Giving nature a home

PUBLISHED: 10:15 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:14 28 April 2015

Great tit Ray Kennedy RSPB

Great tit Ray Kennedy RSPB

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Your garden could be a much needed haven for wildlife. Shirley Sampson, warden and gardener at RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden, explains how

Flatford Wildlife Garden in May 2Flatford Wildlife Garden in May 2

There is a magic about a garden. From an early age I have felt it, walking out into the dawn, feeling the dew between my bare toes, the sun on my face, the hushed, reverent calls of the birds – the benevolence of nature in all her glory, bending gently to our will in a place that we can briefly call our own.

I am the gardener at the RSPB’s wildlife garden in Flatford, near East Bergholt, and it’s been my pleasure to develop this garden over the last four years.

The garden, set in the wonderful time-warp that is Constable’s Flatford, is there to show people what tremendous power they have within their hands to help wildlife at home.

Studies show that gardens can provide very valuable habitat and sources of food for much of our struggling wildlife, namely bees, butterflies, hedgehogs, slow worms, many garden birds and a whole raft of other, less obvious little creatures. Gardens are estimated to cover more than 3,000 square miles in Britain, an area more than twice the size of Suffolk. Collectively they could be the largest and most important nature reserve in the country.

HedgehogHedgehog

This is the reason that the RSPB decided to use the land, kindly bequeathed to them by Sylvia and Margaret Richardson of Flatford, as an exemplar of gardening for wildlife. The garden opened in June 2011, and is free to enter every day between the Easter Holidays and the October half term.

Spring is a wonderful time in the garden, as it awakens slowly to the sun’s warmth. The small precious flowers are particularly lovely – little jewel-like crocuses opening to the sun and to the tiny solitary bees that seek their pollen, the delicate beauty of dainty wild daffodils, belying their ability to withstand fickle spring weather; the sweet-violets on a sunny bank attracting the sleepy attention of the first queen bumblebee, muzzily seeking nectar. It seems to have been a long winter, but it is satisfying to know the garden has been a haven during those chill, dark months.

One of the simplest things we do to help wildlife through the winter is delaying the big autumn tidy-up until the worst is over. Dead plant matter and autumn leaves form an insulating blanket over the surface of the soil, providing a warm, dry home for ladybirds, woodlice, earwigs, and hundreds of other little creatures.

Earwigs? I hear you say. Who wants them? One of the most important concepts of wildlife gardening is that earwigs and many other unglamorous creepy crawlies are essential food for many of the larger prettier creatures we all enjoy seeing in our gardens. Hedgehogs, frogs, song thrushes, dunnocks, newts, and many more struggling garden residents are all carnivores, and will be extremely happy to find a thriving source of creepy crawlies.

First butterfly of springFirst butterfly of spring

I still remember with pride the first time I saw two songthrushes rummaging in the fallen field maple leaves in the garden in the depths of winter. They were doubtless after the earthworms, rising to the surface to retrieve autumn leaves to pull below and eat. And the moment of wonder when the snow was eight inches deep and I noticed a chaffinch eating seeds from a standing seed-head we had not cut down the previous autumn. It was a buffet for the little bird, puffed out with the cold.

We have also been aware of another thriving population of garden residents over the winter, although they are hardly ever seen. The grass in the wildflower meadow has been getting shorter and shorter. We know it’s not down to rabbits, and have concluded that we have a very happy, healthy population of voles.

This seems to have been a trend everywhere this year, and has provided a much needed source of food for barn owls over the past breeding season. I wish the voles would refrain from eating my wallflowers and honesty, but I suppose that’s life in a wildlife garden. Perhaps the weasel family that bred on the sunny bank behind the vegetable patch will come back and redress the balance.

This has been the magic of our garden at Flatford – building, planting, and hoping, followed by delight as wrens and dunnocks moved into the shelter of the dead hedges, blackbirds nested in the clematis, red-tailed bumblebees disappeared down holes in the wildflower meadow, comma butterflies laid their eggs on the golden hop, and bees foraged among the flowers we carefully chose for them.

Bumblebee Andy Hay rspb-images.comBumblebee Andy Hay rspb-images.com

How wonderful to know that if you give nature an opportunity, it will grasp it gratefully.

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