Making a wildlife-friendly home very much depends what kind of wildlife you’re talking about. Few of us want to share our domestic space with spiders or silverfish. And rats and mice are rarely welcome. In fact, few of us want any kind of animal actually in our homes except ourselves. (And our pets, if we have them; but pets are definitively not ‘wild’.)
No, where we want wildlife, for the most part, is in the garden. And the best thing for a wildlife-rich garden is benign neglect. So give yourself permission to be messy. Don’t clear up all your cuttings. Don’t power-wash your patio every month. Don’t mend every fence. Don’t cut and burn every bit of rotten wood. Don’t stump-grind every last remnant of every fallen tree. Don’t spray every crack and corner with weed-killer – one man’s weed is another’s native wildflower, and plants in surprising places here and there are the gardener’s version of shabby chic.
One place to relax, above all, is on the lawn. Consider how much lawn you really need, and whether any of it could be left to grow long over the season. Creating a wildflower meadow is harder than it sounds – because unless you take the fertility out of the soil first you are likely to get a lot of rampant weeds. But a patch of ordinary grass left long? That’s easy. And if you throw in a wildflower seed mix, some flowers will take. Most seed suppliers now offer specialist mixes designed for different soils, areas and seasons.
An excellent place to neglect is your compost heap. A regularly turned heap will give you fabulous, nutritious stuff to use, in the spring, but the heap you abandoned because the sides collapsed is the one where you are likely to find a grass snake or a slow-worm. If you want to encourage snakes, try leaving out bits of slate or roofing tiles in sunny spots. They like to bask underneath these. Untidy piles of wood, meanwhile, make good places for hibernation.
The real trick to creating a wildlife-friendly home is learning to take the rough with the smooth. Few gardeners welcome slugs and snails, but if you get rid of them all you won’t enjoy many thrushes. And if you use slug pellets you may be poisoning the hedgehogs that eat them too. (Though the evidence for that is not definitive.) Good fences may make good neighbours, but they also keep out frogs, toads and hedgehogs.
If you particularly want a hedgehog to come to visit you need to make it possible for the little beasts to get in. They can walk a mile every night, looking for food or opportunities to mate. Fences make that difficult or impossible. A neglected fence is one way to give them a chance. Failing that, create a small gap or hole – one about five- or six-inches square, at ground level, is about right. Talk to your neighbours, as well. There’s not much point in a wildlife corridor if it is two gardens long.
Not all domestic wildlife needs to be outside in the garden. Some of it can safely be left to flourish on the outside walls or within the fringes of the home. Masonry bees love holes in soft mortar, especially when the wall faces south – and they rarely do any harm. In the UK, swifts, swallows, house martins, sparrows and starlings love eaves and little holes under the roof. Even if birds like these take up residence inside your loft space, they do not cause nearly as much mess as you might think. Instead of putting up chicken wire, put up a webcam. The fledglings will soon be on their way.
If birds in the loft horrifies you, look into bird boxes. Barn owls require huge chest-like contraptions facing a fair amount of open space – beyond the means of most of us. But the requirements of house martins and swifts, both of which love nesting on houses in towns, are much more modest. The RSPB and other conservation charities offer plans for DIY nest boxes and/or sell them online. Just pay attention to where you put any box. Most birds prefer an entrance hole to be pointing away from the sun and prevailing winds. And they like their boxes to be at least six feet above ground, and away from any branches that would encourage, say, a cat.
Inviting wildlife into your space does not have to be about add-ons. It can be part of the very fabric of your home. New homes now sometimes include dedicated spaces for bats and birds – creating room for nature without causing disturbance for you. If you’re putting in any new surface or structure, think about what it’s made from and how it could be more welcoming. A bitumen felt shed roof can, with a little extra structural strength, become a green roof. A tarmac driveway can be made out of permeable alternatives, to help water drain into the soil instead of pour away into the sewers. A patio can be made from real, laid bricks not printed concrete, allowing tiny mosses to grow charmingly in the gaps. Even a garden wall could have shallow areas of soil along the top, or in gaps among its bricks or stones, where succulents might flourish.
Encouraging wildlife is mostly about allowing creatures space to flourish alongside you. And once you’ve started imagining your home as part of the world, not a defence against it, somehow even spiders and mice and don’t seem so scary.
If you are looking to make changes to your garden, you may find some of these links useful:
If you are concerned that you may have Japanese Knotweed, or other nuisance plants.
A survey of the environment for wildlife that may affect any building or development
To assess any impact of trees growing near to properties
Find an expert to carry out a structural inspection
I've got an issue with the boundaries of my property
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