How to turn your garden into a nature reserve

As summer days tempt us outdoors, we all have the opportunity to open our eyes to the natural world on our doorsteps. There are 15 million domestic gardens in Britain, and each one of them is teeming with life. Michael McCarthy, The Independent's award-winning environment editor, describes how he turned his suburban home into a haven for dozens of species - and how you can do the same

Monday 19 June 2006 00:00 BST

It's all worth it when you see the frog. Could be a proverb, couldn't it? An Albanian one, or maybe an Armenian one, to partner other proverbs, like: The hedgehog never pricks himself on his own spines. But what I'm referring to is the long wait, the long patient hours. No, days. No, weeks of tadpole keeping, of bringing to term those little black swimming things that begin their lives like fish, and end up like animals.

Their transformation is quite something to witness. This year we took some of them out of the pond and put them in a washing-up bowl with a large stone in the middle, and after weeks of observing, changing the water, removing the bodies of those that didn't survive, it started to happen: the tadpoles developed back legs, then front legs, and then, bam! They were crawling out of the water on to the stone, their mouths magically changed from an Ooooo shape to an Eeeee shape, their tails rapidly shrinking away. They'd become froglets before our very eyes.

Even if you're the most hardened cynic, even if you've got a nose ring and a tattooed head, I defy you to catch the actual moment and not be astounded. It's like seeing the first creatures crawling out of the sea to start life on the land, hundreds of millions of years ago, and really it needs that music from 2001: A Space Odyssey to accompany it, you know, the Richard Strauss Thus Spake Zarathustra stuff that plays when the big chimp picks up the bone and realises he can use it as a hammer: DERM, DERM, DERM - DER-DERM! (Bom-bom, bom-bom, bom-bom...)

That's the thing about wildlife gardening, it has terrific highs. It has sudden unexpected moments, it has incident, it has drama. You'll find visiting creatures, which is great by itself, but you also get things emerging, things eating, things expiring, things killing - "Die, moth!" - all in front of your kitchen window.

It's a concept whose time has arrived, the idea of making your little plot a natural home for birds, insects, wild flowers, amphibians, even mammals. In Britain, a small cramped country in which the wildlife of the wider countryside has taken a terrible battering in the last 50 years from the intensification of farming, it is both especially valuable and especially possible. There are 15 million gardens in this country, with a total area greater than three-quarters of a million acres, which exceeds the extent of all the UK's national nature reserves put together.

Wildlife gardening is different from gardening pure and simple, however. It is the difference between classicism and romanticism, between authority and freedom.

As I see it, gardening in its traditional sense is about control - about training plants to grow in a certain way at a certain place and time, with the aim of providing beauty, or a harvest. In essence, it's about dominating nature. Wildlife gardening is more about facilitating nature, about allowing (and indeed encouraging) certain things to happen naturally.

The two are perfectly compatible, although for the wildlife to flourish, sometimes it is better that a bit of control, a bit of that straining after horticultural neatness, plenty and perfection, be set aside. If you put away some of the pesticides, leave some of your grass unmown and refrain from dead-heading all your flowers, it can make a surprising difference.

The best thing about wildlife gardening, though, is how easy it is to get started. Any area of planted ground, however small, is already a habitat for many creatures - you can get kestrels, even ducks, nesting in window boxes - and if you have a lawn, blackbirds, thrushes and starlings will hunt worms on it. It has been justly said that any garden is a nature reserve waiting to happen. So what does make it happen?


Without any doubt, a pond, even a small one, immediately makes an enormous difference, giving the garden a quite different dimension, and at once extending the range of creatures you are likely to encounter. Here, my own experience may be instructive. I live with my wife and two children in a medium-sized Victorian terraced house in south-west London, with a smallish back garden 45ft long and 20ft wide, at the end of which is a pond about the size of a large circular dining table. This has given us two amphibian species (quite wild), at least half a dozen insect species, three wildflower species and - for a garden our size - a remarkable bird.

Most gardening firms will install a pond for you, or you can do it yourself: essentially, all you need do is dig out a hole and install a liner, the best ones being made of PVC. There should be at least one gently sloping side for things to crawl in and out. It shouldn't be too deep, because toddlers can drown in six inches of water; when we inherited ours from the previous house owner it was 4ft deep in the middle, and we had it made much shallower.

When we took it over it was a sensational frog pond, full of common frogs, (Rana temporaria). Their mating in early March was an eye-popping spectacle. Talk about Hollywood Babylon! It was like the swimming pool orgy at Errol Flynn's Beverley Hills mansion, only wilder. A male would grab a female and copulate with her, but then two or three other males would come and clamber over the conjoined couple to try and get their own thing going, and the whole lot of them would cling together in a ball for hours, unless they fell off, and this was going on all over the place. You didn't know where to look. One morning I counted more than 70 individual frogs, all at it; I almost felt I was intruding.

They produced gallons of frogspawn which turned into into sleek, fat, handsome tadpoles, which in turn underwent the metamorphosis into sleek fat handsome frogs.

But it wasn't to last. On the march towards us were the newts, make that The Newts. A bit like The Orcs in Lord of the Rings.

Newts - common newts (Triturus vulgaris) in our case - have much to be said for them, but are unfortunately greedily partial to frogspawn and tadpoles. When they arrived in our pond, from God knows where, the tadpoles disappeared. We were delighted to see the newts - they are attractive beasts, especially in the breeding season when the male has a crest and a bright orange belly dotted with black spots - but mourned our lost frogs, until we consulted a pond consultant, who told us: "Look. Only about 25 per cent of ponds in the London area have newts, so you're lucky, really. Don't think of this as a poor frog pond. Think of it as a fantastic newt pond."

We did. We do. But every spring, a few frogs still get back to us, do the writhing bit, and leave us some spawn. So to try and save it we take it out of the pond to rear ourselves, in a tank.

We've got better at it. There are many pitfalls. The main one is having too many tadpoles in your tank (I feel another proverb coming on). You need to keep changing the water - use pond water because it has tiny goodies on which they feed - but even if you do, they can suddenly hit a crisis point where too much oxygen has been used up and they start rapidly dying off. Don't use tap water because it has too much chlorine in it. (My sister-in-law's boyfriend, a TV producer who lives in Notting Hill, took some of our tadpoles and successfully raised them. I said to him: "What did you use for water?" He said: "Evian.")


So a pond is a great start for a wildlife garden, a place with all sorts of dramas of its own going on. The next best thing to get results is birdseed.

Food for wild birds has become very big business in Britain: it's a market worth more than £180m a year and rising, with some people predicting that within a decade the market will be worth more than £500m annually, on a par with sales of dog and cat food. It's so successful because it works.

Bird foods today are specialised high-energy feeds such as sunflower seeds, which are immensely more effective at attracting birds than the scraps of bacon and bread people used to leave out on their bird tables. Householders who use modern bird mixes invariably succeed in bringing a range of attractive species to their gardens, some of which are rising in population nationally, almost certainly as a direct result of widespread, regular feeding.

Lesser-spotted woodpeckers, for example, have learned to take peanuts from feeders, and now their striking flash of black, white and scarlet is an increasingly familiar sight outside many windows; nuthatches, delightful blue-grey woodpecker relatives, have learned to do the same. We've had them both on our peanuts.

But the most remarkable success story is the link between niger seed and goldfinches. With their mix of yellow, brown and crimson, goldfinches are strong candidates for the most beautiful of all our songbirds, and in the wild they feed largely on thistledown. But niger seed, which comes from a plant native to Ethiopia (Guizotia abyssinica) and contains a whacking great amount of oil - about 40 per cent - is a treat they cannot resist.

We started putting it in our garden feeders three years ago; within a few weeks there were goldfinches on them regularly, and for the past two years they have supported goldfinch families, because the parents come back to the feeders in June with their young. The whole hanging feeder then looks like a living jewel. The goldfinch population of our road is rising visibly: the adults sit on chimney tops singing their distinctive song, a long twittering with a sort of buzz in the middle which I now recognise at once.

Partly because of feeding, and partly for more complex reasons, some birds are moving into suburban and urban gardens from the countryside. The magpie did it in the 1970s; and in the 1990s the sparrowhawk followed suit. One of the most dramatic sights any garden can now offer is the sudden swoop of a sparrowhawk on a bird table, carrying off a songbird victim. I've seen it once: a male sparrowhawk, quite spectacularly lovely with its slate-blue back and its orange breast, took a starling in front of me, and I'll never forget it. Other species too are moving in: siskins, sparky finches with a double yellow wing bar, have been once on our feeder; and on two occasions I came down very early on summer mornings and saw to my amazement, on our pond, a heron fishing. Both times the bird flew as soon as it detected my movement.

If you take "bird gardening" really seriously, you can have stunning results. One of the most remarkable examples is the half-acre garden in the village of Winterton, Lincolnshire, belonging to Elliot Morley, the former environment minister. Mr Morley has a scarcely-believable 20-plus species breeding in his garden, from willow warblers to spotted flycatchers - and more than 50 species have visited. He leaves much of his plot as an unmown wilderness, and spends between £200 and £300 annually on bird food.


Just as you can lure birds with feeders, and frogs and newts with a pond, so you bring attractive attract insects to your garden, butterflies in particular. But for this you need to go back to gardening proper: you need plants on which the adults (and on occasions the caterpillars) can feed. The best-known of all is Buddleia davidii the butterfly bush, a shrub which came from China a century ago. About a dozen highly colourful species love it, including red admirals, peacocks, painted ladies and small tortoiseshells. We have two buddleias, but they have been something of a disappointment; I did not know why they weren't covered in flashing wings until I learned recently that some buddleia varieties have much more nectar than others.

I think we have the wrong ones. But we do get interesting butterfly visitors from time to time, such as holly blues, which flit around the ivy on the fence; and occasionally we get splendid moths.

One night last week, in the hot weather, we sat in the garden into the dark and saw one of our cats playing with something living; a first we thought a mouse. When we salvaged it - unfortunately badly injured - it turned out to be a large moth of stunning appearance: dark green wings with black markings, surrounded by an orange-pinky flush. We identified it from a guide as a lime hawkmoth, Mimas tiliae; the children gazed on it, fascinated.

Yet more insects come from the pond. There are pond skaters on the surface, and above it are damselflies, red and blue; much larger dragonflies visit from time to time, and the garden bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, crams itself into the flowers of the yellow flag irises which push out of the water.

The yellow flags are magnificent. They come out after the marsh marigolds which also splash the pond in yellow. Plants are our weak point, really. We love wild flowers and it is now possible to buy many of our most attractive species as seeds or young plants, but we have been casual about it. There are bluebells scattered about the garden and at different times we have planted primroses, cowslips, dog violets, and my favourite, ramsons, or wild garlic, although some of them have been accidentally dug up. However, the white stars of wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) show well on the rockery above the pond, and two interesting wild flowers have come into the garden entirely of their own accord: garlic mustard, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, and to our delight, foxgloves.


We, admittedly, have advantages in our garden: there are two mature trees, a cherry and an apple, and mature trees all around us, but perhaps the above demonstrates just how much life can bloom in a suburban plot of just 45ft by 20ft. The only sector which is really poorly represented is mammals. Grey squirrels occasionally swing by, but the foxes which are all around us have never made it into the garden itself.

I harboured great hopes of hedgehogs, and had a circular hole cut for them in the bottom of the gate. But all that's ever come through it is other people's cats, to attack our own. In the end, after several hedgehogless years, I closed it back up.

But then, perhaps I should have known: The hedgehog never travels through the hole the gardener has made for it, as they say in Albania. Or should that be Armenia?

How to go wild

* Creating a wildlife garden is increasingly seen as a vital means of helping wildlife survive and thrive at a time of habitat loss and climate change. Gardeners are now starting to recognise this as much as conservationists.

* The Royal Horticultural Society, Britain's premier gardening association, has come together with The Wildlife Trusts to run a full-scale campaign called Wild About Gardens, designed to encourage people to take up nature conservation on their own doorsteps.

* The campaign's website,, together with the campaign handbook entitled Wildlife Gardening For Everyone, are ideal places to start looking for tips on how to begin. The website contains on-line discussion boards on everything from perennial plants to pondlife, which can be browsed by subject or by geographical location. The book, edited by Malcolm Tait and published by Think Books at £12.99, is a 300-page wildlife gardening encyclopaedia.

* There are some very basic recommendations for encouraging wildlife to flourish in your garden.

* Some are negative. Cut back on chemicals, especially pesticides, because all insects are part of the natural food chain. Leave part of your lawn uncut, (because long grass can be beneficial to many species), and leave dead wood on trees (if safe). In general, a little untidiness does a lot of good - a principle which for many British gardeners may involve something of a rethink.

* In active terms: put in a pond, or at least (dread phrase!) a water feature of some sort. This will instantly widen your garden's wildlife appeal. Fish are for ornamental ponds; if you want a wildlife pond, leave the fish out (they will eat the spawn of frogs and newts).

* Attract birds with feeders filled with modern specialised foods (increasingly available in supermarkets), bird tables and nest boxes. Don't forget trees. Many gardens have no trees. Birds love trees.

* Rethink your plants. Plant a wildflower meadow (even a tiny one) with native British wildflowers, which will be a boon for insects such as bumblebees and butterflies as well as a delight to look on. Wildlife Gardening For Everyone lists more than a dozen wildflower seed suppliers across the country.

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