Lawns and wildlife

Posted: Friday 6 July 2012
by Kate Bradbury

I often hear people complain that a closely clipped lawn has no value to wildlife.


I often hear people complain that a closely clipped lawn has no value to wildlife. Rather, those allowed to grow long and produce flowers such as clover and self heal, are much more beneficial. I've known some people even suggest digging the lawn up altogether, in favour of something more interesting and 'biodiverse'.

I've always been a bit skeptical of these assumptions. Of course, a flower-rich sward is going to attract a wide range of pollinators, but is a short lawn the wildlife desert it's often mooted to be? 

At a wildlife gardening conference last week, plant biologist Ken Thompson described the hundreds of plant species that self-seed in our lawns without us even noticing. Many of these, he said, are native grasses, which live alongside the rye mixes of the original turf. Lawn 'weeds', including daisies, dandelions and self heal, add to the mix, producing a throughly more interesting sward than was ever intended. These plants might be mown weekly and rarely allowed to flower, but the diversity of plants (and native ones at that) is still fairly substantial in your average garden lawn.

But what about the wildlife? Just this morning I watched a pair of blackbirds and their young forage for food on my tiny patch of grass, which was long until about a week ago - the birds didn't arrive until I cut it. My mum's lawn is a much tidier affair - not weeded or fed, but mown weekly to a neat finish. It's not as alive as my more 'unruly' lawn, but it's the perfect habitat for the ground-nesting solitary bee, Andrena carantonica, which nests in it every year. If my mum dug up the lawn and planted a border, or allowed the grass to grow long and flowery, the solitary bees would have to move on; the short, regularly mown sward is just what they need.

My lawn is popular with crane flies, which dance about, like fairies, laying their eggs in the earth. In turn, blackbirds dig for the leatherjacket grubs, and the odd passing snail is snaffled up, too. Frogs like to shelter in the longer bits, and, lying on my belly in the sunshine, I find countless spiders, flies and other invertebrates living, resting or just passing through the 'forest' of grass. It's no desert.

I'd love more research to be done on the value of lawns as wildlife habitats - ranging from the well-manicured stripey jobs to shaggy swards like mine, right up to full blown meadows (which I'm sure, would win hands down). In the meantime, I think the key to biodiversity is diversity - not of plants and flowers, but of the lawns themselves. If your neighbours have a short lawn, suitable for ground-feeding birds, solitary bees and crane flies, perhaps you could grow yours a bit longer, to see what you attract. It doesn't need to be messy; long grass with mown edges can look very stylish (just check very carefully before using the mower).

And don't take your lawn for granted. Usually the focal point of a garden, it's a space for you to relax, play, and enjoy your garden. It's probably also a valuable habitat for some creature or another. So next time you use it, why not lie down on your belly and look into the sward, to see what's living there?

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Talkback: Lawns and wildlife
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ChristyRose 06/07/2012 at 18:56

I see blackbirds daily on my lawn. Think they are digging up worms. Feel awful when I cut the clover heads off when mowing the lawn but I have a dog and clearing up after him is not so easy with long grass!! :-)

weejenny 06/07/2012 at 22:17

I always think of the flowers we have in our garden, I think we more than do our bit for wildlife. We have two dogs I know what you mean about keeping the grass cut. We have two families of blackbirds in our garden I love watching them, when their young were leaving the nest for the first time a couple of weeks ago I watched the male blackbird he was dive bombing our jack russell to chase him away from his babies our poor dog was petrified

oldchippy 08/07/2012 at 22:05

Hi Kate my (lawn) dog landing strip is covered with Achillea if I pull up a bit then the runners go all over the place and I end up with a large bald patch,Not to mention the skid mark's when Ted stop's just before the bushes if he remember's,But all in all it returns back each year when we don't get this drought we are have this year.Most weed's get the chop once a week if dry enough thank to Mrs Oldchoppy.


oscarbgrace 19/07/2012 at 17:59

I have close cropped lawn to approx 50%, long grass to 10%, wildflower meadow to aaprox 20% and nectar rich borders to 20%. In the longer grass I have Bladder Campion and Birds Foot Trefoil. In essence an area for everyone in my small garden and I hope lends itself to happy wildlife.

geoff fearn 29/07/2012 at 14:54

we always leave the grass a little on te long side as this stops it going yellow in warm weather and you get lot of clover witch the bees like.

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