Creating and sustaining a backyard habitat for birds and wildlife is a rewarding and environmentally friendly way to not only bring beauty to your home but also help preserve biodiversity.
That ‘b’ word is all the rage at the moment and for exceptionally good reason – it is becoming rapidly scarce in our world through decades of poor land management, overuse of pesticides, increase in pollutants and simple habitat loss through overdevelopment of all available surface areas. But as awareness of the biodiversity crisis grows, we are understanding the part we as individuals can play in not only rebooting nature but giving it a chance for long-term recovery.
The first thing to do is assess your yard and see if you can figure out just who you have coming by. Do you have a monoculture lawn or a few different types of plant here and there? Do you get a range of birds or just a few species? Have you noticed many butterflies or bees, wasps, spiders or beetles around? Once you’ve got a good idea of the type of flora and fauna you already have, you can take your first steps in filling in any gaps.
Native plants provide the best habitat for local wildlife, as they have evolved to coexist with the local ecosystem. They also require less maintenance in terms of water and fertilizers than non-native plants, as they will have adapted to your local climate and generally “know” what to expect in terms of sunlight and rainfall. All of the animals in your locale are also deeply entwined in their existence – the birds, the insects, the mammals and all of the hidden, burrowing invertebrates have co-evolved alongside these plants, getting everything they need from them, be that food, water or shelter.
Before you start planting, research the types of plants that are not only native to your region but also suitable for the type of soil, sunlight and shaded areas in your backyard. Don’t go all out on getting some amazing specimens that love dry conditions if your garden doesn’t drain well after a heavy downpour; understanding the different sections of your yard at different times of day and year can really boost the diversity you can encourage.
When it comes to pruning back and clearing out the deadwood, don’t toss those vital plant remains on a fire – the odd tree stump and other decaying wood is perfect for beasties like woodlouse and other beetles who will churn it all up into healthy soil, and piling up pruned branches is a must for anyone interested in (and we all should be) hugelkultur. You can also weave long and thin branches into bedding edges and fences or use even chunkier ones as supports for your growing vegetables and flowers.
In the United Kingdom, for the past twenty-five years the venerated Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has published a countdown list based on how many gardeners had complained about the pests they encountered, with slugs and snails regularly topping it, and offering advice on how to eradicate these slimy thugs from eating your precious herbaceous border. Last year the RHS acknowledged that, given the global biodiversity crisis, it was time to change perspective – this list was binned, and the Society will now focus on educating about invasive species and how to combat climate issues. Small steps, big changes.
Of course, slugs and snails still cause damage, but as any gardener will attest, it’s an uphill battle and we are rarely victorious. The key to achieving a balance is to recognise the harm they do is far outweighed by the good their presence achieves. For one, these voracious creatures are perfect for compost as they munch on dead and decaying matter, creating nutrient-rich mulch to make your plants strong and healthy.
We are now rightfully being encouraged to use natural pesticides – chemicals have had their day. But did you know that there are pest control experts in your garden already? By attracting wildlife that feed on insects and invertebrates such as birds, bats, toads, hedgehogs and other small mammals, you will see a vast improvement in the longevity of your garden as well as some beautiful animals right where you live.
Many species of garden bird absolutely adore invertebrates: thrushes, blackbirds, robins, starlings, jays, magpies, and owls all love a slimy meal; give them something to look forward to for lunch. Encourage other birds by putting up feeders – especially during spring when energy requirements of both young and parents are through the roof. Lots of seed-eating birds also catch insects for their young, helping keep mosquitoes and flies at bay as the weather warms up.
Too many of us still associate wasps with fear but having these amazing insects hanging out in your yard is a very good sign. Not only are they fantastic pollinators, but also pest control luminaries. The cabbage aphid is the most prolific breeder on the planet, and it’s estimated that, without predation, the offspring from a single cabbage aphid would cover the planet’s surface 93 miles deep within a year.
Wasps can’t eat the aphids as their waists are too slender, so instead, they take the aphids back to their nests where the tiny wasp larvae chow down and get big to carry on the cycle all over again. Just the presence of one wasp’s nest in your yard removes an estimated 25kg of aphid.
We know that the extinction or removal of one species can have a domino effect on entire ecosystems, disrupting the delicate balance and causing irreversible damage. We also realize that statements like these can feel a little “end of days”, but thankfully, it is so easy for us all to create sustainable nature right where we live. Even simple decisions like using drought-tolerant plants and catching rainfall in barrels will reduce your water use, and using organic compost aided and abetted by those creeping crawling things we’ve been told to call pests reduces your carbon footprint by using renewable energy at the same time as reducing waste.
Creating an environment in your backyard that is just bursting with species is essential, and relatively easy to do with a little thought and effort. The good news is that once you’ve made it, it is pretty much self-sustaining with minimal maintenance. By providing food, water, shelter, and nesting sites for so much local wildlife, you can help preserve biodiversity and create a beautiful and environmentally friendly space for yourself and the world.