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Preserving the natural environment: wildlife gardening

Reg Snowdon of Northumbria MM tells us how to make a difference where we are

There is an outside chance that humanity may stop the overheating of the planet and preserve our natural environment. But excess carbon dioxide is not the only product of industrialisation we need to watch out for. Intensive farming is an efficient destroyer of wildlife; and, unless we find ways to conserve and restore Earth’s green mantle, there will be no natural environment worth preserving. Only fifty yards from our garden gate there is a bridle path leading directly into open farmland. Over the last half-century, walking our dog, we have seen hedges grubbed-up together with their primroses, the disappearance of lapwings and skylarks, unimproved pasture replaced by well-drained arable land and a prairie-like monoculture of oil-seed rape or short-stemmed barley. There is no particular moment when I realised that the countryside of my childhood had gone forever; fields of cowslips I used to walk through on my way home from school; the corncrakes I listened to just

over our garden fence in County Durham, now completely banished from mainland Britain. In fifty years, we have lost ninety-eight per cent of our flower-rich meadows and 200,000 miles of hedgerows. Every year each English county loses one species of wildflower. What is disappearing is biodiversity. Because of the total complexity of all life, its interdependence, this will have consequences far beyond our immediate observation. So, the precautionary principle must apply. This is usually written up with reference to exotic places about which, directly, we can do little or nothing – like clearing the tropical rainforest or over-fishing the oceans. The good news is, however, that just here, where we live, in our ordinary suburban gardens, we can begin to make a difference. In 1962, when we first moved into our newly built house, we knew nothing about gardening except that we wanted a play area for the children and a sheltered growing-place for flowers. Shifting the emphasis to increased support for wildlife began in spring seven years ago when we stopped using chemicals, including insecticides and herbicides. The grasses were allowed to grow, creating meadowlawns front and back. They are mown once a year, in autumn, and shelter over thirty different kinds of wildflower. Our pride and joy is saw-wort – now rare in Northumberland – grown from seed collected locally. Even the

wind and the birds help. As if by magic, a few heath spotted orchids appeared in both lawns for the first time last year. The pond was dug out in our second year – ‘a wildlife garden without a pond is like a theatre without a stage’. Now in ecological balance, it is home to aquatic plants as well as frogs, newts and snails. Dragonflies and damselflies hover nearby in summer. Rosebeds have been ruthlessly eliminated to create a nectar corridor for butterflies, those flowers of the sky, and a nettle patch for caterpillar breeding. Of course, we have a waterbutt and a compost heap. There is a logpile for hibernating hedgehogs and frogs. Our nestboxes have been armour-plated with old biscuit tins after confrontations with a quite beautiful but seriously predacious great spotted woodpecker. There are roosting pockets, a bird table, a concealed bumble-bee nest and two ladybird houses. One myth which must be laid to rest is that wildlife gardening is wilderness gardening. It is not. Outrageous competitors with other wildlife – dandelions and ground elder, for example, or the great spotted woodpecker – must be contained. A wildlife garden still needs weeding; but the faith of the wildlife gardener is that she is acting as part of her natural environment and not as something opposed to it, no longer humancentred but a confessed daughter of Mother Earth.

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the Friend , 5 January 2007