Do we really want wildlife in our gardens?

by Richard Jones

I'm afraid I've been rather disparaging about fat balls and landscape gardeners again.

Bumblebee on Centaurea cyanus cornflowerI’m afraid I’ve been rather disparaging about fat balls and landscape gardeners again. It all came out at the Kent Wildlife Conference, held on Saturday at the University of Greenwich’s swanky new Medway Campus, down in Chatham.

The theme of the conference was ‘The Natural History of North West Kent’, which means the Thames Gateway and the urban tendrils sprawling from London.

I was speaking on brownfield insects, and made the case that although derelict sites with heaps of bulldozed rubble, may at first look unappealing and unattractive, they are nevertheless home to 12–14 per cent of all our red data book and nationally scarce insect species; that’s more than you find in ancient woodlands or on chalk downs.

The reason they are so important is that the well-drained substrate (usually including crushed brick and concrete) produces a sparse vegetation of mainly annual wildflowers, and areas of bare ground that rapidly warm up in the sun. This favours the warmth-loving insects that elsewhere in Britain live on ‘natural’ warm habitats like chalk downs, sandy heaths, dunes and coastal cliffs — habitats which are also well-drained, with sparse vegetation and areas of bare ground. These insects are rare in the UK, because they are right on the northern or western edges of their European ranges here. They need the hot dry brownfield microhabitat to survive.

These insect-rich brownfields, especially in Kent, are rapidly disappearing under new housing developments. But what really gets me going is not the habitat destruction of the bulldozers and the bricklayers, because there is always a bit of former chalkpit or disturbed land around the edges where some of these scarce and unusual insects can hang on; it is the habitat desecration of the landscape architects who smother and pollute those remaining bits of well-drained soil with the likes of cherry laurel and plush mown lawn.

The new housing developments in south-east England remind me of Anville, the uniform town that is the home of The Cat in the Hat. Architects, it seems, aspire to build tidy well-groomed, low-maintenance houses. And we, presumably, aspire to live in them. Notice how green it all is. Not brown. Green. But this is a wildlife desert. The wild life has been erased.

The greenwashing of brownfields, or rather its prevention, is a difficult message to get across to architects. But I try. It is, perhaps, as difficult as the message to gardeners that tidy, well-groomed, low-maintenance gardens are not wildlife-friendly at all.

And it is no good simply putting up a fat ball to attract some passing blue-tits. They will not be nesting in the neat topiary or foraging for insects on the green baize lawns of Anville or any of those other stylized Lego housing developments. They will be living somewhere much rougher. Much more brown. Much less green.

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Talkback: Do we really want wildlife in our gardens?
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Gardeners' World Web User 26/10/2011 at 15:44

Thanks for your comments, I've been thinking these thoughts for years, is it a marketing ploy for all of those companies who sell various attractive wildlife products to pretty-up our gardens, animals and wildlife would much prefer a wilderness to a pressteen garden, do you think there is a half way that we can all go to where we can please ourselves nad the wildlife....

Gardeners' World Web User 26/10/2011 at 17:04

I think there is, Frenchie, and many gardeners are trying to achieve it. We Should be like the farmers and put aside part of our garden for wildlife. I'm with you about lawns, Richard Many of the loveliest gardens have done away with such and have wild flower meadows to stroll through. As the price of western style food goes up because of increased demand it will be even more important for gardeners in this country to encourage pollinating insects to help vegetable growers, whether commercial or domestic, get better and better crops. I get as much a thrill from seeing beautiful bees, butterflies and birds in my garden as I get from a beautiful flower. But there is more satisfaction from hearing the appreciation of visitors of visitors to my garden who find my approach novel but lovely and definitely not boring which the droneof lawn mowers definitely is to me.

Gardeners' World Web User 26/10/2011 at 19:16

I totally agree with you. In the 60's when I came to this country,london was still full of bombed out buildings. In this chaos, Greater rosebay wiloowherb grew in abundance,and their were butterflies/moths everywhere night and day! But now,no willowherb,hardly any butterfies or moths. So much for progress!!

Gardeners' World Web User 27/10/2011 at 07:08

And just for those people who are not Dr Seuss aficionados, here's the link to the Cat in the Hat trailer. The requisite image is 5 seconds in.

Gardeners' World Web User 27/10/2011 at 11:33

The cat-in-the-hat image shows the problem well, and similarly green-but-sterile landscapes form the backdrop to both Tellytubbies and In The Night Garden - are we brain-washing our kids?

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