Dis­ap­pear­ing gar­dens

Is it in­evitable that wildlife can­not thrive in mod­ern cities, or should we all be liv­ing up to our rep­u­ta­tion as a gar­den­ing na­tion?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Kate Brad­bury Il­lus­tra­tions Elly Wal­ton

Is it time we called a halt to the raft of deck­ing and acres of fake grass that are such bad news for the na­tion’s wildlife?

Not long ago I turned an unloved Brighton court­yard into a thriv­ing wildlife oa­sis. Be­fore I took the deck­ing up there was vir­tu­ally no wildlife at all – there was nei­ther food nor shel­ter in this bar­ren ar­ti­fi­cial land­scape. But within just two months of ‘un­but­ton­ing the earth’, dig­ging a pond, lay­ing a lawn and plant­ing na­tive shrubs, I had breed­ing leaf­cut­ter bees, dam­sel­flies and drag­on­flies, sev­eral species of but­ter­fly and a small colony of 30 house spar­rows, which would take it in turns to bathe in my pond.

It might not seem such a huge deal, but it was – es­pe­cially as so many of my neigh­bours were busy paving, deck­ing and fake-turf­ing their gar­dens. I cre­ated a habi­tat where there hadn’t been one for around 30 years. And the wildlife moved in straight away.

Sadly, my story is an un­usual one. Around the coun­try, which of­ten likes to style it­self

as a ‘na­tion of gar­den­ers’, our gar­dens are fast dis­ap­pear­ing. In a re­port pub­lished in 2016, the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety (RHS) said the per­cent­age of front gar­dens lost to paving, con­crete or gravel had risen to 24 per cent, up from just 8 per cent in 2005. The re­sults, based on a poll of 1,500 peo­ple, sug­gested that more than 4.5 mil­lion of Bri­tain’s front gar­dens were en­tirely paved, while 7.2 mil­lion were mostly paved.

An­other grim re­port, pub­lished by Lon­don Wildlife Trust in 2011, com­pared aerial sur­veys of Lon­don taken in 1998 and 2006. It found that do­mes­tic gar­dens (both front and back) made up nearly 24 per cent of the Lon­don’s to­tal area, but that in those eight years nearly two thirds of its front gar­dens had been cov­ered with hard sur­faces, while the amount of green space in back gar­dens had shrunk, due to gar­den of­fices.

“An area of veg­e­tated gar­den equiv­a­lent to 21 times the size of Hyde Park was lost be­tween 1998 and 2006,” said re­port au­thor Chloe Smith. That’s an av­er­age of two Hyde Parks per year (and a fur­ther 14 since 2011).

The tragic loss of gar­dens is more preva­lent in ur­ban ar­eas, where space is at more of a pre­mium. Front gar­dens are paved to park cars, a trend partly driven by on-street park­ing charges, while back gar­dens are lost to any­thing from gar­den of­fices to low­main­te­nance paving, deck­ing and fake lawns. One plas­tic-grass com­pany told me they’re see­ing 10 to 15 per cent growth year-on-year. That’s 10–15 per cent fewer lawns per year, and 10–15 per cent less food for birds and wildlife.

By opt­ing for the kind of easy ‘out­door rooms’ de­picted in glossy photo shoots rather than lush green spa­ces, we’re turn­ing our ur­ban gar­dens from green to grey. Some are be­ing lost com­pletely – for ex­am­ple, when a de­cent-sized house and gar­den is grabbed by de­vel­op­ers, who then knock the home down to use the site as ‘brown­field’ for sev­eral new houses or even a block of flats.

Taken to­gether, Bri­tain’s gar­dens take up more land than its na­ture re­serves. We’re treat­ing them as any­thing but.

This loss of gar­dens is cat­a­strophic for wildlife. The paving over of one gar­den may be of no sig­nif­i­cance in the greater scheme of things, but the cu­mu­la­tive loss of a street’s worth of gar­dens puts wildlife at risk. While no re­search has been specif­i­cally con­ducted in this area, we know that gar­dens – com­pris­ing a lawn, shrubs and flow­er­ing plants – pro­vide cru­cial food and shel­ter for wildlife. We also know that paving stones, deck­ing and fake turf of­fer very lit­tle by com­par­i­son.

We know, too, that hedge­hogs have de­clined by 50 per cent since the turn of the cen­tury, that but­ter­flies are van­ish­ing from towns and cities faster than the coun­try­side, and that house spar­rows suf­fer greater losses in ur­ban ar­eas. Cov­er­ing roughly the same pe­riod in which Chloe Smith noted

the huge loss of Lon­don gar­dens, an­other sur­vey, this time by the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO), found that the cap­i­tal’s house spar­row pop­u­la­tion fell by 60 per cent be­tween 1994 and 2004.

And yet, it’s al­most ac­cepted as the new nor­mal. Since writ­ing my book, The Bum­ble­bee Flies Any­way, peo­ple have asked me: “Why don’t you live in the coun­try­side?”, as if, as a na­ture lover, I should just ac­cept that our towns and cities are a lost cause for wildlife. My re­sponse is al­ways a slightly blunt: “Why should I?”

Why shouldn’t we have wildlife in our cities? It sets a dan­ger­ous prece­dent when so many of us are happy to ac­cept that we’ve made our cities so un­wel­com­ing to wildlife, that it’s as­sumed a na­ture lover would want to move to the coun­try­side.

It would fol­low that it’s ac­cept­able that chil­dren grow­ing up in the coun­try­side have wilder child­hoods than those in ur­ban ar­eas. That those in the coun­try­side have more ac­cess to green space and its many in­ter­linked ben­e­fits. More peo­ple live in cities and their sub­urbs, and there­fore more city dwellers vote in gen­eral elec­tions. Ac­cept­ing a dearth of wildlife in towns and cities isn’t just de­press­ing: it would have far-reach­ing con­se­quences. Those who sim­ply do not know the ben­e­fits of the nat­u­ral world will never fight (or vote) to save it.

Also, it’s not just wildlife that ben­e­fits from gar­dens. RHS re­search found that plants help mit­i­gate the ef­fects of cli­mate change. Their roots ab­sorb wa­ter, help­ing to pre­vent flood­ing and soil ero­sion. Their branches knit to­gether to help re­duce the ve­loc­ity of winds and their leaves lower tem­per­a­tures through res­pi­ra­tion and by pro­vid­ing shade. I can’t help but won­der if that many Hyde Parks’ worth of gar­dens hadn’t been lost since 1996, would Lon­don have been so hot in the heat­wave in sum­mer?

“Gar­dens play a cru­cial role in ur­ban and sub­ur­ban ar­eas,” says He­len Bo­s­tock, se­nior hor­ti­cul­tural ad­vi­sor at the RHS. “And they will be­come even more im­por­tant as our cli­mate changes. But we know that more than five mil­lion front gar­dens have no plants at all – which is bad news for wildlife and the en­vi­ron­ment in gen­eral.”

Green space boosts our men­tal and phys­i­cal well-be­ing, too. Nu­mer­ous peer­re­viewed stud­ies have shown that spend­ing time out­doors – do­ing phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, con­nect­ing with na­ture or nur­tur­ing plants – im­proves men­tal health and low­ers stress. It can com­bat high blood pres­sure, as well as im­prove over­all fit­ness. If there’s a sin­gle rea­son not to have a gar­den (and, im­por­tantly, a gar­den for wildlife), I haven’t found it yet.

More than ever, we need gar­dens in our towns and cities, yet over­whelm­ingly we’re get­ting rid of them. What’s more, as our pop­u­la­tion in­creases, new-build de­vel­op­ments bring our cities butting up against the coun­try­side, chip­ping away at green­belt, wood­land and those lit­tle anony­mous patches of ‘edge­land’ where we can walk, re­lax and play.

By 2050, ac­cord­ing to UN es­ti­mates, 66 per cent of the world pop­u­la­tion will be ur­ban. If we ac­cept that the town mouse is less abun­dant than the coun­try mouse, then surely we’re ac­cept­ing fur­ther, dra­matic losses to our wildlife pop­u­la­tions?

I’m all too aware that I’m writ­ing this fea­ture for a wildlife mag­a­zine, and that you, dear reader, prob­a­bly have a lovely wildlife gar­den. And yet some na­ture lovers do see the nat­u­ral world as some­thing other than what’s out­side their back door. Per­haps there’s room for im­prove­ment in your gar­den and you, as a na­ture lover, are best placed to make changes.

As a na­tion we need to ac­cept, in­deed wel­come, wildlife back into our homes and gar­dens. We need to rel­ish bats in the roof, and spar­rows, star­lings and swifts un­der the eaves. That starts with me and you. What could you do at home to help wildlife? And, more im­por­tantly, how can you in­spire your neigh­bours?

Paved gar­dens don’t have to be a wildlife desert. Re­cently I judged the Wildlife Gar­den­ing cat­e­gory as part of ‘Brighton and Hove in Bloom’. One gar­den I rated as be­ing among the best for wildlife was ac­tu­ally paved at the front. But you could barely tell it was paved as it was so crammed with pots and wa­ter fea­tures that it looked like a reg­u­lar gar­den. The own­ers proudly told me where the hedge­hogs sleep, tucked just un­der a large pot of laven­der. “It’s the per­fect place for them to rest dur­ing the day,” they told me.

Out­side the na­ture-lovers’ ‘wildlife bub­ble’, among the wider pub­lic, there are more signs

“The cu­mu­la­tive loss of a street’s worth of gar­dens puts wildlife at risk.”

of hope. The Hedge­hog Street cam­paign, launched in 2011, has so far in­spired more than 50,000 ‘Hedge­hog Cham­pi­ons’ to open up their gar­dens for hedge­hogs. The cam­paign en­cour­ages peo­ple to talk to their neigh­bours. You need only one en­thu­si­as­tic hedge­hog fan on a street and, with some gen­tle en­cour­age­ment and ed­u­ca­tion, ev­ery­one is cre­at­ing holes in or be­neath their fences so hedge­hogs can go be­tween gar­dens.

Fo­cus­ing on cre­at­ing habi­tats for one species has knock-on ben­e­fits for oth­ers, too. And, if you’re ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing homes for wildlife in your gar­den, then you’re more likely to be con­nected with it and less likely to lay paving stones, deck­ing or fake turf.

The vast amount of new hous­ing Bri­tain needs doesn’t have to be dis­as­trous for wildlife. The RSPB, Bar­ratt Homes and Ayles­bury Vale Dis­trict Coun­cil have been col­lab­o­rat­ing on a new na­ture­friendly hous­ing pro­ject at Kings­brook in Buck­ing­hamshire. When com­plete, it will con­sist of three new vil­lages built on for­mer farm­land, con­tain­ing nearly 2,500 homes. Its aim is to be noth­ing less than the bench­mark for wildlife-friendly new-build hous­ing.

The homes fea­ture swift and bat boxes, gar­dens are be­ing planted with fruit trees

and gar­den fences will have holes for hedge­hogs and other wildlife to travel through. Out­side the gar­dens, pub­lic ar­eas in the de­vel­op­ment will ul­ti­mately be 60 per cent green space – or­chards, wild­flower mead­ows, newt ponds and tree-lined av­enues. There will be nest­boxes for kestrels and owls.

Kings­brook’s show gar­dens are planted with wildlife in mind and new home­own­ers are given in­for­ma­tion on wildlife gar­den­ing. The first 300 fam­i­lies have al­ready moved in. Some of them chose the de­vel­op­ment specif­i­cally for its wildlife cre­den­tials, but oth­ers didn’t – what will they make of it?

“We’re hop­ing to in­spire plan­ners and de­vel­op­ers – show them just how much it’s pos­si­ble to in­cor­po­rate in new-build de­vel­op­ments,” says the RSPB’s Adrian Thomas, who is work­ing with Bar­ratt Homes on the cre­ation of green space. “But we also want the peo­ple who come to live here to reap the ben­e­fits. We, as na­ture lovers, know the ben­e­fits that can come from liv­ing in such a wildlife-rich place, and part of the Kings­brook pro­ject is help­ing new com­mu­ni­ties get the best out of the en­vi­ron­ment around them.”

Adrian and the RSPB hope that Kings­brook will in­spire sim­i­lar new de­vel­op­ments through­out the UK, where wildlife is con­sid­ered from the start of the de­sign process. One promis­ing sign is that Bar­ratt Homes has in­vested in a new de­sign of swift brick, which is cheap to man­u­fac­ture and quick and easy for any brick­layer to in­stall with­out com­pli­cated mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Will other build­ing de­vel­op­ers fol­low suit?

Thou­sands of peo­ple have signed up to the Green­ing Grey Bri­tain cam­paign run by the RHS – each one pledg­ing to rein­vig­o­rate their front gar­den by plant­ing any­thing from a win­dow­box to a tree, shrub or clim­ber. The idea is to com­pletely green the grey. As the cam­paign grows, so will the gar­dens. And so, hope­fully, will the wildlife.

I no longer live in the flat with the gar­den that in­spired my book. I sold it to a woman who feeds the spar­rows and grows plants out the front. She emails me, telling me about the wildlife and that makes me happy. I’ve had an of­fer ac­cepted on a house with a big­ger gar­den, where I’ve been told there are hedge­hogs.

As soon as I move in, I’ll be sign­ing up to Hedge­hog Street and talk­ing to my new neigh­bours (who, on each side, have paved back gar­dens). We all need to do a bit more, talk a bit more, en­thuse a bit more. Our wildlife needs us.

KATE BRAD­BURY writes for BBC Gar­den­ers’ World mag­a­zine and helped with the Peo­ple’s Man­i­festo for Wildlife (www.chrispack­ham.co.uk). Her new book is The Bum­ble­bee Flies Any­way (Blooms­bury, £16.99).

WANT TO COM­MENT? How can we per­suade our friends and neigh­bours to green their gar­dens? Email us at wildlifelet­[email protected]­me­di­ate.co.uk

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