Gardens: The New Countryside

I was reading a piece in the Journal of Applied Ecology over my second mug of coffee this morning, as you do, and I was struck by a significant truth. The paper was catchily titled "Effects of land use at a landscape scale on bumblebee nest density and survival", and its conclusion was pithy and unambiguous: "gardens... now provide a stronghold for bumblebees in an otherwise impoverished agricultural environment; furthermore, our data suggest that the positive influence of gardens on bumblebee populations can spill over at least 1km into surrounding farmland" Of course it's not just relatively high profile insects like bumblebees and butterflies that are struggling in this impoverished environment. We don't really know what is happening to hoverflies. Or solitary bees. Or dragonflies. Or - you get the picture. As a bee scientist put it to me earlier this week - when was the last time you had to clean the insects off your windscreen? Some time in the 1980s? Wildlife gardening is no longer about attracting fauna into your garden, but allowing species to survive. There's increasingly nowhere else where they can live. We still suffer from the Victorian sense that wildlife is something that happens elsewhere, "in the countryside". Even in rural Somerset, folk bemoan the lack of butterflies and bees in one breath and complain about the cost of cutting a couple of acres of disused pony paddock in the next. It's as if their land is somehow disconnected from what is going on, which consequently they feel powerless to influence. And they're much better placed than urban dwellers to know there's no bucolic paradise out there full of bumblebees abuzzing, frogs acroaking and butterflies afluttering, all to the strains of Vaughan Williams. I've seen estimates that gardens cover up to 2 million acres in the UK - and that's without all those disused pony paddocks. They generally don't suffer from pesticide use and chemical run off, soil imbalances and constant disturbance. They usually even mimic natural habitats, offering multiple and extended sources of pollen and nectar, foodplants, unpolluted water, and shelter. And they're pretty joined up too. They don't have to be a brambly bio-hazard to help; just sensitively planned, planted, and managed. Ask many keen gardeners about the wildlife in their garden and they still tend to think of what they see in the Press and notice themselves; annoying caterpillars, birds and large mammals. Ask them about "habitat" and they think of even larger mammals rampaging through their fruit and veg like it was the Serengeti. It is critical that "wildlife gardening" becomes just good gardening practice, and in a hurry. Otherwise it will be more than bumblebees going down the tube.