Why untidy gardens make the best habitat for wildlife

People who want to turn their gardens into wildlife refuges should relax and let the grass grow tall, the flowers turn to seed and the hedges, shrubs and trees expand skywards.

A detailed study of biodiversity in town and city gardens has found that they offer a vital refuge for animals and plants – provided that those responsible for their upkeep are not too fastidious as gardeners.

It has also found that many of the preconceptions about wildlife gardening are not true. Small gardens are just as good as big gardens at attracting wildlife, suburban gardens are not always better than city gardens and non-native plants are not always harmful to native insects and birds.

Britain's 16 million gardens are a haven for hundreds of species of animals and plants that would find it impossible to survive on intensively farmed land, said Ken Thompson of Sheffield University.

"Gardens are amazingly diverse even compared to natural habitats that are good for wildlife. Gardens are more interesting on a small scale because they are so variable. All the wildlife responds to these variables," Dr Thompson said.

"Compared with an equivalent area of modern intensive farming, gardens are much, much better in terms of everything you measure, whether it is spiders, bugs or birds," he said.

"It sounds heretical, but from a biodiversity perspective most farmland would be improved by having a housing estate built on it," he told the British Science Festival.

Dr Thompson was involved in the first detailed study of the wildlife inhabiting British gardens when he and his colleagues surveyed 61 gardens in Sheffield between 1999 and 2002. They found an "astonishingly diverse" array of flora and fauna.

They also identified a range of simple measures that improved a garden's habitability for wildlife. "The top thing is to grow more big shrubs, trees and hedges," Dr Thompson said.

"These massively increase the volume of vegetation in your garden and a lot of vegetation means a lot of places to live and a lot of stuff to eat," he said.

"Don't be too tidy: don't be in a hurry to clear up everything when the garden stops flowering. Just leave a bit of stuff lying around.

"There's a mistaken belief that wildlife gardening is something special, something different, something odd and that a wildlife garden needs to be untidy, messy and not something you'd be proud of, but that's not true," Dr Thompson said.

The best gardens for wildlife needn't cost lots of money, and many of the "wildlife" products sold in garden centres are unnecessary, he said.

"Decking is a disaster. One of the findings of the Sheffield study was the very clear relationship between hard surfaces of any sort and less wildlife. It doesn't matter what it is – as long as it's hard, it's bad," he added.

How to get a more natural garden

*Plant large shrubs and let them grow big. Shrubs and trees produce more vegetation where wildlife can live and eat.

*Allow at least some flowers to turn to seed and the lawn to grow tall. Don't be in a hurry to clear up fallen leaves.

*Create a pond for insects, frogs and toads. Think before stocking it with fish which will eat insect eggs and larvae.

*Don't illuminate your garden at night with bright lights. This will disturb many nocturnal creatures, such as moths.

*Create a compost heap – they are miniature nature reserves in themselves. Compost also enriches the soil.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent