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Gardening for Wildlife

It is a common occurrence all over the world for people to undervalue their native floras.  Our native flora in the UK is less species-rich than those in other countries because of mass extinctions caused by past ice ages.  However, our native flora is still vitally important and should be considered a matter of national pride, to be cherished and protected.

Gardeners have a long history of having introduced non-native plants into this country.  In Victorian times, plant collectors returned from overseas with many different plants that do not grow naturally in Britain.  Many species were planted in gardens throughout the country and the vast majority remain within gardens.  On the other hand, a small number of alien plants have escaped and become established in the wild; a proportion of these have caused huge problems in our natural ecosystems because of their highly invasive nature.  For example, on acidic soils throughout Britain, Rhododendron ponticum has invaded into the understorey of woodlands, shading out every other native plant.  The species richness and wildlife value of the habitat is also further reduced since very few species of fauna can utilise the introduced plant.

Gardeners have an enormous potential to contribute to retaining our endemic flora and therefore support many wildlife species.  The need to conserve native floras was highlighted at the Convention on Biological Diversity ('Rio Earth Summit’) in 1992.  Since the intensification of farming in particular, our countryside has become increasingly hostile to wildlife, with areas of suitable native habitat often getting smaller and more fragmented.  There are 0.5 to 1 million acres of private garden in Britain and these have the potential to provide essential corridors for wildlife, containing food, shelter and a way of moving around between larger areas of habitat.

A wildlife garden does not necessarily mean removing all non-native plants and starting again, but does involve keeping in mind that every native plant you choose to plant will have a greater contribution to supporting native wildlife.  Many non-native plants do have a positive impact on insects, for example Buddleia davidii is well known as a favourite of butterflies, although it can be invasive in disturbed habitats. 

Features of a wildlife garden can include wildflower meadows, shrubberies, wet areas, hedgerows, climbers and more formal lawn areas.  As woodland is the dominant natural habitat type in this country, many native plants are adapted to thrive in the dappled shade of the woodland edge and recreating these conditions offers potential habitats for many plants.  Some cultivated varieties of both native and introduced plants are sterile and therefore do not provide any nectar or pollen for insects and certain other animals.  They may have impressively large, colourful flowers, but are ecologically worth very little!

It is worth remembering that many of our native plants have beautiful flowers, leaves and fruit. Shrubs such as dogwood and spindle provide spectacular displays of colour in autumn.  Native plants are better adapted to local climatic conditions and are less susceptible to locally-occurring pests and diseases.  This results in fewer plant losses and less work for the gardener when tending the plants.

Organisations such as Flora Locale and Plantlife can offer further guidance and links on native gardening.

 

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