Your April wildlife gardening jobs
Want to make your garden a magnet for wildlife? We share the plants to grow and species to look out for now
April is a busy month for gardeners and for wildlife. Swallows and house martins return to our skies and orange tip butterflies are on the wing. Ponds are filling with tadpoles and bats are emerging from hibernation. The natural world is on the move everywhere you look. Whether we are blessed with April showers or glorious sunshine, now is the time to mulch borders, take basal cuttings and install nest boxes for swifts. But don’t forget to pause every now and then to enjoy the sights of spring.
More wildlife advice:
Plants for wildlife
Many spring-flowering bulbs are fantastic sources of pollen and nectar for insects like bumblebees and hoverflies. If clumps become congested, it’s a good idea to divide them to ensure they keep growing vigorously and provide even more blooms next year. Crocuses and wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) are best divided when the foliage is dying back. Lift clumps of crocuses and tease corms apart, replanting in smaller groups. Divide wood anemone rhizomes by breaking clumps up into large pieces to replant or split into separate lengths of rhizome up to 8cm, ensuring each section has at least one bud. Dig up grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) with a fork just after flowering. Tease bulbs apart into smaller clumps and replant. Water all plants well after dividing and replanting.
I’m hoping smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) might take up residency in our one-year-old pond this spring. This common newt species tends to breed later than frogs and toads, so many pairs are likely to be mating over the next few weeks. Look out for males performing courtship dances and then females laying eggs and folding them singly in leaves and grass blades. Over a breeding season, one female can lay between 200 and 300 eggs.
To encourage newts to breed in your pond, add small, broad-leaved plants such as brooklime (Veronica beccabunga), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides). If you are clearing rotting vegetation out of ponds this month, take care not to disturb wildlife. Preferably wait until spawn has hatched before clearing or planting. Leave any debris on the edge of the pond for a day or two so aquatic animals can return to the water and check for wildlife before composting.
Supporting wildlife in the garden is as much about what we don’t do as what we do. Finding alternatives to herbicides and pesticides avoids harming a wide range of plants and animals. It also allows balanced ecosystems to develop which minimise future problems. Instead of applying weed killer, consider leaving beneficial wild flowers such as dandelions, daisies, self-heal, clover, sweet violets and dead-nettles to grow. As well as providing nectar for pollinating insects and food for their larvae, wild flowers can help soften the edges of paving and create colour and interest in lawns.
Look out for pests and diseases, especially at this time of year. Deal with any serious issues quickly using physical or biological methods, such as removing insects like aphids with a jet of water or using nematodes to kill slugs rather than reaching for a chemical solution. Pesticides kill indiscriminately, wiping out the insects that damage plants and those that prey on them. Problematic insect populations recover more quickly than predators, and so the problem continues and may even get worse. Usually, it isn’t necessary to take any action in gardens with balanced ecosystems and insects like caterpillars and aphids provide vital food for animals further up the food chain.
Note any plants that have ongoing problems. Healthy plants tend to have fewer issues with pests and diseases, so if yours are struggling, check they are planted in the right place. Are the soil and aspect suitable? Are they getting enough water, but not too much? If not, consider replacing with a plant that will thrive in the conditions in your garden and thus have fewer problems. If my plants have some holes in their leaves now and then (and many of them do), I think it is worth it to know that my garden is contributing to a healthy and sustainable environment.
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Many birds are nesting by mid-spring and species that breed early such as robins and blackbirds may already have young to feed. Both species fledge and leave the nest after around a fortnight, but the adult birds (often the males) continue to feed their fledglings for up to another three weeks. Robins will be on the lookout for earthworms and small insects for their chicks. Blackbirds foraging in gardens also collect worms for their young, whereas woodland blackbird and robin chicks tend to be fed on a diet of caterpillars.
To provide a plentiful source of earthworms for nestlings, try to minimise the amount of hard landscaping such as paving in your garden. Avoid artificial grass and mulch borders with organic matter in spring. Worms dislike compacted soil, so if you have issues with compaction, dig in plenty of well-rotted garden compost or manure, and aerate lawns. Once the ground is less compacted and richer in organic matter, you should notice more worms and their burrowing activity will help aerate the soil even further. By encouraging earthworms, you can support birdlife in your garden and your plants will benefit too.
Creating new plants from old is a cost-effective way to bulk up your borders. Once herbaceous perennials are growing strongly, you can take basal cuttings from vigorous young shoots emerging from the base of the plant.
Creating and maintaining habitats
Of the 270 or so species of bee in the UK, nearly 250 are solitary bees. One of these is the tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva), a burrowing bee which is often seen in gardens, parks and orchards. Females are around the size of a honey bee with distinctive hairy ginger bodies, while males are slimmer, darker and less easy to identify. Tawny mining bees are harmless and can be seen from early April to June. They create cavities in lawns, flower beds and south-facing banks to make their nests, piling the excavated soil in a ridge around the hole, rather like a volcano. Their nests do no damage to lawns or borders, and the mounds will usually disappear within a couple of weeks.
As well as being important pollinators of crops and fruit trees, tawny mining bees visit early flowers like dandelions, buttercups, and the spring blossom of blackthorn and willows. We love to see the first mining bees of the season checking out the bare patches in our lawn. Once they have decided on a nest site, my daughter moves the patio table over the burrows to protect them as we move around the garden.
Eagerly awaited by so many of us, swifts (Apus apus) will soon be scything through the skies again after their marathon journey from Africa. Many swifts nest in buildings these days rather than occupying their traditional breeding sites on cliffs and in holes in trees, but swift populations are decreasing sharply across all habitats. The largest downward trend is in urban areas as modern house design and the renovation of old buildings reduce the availability of nest sites.
One of the best ways to help these speedy aviators is to buy and install a swift nest box, or ideally a row of boxes, under the eaves of your house. Swift boxes are easy to make and swift bricks can also be added to new buildings to provide nesting accommodation. These much-loved birds are extremely site faithful, so they return to the same breeding grounds each year. You might find a new nest box is occupied immediately, but it can take years for the swifts to arrive. To help them find your box, try playing swift calls on a sound system on May mornings and evenings to attract birds searching for a breeding colony where there might be spaces. Swift Mapper is an excellent way to locate colonies in your local area.
Look out for… ladybirds
Ladybirds are a welcome sight in any garden. The adults of many ladybird species munch their way through aphids, though they will also eat pollen and nectar when they emerge from hibernation and when aphids are not available. Not only that, but their larvae are fearsome aphid-eating machines in what look like armoured tanksuits. We can encourage these beneficial insects into our gardens by avoiding insecticides, growing a wide range of plants, and providing log piles and other dead plant matter such as hollow stems for shelter and overwintering.
There are over 40 species of these attractive beetles in the UK, though only 26 are recognisable as ladybirds. Most will be emerging from hibernation and looking for food this month. Here are some of the species you might come across in your garden:
- The two-spot (Adalia bipunctata) is a small endearing ladybird with a range of different colour variations. Typically, it has red wing cases (or elytra) with one black spot on each, but it can also be black with a total of four or six red spots.
- The seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) is the most well-known species. It has three black spots on each wing case and one spanning both wing cases. This common ladybird is a voracious aphid-eater. It can eat over 5,000 aphids during its lifetime, which usually lasts around a year.
- Not all ladybirds sport the familiar red and black coloration. The 14-spot (Propylea quatuordecimpunctata) and 22-spot (Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata) have bright yellow wing cases with black spots. The 14-spot feeds on aphids, whereas the 22-spot is one of the mildew-eating species.
- Originating from Asia, the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) was introduced to Europe and the US as biological pest control. Harlequins were first recorded in the UK in 2004. At 7-8mm long, it is a large species that eats other ladybirds and competes with them for food. Harlequins are extremely variable in appearance, with many colours and spot patterns, but most can be identified by their brown legs.
Encourage more ladybirds to your garden, by creating a simple shelter, we show you how in this ladybird lair project.
Now that the new growing season is underway, why not work together with friends and neighbours to improve the sustainability of your local area? Buying peat-free compost in bulk as a group makes it cheaper and easier for people to move to peat-free growing.
Or you could become a champion with Hedgehog Street and encourage your neighbours to support hedgehogs in their gardens by creating access routes and nest sites.