The fight to bring wildlife back to gardens

Wildlife homes may not work but Matthew Appleby finds a changing habitat is driving UK species away.

The garden industry is being encouraged to promote the benefits of gardeners attracting wildlife to their plots, despite the suggestion from Gardening Which magazine that many "wildlife homes" do not work.

Meanwhile, writing in The Telegraph two weeks ago, University of Sheffield senior lecturer Ken Thompson said gardeners should not buy hedgehog or bee boxes from garden centres, although bird boxes are okay.

However, according to Dr Jennifer Owen's new book, Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study, which was launched at last week's Wildlife Gardening Forum conference at RHS Horticulture Halls in London, the decline in the amount of wildlife in gardens is worrying.

Owen's 30-year study shows wildlife numbers in gardens have plummeted since 1972, despite the best efforts of the industry and campaigners to attract bugs, bees and badgers. The ecologist found 2,673 plants and animals in her suburban Leicester garden during her 1972-2001 survey, including 474 plants, 1,997 insects and 138 other invertebrates, as well as 54 birds and seven mammals.

But over the years she noticed a sharp decline. Hoverflies numbered 43,749 from 1972-86 and 16,987 from 1987-2001. Butterflies recorded were at 172 in 1973 but fell to 19 by 2001. Moth numbers dived from 622 to 132 over the same period and common wasps fell from 123 in 1972 to seven in 2001.

Gardeners are clearly keen to do their bit, as evidenced by the wildlife market, which is worth £365m for wild bird food alone. Westland (Peckish bird food and feeders) and Town & Country (with bird boxes) are among those companies that have entered it this year. However, some product offerings have been criticised.

RHS science head Dr Roger Williams agrees that there is a lot that gardeners can do to attract wildlife to their gardens without spending money. But he adds: "Some people get excited about buying something new. And if that gets them into doing something (about this) it has to be a good thing." He says that ultimately, the information available about the costs and benefits of wildlife products needs to improve.

Plants that attract wildlife, with exotics surprisingly mentioned as being just as good as natives, seem to be a big opportunity for an industry wanting to grab the wildlife gardener pound. Some 46 species of moths recorded by Owen used 40 native plants, while 38 species used 75 alien plant species. Owen says: "There is every indication that alien plant species are widely acceptable as food for moth caterpillars."

Wildlife Gardening Forum chairman Dr Steve Head says: "There's obviously plants you can buy that are beneficial." But he adds that products on the market that do not work send a bad message. "People should be able to buy products proven to have an effect but there are no controls at present."

And what is to blame for the decline of habitat and garden wildlife? Head knows he is being controversial when he points the finger at TV makeover shows like Ground Force for killing off garden wildlife. He spoke out against the show at a talk on garden wildlife at last week's conference, suggesting that the popularity of such programmes has lead to a frequent and dramatic change to the landscape of UK gardens and the loss of habitat for the common varieties of wildlife.

Head says: "The bad news is that one-third of UK householders move house three to 10 times in their lives and whenever they do, they have a garden makeover. Ground Force has done more against urban wildlife gardening than anything I can think of. It's quick television-friendly crap. I practically swear whenever I see a picture of Alan Titchmarsh."

He takes this controversy further, saying that the UK ecology hierarchy is focusing on throwing money on conserving the wrong species and should stick to keeping mainstream wildlife common in gardens.

Head says: "Gardeners will never support really rare species such as the otter or the avocet. Many hardliners consider gardens irrelevant to conservation because they are not a classic semi-natural habitat. The UK invented conservation and has always focused on our own rare species rather than overall ecosystems. We spend a lot on rare species but that makes very little difference overall."

Head points out that spending money on rare lady slipper orchids, large copper butterfly and ospreys is pointless when "we allow common species and habitats to decline, such as the frog, toad, hedgehog and small tortoiseshell butterfly".

It is these common species that the garden industry must concentrate on by helping gardeners build ponds and use plants that attract them, forum members suggest.

MOTH FOOD PLANTS
- Buddleja davidii
- Potentilla fruticosa
- Prunus cerasifera
- Rosa
- Lamium maculatum
- Salix fragilis
- Ribes sanguineum
- Crataegus monogyna
- Leucanthemum x superbum
- Ribes uva-crispa
- Origanum majorana
- Aster novi-belgii
- Iberis sempervirens
- Urtica dioica
- Petroselinum crispum

Source: Dr Jennifer Owen, Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study.


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