Monty’s bird’s eye view

Monty shares how his plant­ing and feed­ing regime at Long­meadow helps a bevy of birds get through win­try climes and con­trib­ute to his gar­den’s rich ecol­ogy

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

The sky above Long­meadow is never empty. At dawn, there may be just a lone crow beat­ing a steady path north or at dusk the cu­ri­ously un­du­lat­ing, huge wings of a heron head­ing from hedge to roost in a wil­low above the ditch. Ducks in pairs race head­long and straight and thin skeins of geese breast the morn­ing air. Un­til about ten years ago, spring was rich with the sad war­bling call of the curlew but here, as in so many places, it is now just a haunt­ing mem­ory. But in late spring and sum­mer our sky is pos­i­tively chaotic with martins and swal­lows by the hun­dred, cut­ting curves like skaters wheel­ing; en­twined in each other’s arcs and, as I write this in au­tumn, the f locks of red­wings and field­fares are bustling through the air like crowds of com­muters rush­ing for­ward after the an­nounce­ment of their train. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a pere­grine deigns us with his or her princely pres­ence, fly­ing straight and fast, and, in the past few years, we have had reg­u­lar vis­its from hob­bies eye­ing up the swal­lows and drag­on­flies. Spar­rowhawks rush in, make a sor­tie to grab a spar­row or star­ling and race off as all the song­birds shriek their alarm. On the ground, wrens bob and hop like jerky mice at the base of the hedges, black­birds set up their sta­tions with heart­stop­ping song, and robins chal­lenge any­one – ev­ery­one – to a fight if they dare. Chaffinches and long-tailed, coal, blue and great tits flit and dart about. There are more. Many more. The gar­den is as full of birds as plants and I rel­ish this, both for their pres­ence and the ben­e­fits they bring to the

“Birds are a barom­e­ter of ev­ery­thing that we do right in our gar­dens ”

gar­den. I’ve had let­ters com­plain­ing that we add a fake bird­song sound­track over Gar­den­ers’ World. I as­sure you that noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. In fact, some­times we must wait for the bird­song to qui­eten down to film be­cause it is too loud. Long­meadow is full of bird­song. Ev­ery gar­den has some birds but some have more than oth­ers, and the longer that I gar­den, the more I am made aware that the num­ber of birds in your gar­den is as good a mea­sure of its health as any­thing else. If a gar­den can at­tract and sup­port lots of bird life it must also be rich in the in­sects and seeds that they need to sus­tain them, which in turn im­plies a rich and var­ied ecol­ogy in your own back yard. In other words, birds are a barom­e­ter of ev­ery­thing that we do right in our gar­dens.

Keep the food chain in­tact

But gar­den­ers can do right by their birds too. Most of it is just com­mon sense. Ev­ery bird – from the pere­grine with its blood lust, to the tiny gold­crest’s del­i­cate, pin­point in­sect con­sump­tion – must have food to eat and the more avail­able it is, the more birds you will have. So do noth­ing to in­ter­rupt or block the food chain. Re­mem­ber that ev­ery preda­tor needs prey, so green­fly might be at­tack­ing your roses but they are also es­sen­tial for blue tits. Slugs and snails are a nui­sance but with­out any in your gar­den you wi l l have fewer song thrushes. Cater­pil­lars might seem to be pre­par­ing to munch their way through your en­tire gar­den but a sin­gle fam­ily of tiny nest­ing blue tits can de­vour up to a thou­sand cater­pil­lars in just one day. To have a thriv­ing bird pop­u­la­tion you should wel­come cater­pil­lars and aphids – lots of them! There is never a good rea­son to use in­sec­ti­cides in any gar­den and I would add to that her­bi­cides and fungi­cides too. The richer and more var­ied your ecosys­tem, the bet­ter the range of crea­tures you will have right up the chain, in­clud­ing birds. Keep weeds and seeds, berries and nuts so birds can feed off them. Rot­ten wood and bark are per­fect for a host of in­sects, which are food for many birds, while piles of wood and leaves are es­sen­tial. Tidi­ness is anath­ema to healthy wildlife and es­pe­cially birds. The kind of im­mac­u­late front gar­den with its bare win­ter soil ready for or­dered rows of an­nu­als in spring, con­crete paths sprayed with weed killer and hedges clipped within an inch of their lives is a bird-desert. By all means have your win­ter hedges trimmed tightly and neat but do not cut them at all be­tween Fe­bru­ary and Au­gust,

The richer and more var­ied your ecosys­tem, the bet­ter the range of crea­tures you will have

when birds are breed­ing. Birds love scratch­ing at mulch and leaf lit­ter – so leave it there for them to find their food. A gar­den for birds must have cover. This will pro­vide nest­ing places, singing posts, pro­tec­tion from preda­tors and food. The cover can range from grass a few inches long to 500-year- old oak trees and ev­ery­thing grow­ing in be­tween, but hedges are es­pe­cially valu­able. Any hedge is good, but de­cid­u­ous ones are prob­a­bly best with hawthorn, beech and horn­beam ideal. By and large, hedges and trees pro­vide the best nest­ing sit­u­a­tions for all birds but if you can’t of­fer much cover bird boxes will help. But it’s best to pro­vide nat­u­ral nest­ing sites.

Cel­e­brate the ben­e­fits of birds

It is as­ton­ish­ing how much birdlife will be added to a small gar­den by the pres­ence of a se­lec­tion of de­cid­u­ous and ev­er­green shrubs, a hedge or two and a small tree. Yes, birds eat fruit and veg­eta­bles and nip the buds of some spring-flow­er­ing plants but the good they do far out­weighs any prob­lems that they cre­ate. I con­fess that it was not un­til the very cold win­ters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 that I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated the com­plex­ity and beauty of ev­ery­day small birds that I had hith­erto taken for granted in my gar­den. This was be­cause in those months of icy and snowy weather the feed­ing table out­side the kitchen win­dow gave me a per­fect chance to ob­serve them in a way that is al­most im­pos­si­ble when you are work­ing in the gar­den. I was en­tranced, and feed­ing the birds – any birds, all-com­ers – in win­ter gives me great de­light. There are cer­tain con­sid­er­a­tions over and above per­sonal plea­sure. It helps for the food to be as calorific as pos­si­ble and seeds, nuts and fat are all high in calo­ries. Once you start to feed try to be as reg­u­lar as pos­si­ble with the sup­ply, es­pe­cially in very cold weather, as the birds use up pre­cious en­ergy in com­ing to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare. Also keep a shal­low dish of fresh drink­ing wa­ter topped up. I find that scat­ter­ing seed over an old log with lots of cracks and crevices means that smaller birds can ex­tract ev­ery last bit of seed from the fis­sures that big­ger, more thug­gish ones, like pi­geons and star­lings, can­not ac­cess. Try not to ap­ply hu­man, sen­ti­men­talised an­thro­po­mor­phism to the scene. Some birds will go hun­gry. A few will die or be killed by rap­tors. Na­ture is some­times very harsh in­deed. But so, alas, is hu­man­ity. So do not judge or mea­sure by an ap­proved hi­er­ar­chy of bird life. Pro­vide, food, wa­ter and cover and en­cour­age as many birds as you can, of all kinds, into your gar­den. Ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing you, will ben­e­fit enor­mously.

The Spring Gar­den, where dense ground cover and leaf lit­ter of­fers good for­ag­ing for the birds

Plant­ing for a long sea­son of in­ter­est sus­tains a wide range of crea­tures in the food chain

Berries are a black­birds’ mid­win­ter treat

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