Make the perfect pitstop for wildlife Welcome visiting birds, insects and mammals as they travel through your garden
Passing wild animals see your garden as a B&B. Adrian Thomas explains how to make them welcome
Right now my garden is home to a blackcap or two. These warblers are a little smaller than sparrows, the adult males living up to their name but females and youngsters having ginger caps. As you walk around you can hear their little ‘tac! tac!’ calls, like two pebbles being knocked gently together. They don’t breed in the garden, but come to feast on my elderberries for a few days before they leave Britain in autumn, most of them winging their way over The Channel and down into southern Spain or Morocco. Come December, I’m likely to see blackcaps again in my garden, but many that overwinter in Britain will have bred in places like Germany. It all goes to show that, for blackcaps at least, your garden is not their home as such, but a vital pitstop on long and varied journeys. In fact, the idea that gardens are more stop-off than residence is true for much wildlife. Apart from the smallest creatures – those with little legs and no wings – or sedentary (stay-at-home) types, most animals seen in the garden are on the move. When raising young, most wildlife has no choice but to settle down for a few weeks until the youngsters are mobile, but otherwise, your garden is simply a motel on life’s highway.
Take butterflies for instance. If you have speckled wood butterflies in your garden (the ones that like to dance in the dappled shadows and shafts of sunlight around trees) then they may be resident. But most other species you’ll see, visiting flowerbeds or flapping across lawns, are travellers. Some just wander from street to street in a kind of nomadic existence within a set area; others are on much longer treks. The painted lady, for example, can’t survive the British winter. It arrives in spring having travelled up from the Atlas mountains in north Africa. Those you see in summer may have been bred locally on thistles by their pioneering parents, or may be part of a fresh wave of arrivals from the continent. In autumn, many are on the return journey south, stocking up on nectar-energy as they go. When you realise that some moths, dragonflies and hoverflies make similar journeys, you get a sense of how our gardens can be like an airport departure lounge full of intrepid international tourists. The fact that gardens offer short-term accommodation for wildlife is not to lessen their value. Just as if we didn’t find a petrol station when out for a long drive, so wildlife wouldn’t be able to undertake their journeys if they didn’t have the chance to refuel or recuperate, and gardens are increasingly being recognised for the benefits they offer. It’s sad that some gardens fail to present the travel essentials that wildlife needs. A parade of creatures may pass through, but just like us motoring through bland scenery, wildlife knows what it’s looking for and whether it’s worth stopping. But create a ‘destination of choice’ and your visitors might decide to stay for a few hours, days or even several weeks. You’ll know when your garden has become a five-star stop over when a butterfly stays supping in your flowerbed all day, or a migrant bird hops around in your shrubbery for a weekend. When these things happen, you can be satisfied that you have been a top host, helping weary wanderers freshen up and prepare for their next adventure.
“Essentially your garden is a motel on life’s highway”
Speckled wood butterflies might take up residence