.  These may ripen eventually but it is in late autumn and throughout the winter that berries come into their own as an important source of food for many bird and mammal species.  If you are planting new shrubs and would like to encourage birds as well as provide winter colour, choose plants with red berries rather than orange, yellow or white.  There are always exceptions to these vague rules – learn from your own experiences and observations as to which berries are taken by the birds and which are left alone. 

Providing nectar and pollen is pretty straightforward and lists of plants, both native and non-native are now commonplace.  Again use your own observations as plants that produce good quantities of nectar in some gardens do less well in other conditions.  Getting to know your own garden and where nectar plants will perform best (generally in sunny sheltered spots) is important.

The third way we can help our local wildlife to find natural food is to ensure that there is always a good supply of invertebrates around by growing plants that these small creatures feed upon.  These animals are at the bottom of the food chain and support everything else higher up in one way or another, and although in this case native is best, there are still plenty of non-native plants that are worth growing for this purpose.  Whether it is a direct link (your local robin feeding on small caterpillars and flies) or an indirect one (a fox hunting for a shrew that has been feeding on slugs and caterpillars) these small creatures and the plants they feed upon are the most important component of a wildlife garden.  Looking after the soil in our gardens by using home made compost will make sure the earthy invertebrates are well looked after too.

Although providing food in the natural sense is important, you can still augment what is naturally there by supplementary feeding, especially for birds and mammals.  Most of us do feed the birds now, and many gardeners feed their hedgehogs, foxes and even badgers and deer. Seeds such as sunflower hearts, nyjer, and of course peanuts as well as mixed seeds of all types can mean the difference between life and death for some birds.  The decline of hedgehogs in the UK  is known to be due at least in part to lack of natural food, as insecticides destroy the invertebrates that they largely depend on, so supplying any food for these particular mammals again will help their survival.

Encouraging wildlife to our gardens is not just about our interest in the creatures that visit us.  Many wildlife gardeners that I speak to tell me that this interest is also about caring for these animals, protecting them and having a desire to provide them with a good place to be.  Maybe that is a rather sentimental view of what we are doing out in our gardens, but to me that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that whatever our motivation, the things that we do, especially providing food, really make a difference.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017