Birds, butterflies and bees – Janette Merilion

At the meeting on 20th October our speaker was Janette Merilion, a horticultural lecturer and garden designer. The topic of her lively talk was birds, butterflies and bees – creating habitats for wildlife –  and it was amply illustrated with many fine photographs of wildlife and plants …

Janette began by describing the loss of habitat which has led to a huge decline in wildlife since the 1940s – 95% of wild meadows, 72% of lowland heath, 50% of lowland marshes and thousands of miles of hedges.  Nearly all of this has been due to changes in farming practices. Gardens cannot substitute for this loss of habitat but they can make a significant contribution to the preservation of wildlife.  Gardens can be managed to provide food and water, breeding and living places and security from predators.  A wildlife garden needs to be organic because chemicals kill friends as well as foes  and Janette particularly warned against the use of Astroturf in place of grass lawns because these provide food  for blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and starlings. Gardeners’ friends that should be particularly encouraged are slug killers,  frogs and hedgehogs ( drastically declined from 29 million to 1 million), and  hoverflies, lacewing and ladybirds which eat aphids.

Janette devoted the main part of her talk to the practical things that gardeners can do to encourage wildlife, starting with tree planting. Trees provide birds with nesting and roosting places and host hundreds of invertebrates. Careful thought needs to be given to their height and spread but many  forest trees that are too big for gardens are available in smaller varieties including oak, birch, alder and elm. Holly and crab apples are good for their berries or fruit .

Most gardens have fences to mark their boundaries but they prevent the movement that hedgehogs need for feeding and multiply wind strength. You can cut holes in the bottom of a fence for a hedgehog gateway but  It is much better to grow hedges which provide shelter, food and nesting.  The best shrubs to use are spikey or berry bearing, such as hawthorn, blackthorn, spindle, viburnum opulus, dogwood and dog rose. Leylandii are Janette’s pet hate and offer very little for wildlife.

Shrubs  and climbers  feature prominently in most gardens and they should be selected  to provide for butterflies as well as birds. Among Janette’s recommendations were honeysuckle, pyracantha, blackberries, ivy, hops, buddleia, hebe, lavender and elder flower  ( especially attractive is sambucus ‘Black lace’)

Flowers provide nectar for bees and a nectar border should aim to provide a flowering period from March to November and contain over fifty types of nectar plant. In their search for novelty breeders  have created complex flowers but the best ones for bees  are simple and shallow where the bees can easily reach the nectar. Mauve flowers are particularly attractive to bees and some  plants are attractive to specific varieties of butterfly. Janette’s list of suggestions for flowers was a long one but amongst the more common were honesty, Michaelmas daisy, and phlox.

All wildlife needs water for drinking or bathing especially in drought periods or during the winter.  The gardener can provide this in a variety of ways,  ranging from bird baths to wildlife ponds. A pond needn’t be large. Janette showed a picture of an attractive water feature in a half barrel but she stressed that whatever its size a pond or container must allow easy access and exit for the wildlife.

Birds are the most visible form of wildlife in our gardens  and, apart from providing shrubs and trees, we can encourage them with nest boxes and feeders.  Nest boxes can be sited in trees and on fences but protect them from cats and put them facing in a north-east or north–west direction so that they don’t get too hot. Keep feeding birds all year; not just in the winter. Don’t put out fat in the summer and when you use fat balls remove the netting which can entangle the birds. You can also make artificial homes for insects with an ‘insect hotel, made with tubes, bamboo canes, logs and straw.

For the sake of the wildlife don’t keep your garden too tidy. Many gardeners like to cut dead plants down in late autumn but Janette waits until February. Ground cover,  leaf litter and log piles are all valuable. They provides hiding places for insects and small mammals and seed heads give food for birds, while frosted grasses and seed heads are very attractive winter features.

a selection of Jannette’s photos – click a photo for slideshow


Our next meeting will be on 17th November when Twigs Way will talk on three hundred years of history at Wrest Park.

Jeremy Arthern

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