Animals take a shine to more gardens

IT may be a sign of growing tolerance of wildlife, but more people are now making their gardens animal-friendly.

We often hear stories about foxes, for example, being regularly seen on city streets and even coming up to doors of houses looking for food, so inner city and suburban gardens can be made attractive to wildlife.

Gardens offer wildlife an alternative habitat and, for some species, like hedgehogs, badgers, rabbits, squirrels and foxes, an essential corridor linking areas of countryside that could otherwise be cut off from them.

I receive occasional visits from a magnificent cock pheasant. The other day it came right up to the back door, but suddenly took off when it sensed some movement I made inside the kitchen window. However, the well-fed bird had difficulty in getting over a four-foot fence before landing a short distance away in a field on the other side.

It looked an easy target for a marksman, or predator. And, having seen a fox in exactly the same field, some time ago, the poor pheasant would not stand much chance of survival if the fox appears again.

Hedgehogs, squirrels and huge selection of birds are other visitors to the garden, while some people in the locality have much bigger and less welcome visitors — deer straying from Killarney National Park. Deer can cause serious damage to lawns and trees and consume a lot of grass.

Rabbits, at one time a plague, seem to have all but vanished, however. But, you never know what’s going to arrive.

Many gardens have a huge diversity of wildlife, much of it unnoticed, or unseen, when you think of bees, wasps and all the invisible insects on the ground, or on plants. Life is teeming, literally outside the back door, and much more goes on than meets the eye.

A wildlife garden can be made with a little effort. Recreating habitats found in nature, the idea is to provide a haven for creatures of all kinds. No chemicals are used so that the balance of nature is not disturbed.

Indeed, parts of a garden can be allowed return to the wild by just doing nothing. Many people are obsessed with having manicured lawns from end to end of their sites, as well as exotic shrubs that have been to be tended and pruned. But, there’s no reason why some corners, or areas in the shade of trees, can’t be left alone.

Nettles, wild flowers and meadow grass and, dare we say it, plain weeds can be allowed grow. They attract bees galore and a myriad insects and, importantly for a lazy gardener, reduce the area of lawn to be mown.

If you really want to have a ‘proper’ wildlife garden, however, it’s best to contact the experts, or look up many the books and websites offering DIY tips and information. Paddy Madden, for instance, makes his expertise available to the always listenable Mooney Goes Wild programme on RTE Radio, occasionally, and is worth heeding.

Many native trees and shrubs are planted in wildlife gardens, because these are attractive to native creatures. For example, the oak alone has close to 300 dependent insects. These insects attract birds; birds attract mammals and so a lot of food chains begin.

A wildlife garden is also a place where native plants that are rapidly disappearing from the wild can be nurtured. Intensive farming, excess development and over-use of herbicides have put many such plants in danger of extinction.

Paddy Madden says people should set out to create a woodland glade effect — a clear, sunny area in the centre of the garden, surrounded by shrubs and trees. Aim for contrast, too, with tall meadow grass and flowers merging with the trees and a water feature.

According to Paddy, the best way to start is with a mini-wood in a corner of the garden. This could be as small as 4m square. However, it should have four layers, including leaf litter, wild flowers, shrubs and native trees such as rowan, oak, birch, ash and alder.

Insects and other creatures will be attracted to their own specific layers. These in turn will attract birds, including thrushes, robins, finches, blackbirds and wrens to the ground. One oak, one holly, several species of native woodland flowers and a heap of rotting logs would constitute a mini-wood.

A pond will be a haven for many types of creatures that are threatened with extinction. Frogs will very likely frequent it. In summer, the pond skaters, whirligig beetles, water boatmen and water spiders will attract a lot of spectators. These creatures will act as both prey and predator and intricate food chains will develop.

Wild flowers that grow in a wetland habitat are, in many people’s view, the most beautiful of all.


Kim Sheehan is an opera singer from Crosshaven, Co Cork, and is this year’s recipient of the Jane Anne Rothwell Award from Cork Midsummer Festival.A Question of Taste: Cork opera singer, Kim Sheehan

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