From cutting chemicals to simply adding water, there are plenty of ways to turn your fledgling 'home for nature' into a 'des-res'
A garden pond will host a whole range of different species. Photograph: Ashley Cooper/ Ashley Cooper/Corbis
"It used to be 'splat, splat, splat', but now I barely need to clean my visor!" This has been the experience of a motorcycling friend, noticing the long-term decline in the number of insects he encounters while on his bike. It may be anecdotal, but it mirrors the wealth of scientific data revealing the inexorable erosion of so much of Britain's wildlife.
There are many reasons for these declines, and combatting them requires action on many fronts, from ensuring the right political policies are in place to help farmers look after the countryside, to protecting the rarest habitats and their wildlife on nature reserves.
Much of this falls to nature conservation charities such as the RSPB, but it is increasingly recognised that gardens also have an important role to play for a whole host of threatened wildlife, from hedgehogs to house sparrows to toads. It means we can all play an active role in giving nature a home.
In case you think this is about letting your garden become weed-strewn and "wild" – think again. A neat, tended garden can – with care and thought – be just as good for wildlife. Nor is it about setting aside a little corner. It is quite possible to do things throughout your garden that help wildlife without compromising everything else you want your garden to be.
Each of Britain's thousands of species of garden wildlife has a particular set of ecological requirements. And, if we pare it back to basics, there are two simple things that will have an immediate impact:
Planting the gaps
Every garden probably has an area that is a "plant desert", be it patio or decking, bare fence or wall, shed or garage roof. Adding greenery to any of those areas will help.
Just add water
A birdbath will do as a starter, but if you can expand that to a pond, so much the better. It will host a whole range of different creatures, as well as providing a place for many land animals to drink and bathe.
For maximum effect, the following steps will turn your fledgling "home for nature" into a des-res:
While almost all plants will do some good for wildlife, they vary in their value. Try to grow those that just can't stop giving, be it in pollen, nectar, seeds, berries, or tasty foliage. There are all sorts of gorgeous garden plants that do exactly that.
That's just a posh term for offering different rooms for different guests. Aim to provide a rich mix of "wildlife real estate" including trees, shrubs and flower-rich borders, creating everything from damp, shady retreats to glorious sun-baked hotspots. And if you have a lawn, why not allow some of it to grow long? It can look great, especially when creatively dissected and outlined by mown pathways.
Cut the chemicals
When I say chemicals, I really mean insecticides and herbicides. Anything that removes links in the food chain will have a damaging knock-on effect all along it.
The basis of garden fertility and of much of the web of life is when plants decay, be it wood, bark, leaves or flowers. Compost heaps, log piles, leaf litter and bark mulches all provide warm, damp, food-filled hideaways for a whole host of creatures.
We humans keep the harvest from most of the landscape for our own needs, so it is no wonder many birds turn to us for a bit of supplementary help at bird tables and feeders – for them it can be a lifeline throughout the year.
Keeping the planet in mind
You don't want to undo your efforts by using peat-based compost or too much water, damaging wildlife-rich habitats in the process. Understanding your environmental impact beyond the garden fence is vital.
Do some – or ideally all – of these simple steps and you really will be building homes for nature. For more inspiration and to share your successes and ideas, go to the RSPB's Giving Nature a Home website.
• Adrian Thomas is an RSPB nature reserve manager and author of the award-winning book Gardening for Wildlife
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