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
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