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Attracting spring wildlife to your New Forest garden

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Russ writes:

As a result of the ongoing coronavirus restrictions, many wildlife enthusiasts are likely to focus more closely on the flora and fauna that can be seen within and from their garden, and in turn how they can improve their garden for wildlife. For those of us fortunate to live in or close to the New Forest, there is the added incentive that a wildlife-friendly garden will potentially attract nationally rare and scarce visitors from nearby woodland and heathland habitats.

Box Bug, basking on a Cherry Laurel leaf in our garden this afternoon

So, in these unsettling times, are there simple things you can do to make your garden ‘instantly’ better for wildlife, that don’t require a visit to the nearest garden centre or DIY store? The short answer is yes, and I’ll expand on this below by giving a few examples that we’re putting into practice in our own New Forest garden. Note that I’m a VERY amateur gardener, but most of the ideas below are described far more authoritatively in Dave Goulson’s excellent book, The Garden Jungle (link to a review below).

Tip 1: Let your lawn grow

Dead easy this one – do nothing and just let your lawn grow! If you would prefer to retain a short sward for aesthetic or recreational purposes, then try leaving an uncut margin, or one or more small uncut blocks. In our own garden, we’ve retained a neat upper lawn close to the house but have left a one-metre wide uncut margin along the border with the low hedge (see pic below). This uncut margin is a favoured hunting ground for Wolf Spiders and visiting Hedgehogs. Further down the garden we have several blocks of uncut grass that turn into vibrant meadows in the summer. This provides habitat for several butterfly species, particularly browns and skippers, and last year we also attracted Marbled White. Try it – you’ll be surprised how many wildflower species will crop up if left to their own devices, in some cases in just a few days. And even the grasses become important foodplants for caterpillars when left to grow to their full height.

This uncut margin grows to over a foot high in the summer, and together with the adjacent hedge provides an important movement corridor for mammals and invertebrates

Tip 2: Keep your margins untidy and tolerate a few weeds

As well as letting your lawn grow, it’s also beneficial to wildlife to leave a few ‘untidy’ areas in the garden. A patch of Stinging Nettles, Docks and Cleavers will provide food for several caterpillar species including Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell, while many other garden ‘weeds’ are also foodplants for butterflies and moths. Patches of Bramble and Ivy in the hedge provide food and cover for birds and invertebrates. And at the end of the autumn, leave dead and dying plants in situ until the spring, so that their hollow stems can be used as a refuge for over-wintering invertebrates and their seeds can provide food for birds like Goldfinches. Untidy areas in the garden are also attractive to slugs and snails, which are favoured foods for species such as Hedgehog and Song Thrush.

These Stinging Nettles are already providing food for invertebrates, and the Lesser Celandines add a nice splash of spring colour

Tip 3: Provide a refuge for bugs and other wildlife

As it’s been such a mild winter, we’ve used hardly any firewood, so I’ve taken the log pile by the house and dispersed it around the garden to provide refuges for bugs and other wildlife. In less than an hour I’d built a multi-layered bug hotel in a gap in the hedge, and several bug refuges dotted around within blocks of uncut grass – my plan is that they will be enveloped (and effectively invisible) as the meadow grows, but will provide a secure refuge for invertebrates and hopefully species such as Palmate Newt and Common Toad that will be attracted to the pond. They are also already providing basking sites for Drone Fly and other early sun-loving insects. Incidentally, I’ve found Laurel hedging to be particularly favoured by basking insects in our garden in recent days, as it makes an excellent windbreak and the leaves provide a large surface area for basking hoverflies, mining bees and bugs; Holly is similarly effective.

These bug dens are simply piles of split logs within areas of uncut lawn, some of which are covered with a few turfs to provide extra cover and insulation

Tip 4: Provide early-flowering plants for pollinators

There are plenty of lists online of flowering plants that are attractive to pollinator insects during the summer and autumn, but it’s also vital to ensure that ‘early emergers’ such as queen bumblebees have access to nectar sources in March and April. I’ve found that Lungwort is really attractive to bees in our garden, and today I’ve noted Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Common Carder Bee, Hairy-footed Flower Bee and Dark-edged Bee Fly nectaring on this plant. Flowering Rosemary is also popular at the moment, and catkins on various willow species can be great for moths at night. We also have a good scatter of native wildflowers including Primroses, Lesser Celandines and Sweet Violets.

Lungwort is in full bloom at the moment, with a visiting Hairy-footed Flower Bee just visible towards the bottom left

Tip 5: Dig a wildlife pond

The effort levels and cost required to deliver this particular micro-habitat are a step up from those above, but the rewards to the wildlife enthusiast can be significant. In my last house near Brockenhurst, a relatively small pond (and adjacent damp habitat) attracted Hampshire’s first Rustic Bunting, as well as Great Crested Newt, Raft Spider, Water Cricket and Kingfisher. In my current house, I’ve just installed a pond that was dug by hand over a weekend, lined with rubber (ordered online), and that sits within an area of uncut lawn – this will ensure that animals entering and exiting the pond have plenty of cover, and that there are adjacent perches for dragonflies and damselflies. A shallow shelf will benefit warmth-loving species, while a deep centre provides safe refuge for hibernating species in icy weather. The pond quickly filled with rainwater in January, but the unusually high water-table caused some bulging in the liner, so I’ve put in a series of rocks that will help to anchor the liner and provide perches and shelter for the pond’s visitors and inhabitants. The next stage is to add some suitable pond plants, before sitting back and letting the wildlife come! I’ve already seen several small water beetles that have arrived in the last week, and the unlined pit that filled with rainwater in the winter attracted Horse Leeches and an impatient Common Frog!

The outline of our garden pond on 31 Dec, showing the shallow shelf and deep centre, and surrounded by uncut grass meadow (which looks more impressive in the spring and summer!)

Hopefully the above ideas will provide some food for thought (and action!), and I really do recommend a read of Dave Goulson’s book to provide comprehensive context. He also extols the virtues of having a compost heap, avoiding pesticides, planting an orchard, and providing bee boxes, all of which we are also adopting here. Later this week I’ll blog about the joys of garden moth trapping – did you know that in an average New Forest garden it’s possible (with a bit of effort) to record over 500 moth species in a year!

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