Britain’s 15 million gardens are an important habitat for wildlife. In England, more land is dedicated to gardens than all the nature reserves combined, which means being willing to share your space with a furry interloper is hugely important for conserving native species. Swifts, house martens, robins and hedgehogs are just some of the creatures who make their homes in British gardens. Unfortunately, many garden species are under threat, with the Mammal Society estimating that a staggering 55 million birds and small animals are killed each year by cats alone. Tackle it by investing in a decent nesting box, positioned well out of your cat’s reach. Other ways to encourage birds and animals include planting bushes for them to rest in such as blackthorn or honeysuckle, and providing a ready supply of food during the winter months. The RSPB’s Homes for Wildlife project offers wildlife gardening advice based on the size of your plot and what you’re able to do. Find out more on the project website.
How to recognise it: Swifts can be seen zooming through our skies from late April to August. They’re thought to spend the rest of the year in central Africa. Look for their long, pointed wings and listen for loud screaming calls. Swifts are very much birds of the skies - they only land to nest in crevices and eat, sleep and even mate while on the wing.
How you can help: Their numbers have declined dramatically in the past 10 years; no one is sure why but one of the possible reasons is that their nest sites are being destroyed. Give your local swifts a helping hand by putting up nestboxes under your eaves or in your roofspace. Taking part in the RSPB’s swift survey will also help to give experts a better idea of where swifts need help most.
How to recognise it: This is the insect that makes people think they’ve seen a hummingbird in the UK (hummingbirds are only found in the Americas). It’s easy to see why - this fascinating orange and brown moth hovers around flowers just the bird would, with a long tongue instead of a beak. Get close enough and you can hear the hum of its wings.
How you can help: Hummingbird hawk-moths are migrant visitors to the UK, coming from Africa in varying numbers each spring and summer. Growing nectar-rich plants will give you the best chance of attracting one. Red valerian, honeysuckle and buddleia are popular with the nectar-sipping moths and many other insects, too.
How to recognise it: This is the reptile that you’re most likely to see in your garden. Grass snakes are mostly olive-green or brown, with a distinctive lemon-yellow and black collar. They can grow to more than a metre long but are shy and won’t harm humans. You might see a grass snake basking in the sunshine in a quiet part of your garden, or in a pond if you have one.
How you can help: Grass snakes like to eat amphibians, so if you have a wildlife-friendly pond with frogs or newts in it, you might attract a snake too. The warmth of a compost heap provides a good nursery for eggs and young snakes, and undisturbed parts of a garden might attract a grass snake to hibernate there underground.
How to recognise it: You can tell a frog from a toad by its smooth skin and dark patch behind its eye (toads are the ones that look warty). Common frogs can be seen in even the tiniest garden pond in spring or summer, with large numbers gathering to mate and spawn.
How you can help: A wildlife-friendly pond without fish (which will eat spawn and tadpoles) is a great addition to any garden and creates much-needed habitat for amphibians. Don’t be tempted to transfer tadpoles or frogspawn from other ponds, as this can spread diseases. Keeping some of the grass near your pond slightly longer provides a safe hiding place and avoids accidents with lawnmowers.
How to recognise it: One of our commonest bumblebee species. As the name suggests, these bees have white tails with yellow stripes on the body, though there are similar species, such as the buff and red tailed varieties.
How you can help: Undisturbed areas of your garden may be used for underground nesting by bumblebees. You can also give them a hand by planting nectar-rich, bee-friendly plants. The populations of many bumblebee species in the UK have declined in recent years because of changes in the environment and loss of habitat.
How to recognise it: This ladybird (one of around 40 species in the UK) is perhaps the best known and most familiar. As the name suggests, it has seven spots on its red wing cases. One seven-spot ladybird can scoff more than 5,000 aphids during its year of life, so they’re gardeners’ best friends.
How you can help: Avoid using pesticides in your garden, keep things a little bit wilder and provide somewhere safe for ladybirds to spend the winter. You can build a wildlife stack (a mix of recycled materials with lots of crevices for insects to hide in) or buy a smaller bug box.
How to recognise it: Male house sparrows have a smart black ‘bib’ and grey crown, while the females and young are duller (but nevertheless attractive). This is the cheeky ‘Cockney sparrow’ of legend - or it used to be. In Greater London they declined by 68% between 1994 and 2009, and sparrows are now absent from many areas of central London where they were once common.
How you can help: Recent research has shown house sparrows in urban areas suffer from a lack of insects to feed their young. Make your garden wildlife-friendly by growing insect-attracting plants and also keep your lawn a bit longer - it’s good for insects, and sparrows love to eat seeds. Sparrows often nest in holes in roofs and outbuildings, so you can help by providing nestboxes.
How to recognise it: Everyone knows of Mrs Tiggywinkle: the only prickly British mammal. If you see one, you’re unlikely to mistake it for anything else. But if you hear strange grunting sounds coming from your garden after dark during May or June, a pair of amorous hedgehogs could be the culprits.
How you can help: As with many other species, hedgehogs need plenty of insect food to be able to thrive in gardens. Avoid using slug pellets or other chemicals and opt for beer traps instead. Take care when you’re using a strimmer or having a bonfire, and provide safe places for breeding and hibernation in your garden. Don’t be too tidy either - manicured gardens are less good for wildlife.
How to recognise it: This is one of our most familiar butterflies, with contrasting orange, black and yellow markings with blue edges to the wings. It’s common across the UK, but has undergone a population decline in the south in recent years. It’s not yet known why, but a parasitic fly may be playing a part. You can see a small tortoiseshell butterfly at any time of year, as the adults hibernate in nooks and crannies and can be tempted out by a sunny day even in winter.
How you can help: Small tortoiseshell caterpillars feed on nettle leaves, so it’s as simple as leaving a patch of nettles to grow in your garden. The adult butterflies feed on a wide range of nectar-rich flowers, which will also attract a variety of other insects such as bees, hoverflies and moths.
How to recognise it: Common darters are small dragonflies, with colours varying from brown to reddish-orange. From late summer, this is one of our commonest dragonflies. You could see one just about anywhere, even some distance from water. They have the distinctive habit of returning to the same perch between short flights to grab flying insect prey. These charming insects will let you get up close, especially when the weather’s cooler and they’re less able to fly.
How you can help: Digging a wildlife-friendly pond is a great way to attract dragonflies, damselflies and a whole array of other aquatic life. Birds and mammals also appreciate somewhere to bathe or drink.
For more information on the RSPB or to join, go to: www.rspb.org.uk
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