Special Report - How to support wildlife

Partnerships between horticulture and wildlife conservation are mutually advantageous, Geoff Dixon explains.

Work by thte Wildlife Trusts mean woods such as Broke Wood are protected in the interests of biodiversity - image: Geoff Dixon
Work by thte Wildlife Trusts mean woods such as Broke Wood are protected in the interests of biodiversity - image: Geoff Dixon

Horticulture controls the growth and environments of plants, so horticulturists are skilled in plant propagation, husbandry and profitability. These skills serve well in the conservation and preservation of native plants and especially endangered species.

Greater collaborative vision by horticulturists and conservators would be hugely beneficial in protecting Britain's diverse wildlife, and improving human health. Increasingly, sensitive professional management of urban and rural green spaces is producing dividends not least by aiding endangered species along the road to recovery as, for example, in the resurgence of otter populations.

Managing the macro-landscapes of our national parks, urban parks, green-spaces around buildings, roadsides and motorways sensitively for the benefit of nature is now well-entrenched strategy. The micro-scale landscapes of hobby gardens and allotments are equally important and there is huge enthusiasm among amateur gardeners for this task. Collaboration between professional horticulturists and wildlife conservators can ensure that the social enthusiasm and energy in the amateur community is channelled to the maximum advantage of our native flora and fauna.

Is biodiversity important?

The answer to this question should be an emphatic "yes". There is ample evidence that a thriving green environment extends healthy life expectancies. Dr Susanna Curtin (Bournemouth University) says: "Protecting our environment helps protect public health because contact with nature is good for us."

We have an duty to hand on a rich biodiversity to future generations. We bequeath nature "because it is there", it produces hugely beneficial "ecosystem services" and because we cannot know its value for future generations. This is achieved through professional groups, Government departments and bodies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency. Britain's agitation for changes in the Common Agricultural Policy aims at increasing the proportion of farm-support payments made under Pillar 2 regulations, which unite farm production with rural conservation.

Increasing wildlife conservation by amateur landowners requires a different approach. Increased collaboration between professional horticulturists and conservation trusts is an ideal way for keen amateurs with limited biological knowledge to be informed so that their gardens are wildlife-friendly. Gardens are crucial reservoirs of biodiverse flora and fauna. Sensitive husbandry creates habitats for insects and as seed and forage sources for birds.

Creating wildlife-friendly landscapes

For three millennia, Britain's landscape has been steadily shaped for man's food production, increasing its fertility and nutrient content and not in the best interests of wildlife. Richly fertile land produces high-yielding crops and such as like couch grass, nettles, docks, ragwort and knotweed. These ecologically dominating plants suppress specialised plants that are often more beneficial for wildlife.

Denuding land of fertility is necessary for the successful growth of many wild plants. This is achieved by continually cutting forage and removing it as traditional hay-cuts in late summer. The harvested biomass takes with it the excess nutrients. The "Sheffield Method" developed by Professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett uses "blanketing mulches" and erodes fertility more quickly. Perennial and other vigorous weeds are removed as a first step. Then the site is mulched with 50-60 mm of sand and seed sown and raked in during winter.

The site is covered with jute erosion-proof matting and rolled increasing seed-sand contact. Jute matting stabilizes the area encouraging seedling growth. Sand is moistened between late March and early April as the seedlings emerge. Little maintenance is needed during year one, but rhizomatous weeds are spot-treated with glyphosate.

Wild flower seed mixtures containing 30 species or more are used, testing suitability for a particular locality. Some will be more fitted and become dominant community partners. Other plant species will develop minor but nonetheless important roles in the plant population. As the vegetation dies down naturally, the stems are left in situ throughout the winter, providing habitats and food sources for insects, birds and mammals. Residual material is removed in spring, burning-off is useful for encouraging particularly valuable and vulnerable species and destroying aggressive weeds such as cleavers and Epilobium spp.


The Wildlife Trusts are very effective conservation bodies. These are voluntary membership charities organised on a county-by-county basis. The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (www.wildlifetrusts.org) is the overarching body uniting all 47 county Trusts. Cumulatively, there are more than 800,000 members. This organisation began in the 1960s as a response to increasing concern at the loss of biodiverse landscapes and their plant and animal content. The trusts are now immensely successful at conserving and protecting isolated areas of biodiversity and much respected by politicians and civil servants.

An example of what can be achieved is seen in the conservation of wet woodlands (carr). These are spread throughout much of lowland Britain and resulted from previous use as coppices providing wood for charcoal makers. Alder carr was damaged by land clearances and the lowering of water tables though drainage and abstraction schemes in the drive for increased farm production. Wet woodland exists on a range of soil types across sand and clays to organic areas in the fenlands of East Anglia.

Consequently, associated plant species are variable and diverse with important moss and fungal species thriving in the moist conditions. Insects such as the sallow guest beetle, Melanopion minimum, jumping weevil, Rhynchaenus testaceus and crane flies, Lipsothrix erans and Lipsothrix nervosa are found only in such damp habitats. Wet dead wood provides a specialised habitat for the endangered crane fly Lipsothrix nigristigma, which only inhabits logjams in streams. European protected animals such as bats and otters are associated with these wet woodlands.

Plants such as woodland horsetail, alternate-leaved golden saxifrage, marsh violet, king cups and in slightly drier areas massed bluebells and primroses make these particularly attractive as "wild gardens". Thanks to the efforts of Wildlife Trusts, several of these woods are now protected in the interests of biodiversity and ourselves.

Other trusts are equally active in uniting amateur gardeners, wildlife and professional horticulturists. Kent Wildlife Trust, for example, has operated an awards scheme for several years. This works in association with the RHS and this year has collaborated with South East and Southern Water emphasising the importance of water conservation and with the Kent God's Acre Project, which identifies the best cemetery. This trust has a group of voluntary gardening advisers who are the judges.

Coalition between wildlife conservation, horticulture and gardening is profitable for all parties and our biodiversity in particular. The latter is crucially significant. Wild species are being extinguished at rates not previously seen. Marshalling support from professional horticulturists and amateur gardeners strengthens the message that biodiversity is important and the means for delivering wildlife conservation.

Horticulturists gain by demonstrating the breadth of their knowledge and involvement in work for the public good. This brings greater public appreciation of horticulture's beneficial roles in sustaining the environment. This is not entirely altruistic - demand for horticulture's products will also be stimulated. All partners are winners.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreneGene International.


Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) was one of the earliest to be founded and is now one of the largest and most influential, with more than 25,000 members. For some years, DWT has presented plaques to amateur gardeners who developed wildlife-friendly gardens. Already they have celebrated the achievements of more than 200 gardeners.

In 2010, it expanded this programme through an awards ceremony held at Sherborne Castle Garden Centre integrating with the horticultural trade. This is becoming an established annual event with celebrity speakers and presenters. Entry to the scheme is open to all amateur gardeners with small, medium or large gardens and to community and school gardens.

Habitat categories include wildlife ponds, bogs or permanently wet areas, bird baths and boxes and bat boxes. Plantings can include wild flower meadows, long grass areas, nectar-rich flower borders and bushes, mixed native hedgerows and mature native trees.

Wildlife management techniques include log piles and substantial decaying tree stumps, compost heaps, no-entry areas, climbing plants suited for nesting and feeding birds and the non-use of slug pellets. Entrants for awards provide evidence of using one or more of the habitat, planting and management categories.

In the first-year there were more than 50 entries, of which 19 went forward for formal visits and judging. Community projects including a churchyard, school and village green were rewarded. Collecting entries and setting up judging are well in hand for this year and the awards ceremony will be on 14 July.

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