Improve your space for nature: providing shelter
Just like humans, animals need a safe place to live, where they can hide from predators, rear their young and be protected from extreme weather. Different animals need different types of shelter so we can best help by providing a range of possible options.
Most animals have evolved to use what nature provides for their homes, so for many of them that’s in amongst the leaves and branches of trees and shrubs. The denser and leafier the cover the better. Trees provide great protection for birds because of their height, keeping them above predators, as well as their dense leafy canopy which helps to hide them and protect against the sun and the rain, so where possible provide as many trees as you can.
There are lots of animals that can’t get into the high trees for shelter and shrubs and bushes are a great option. Ideally you should plant something that is bushy all the way down to the ground so that animals can move around under the shrubs without being seen. You often get quite dense drifts of dead leaves at the base of shrubs which can be collected and used by animals to make into nests, so don’t be too tidy. Leave the dead leaves where they are. Dead leaves are also a food source of food for things like earthworms and a wide variety of beetles, so you definitely want to leave them where they are. If you grow your shrubs along a fence line you’ve got the start of a hedge which animals will be able to use as a green highway to travel from green place to green place so yet another advantage.
If you have a blank wall or fence, and possible not a lot of space, such as on a balcony, then climbers are a great option. They will take up less room than a tree or a bush, but will provide a vertical green space that may well be occupied by a wide range of animals. Many creatures like the microclimate that a creeper growing up a sunny wall can create. If you are on a balcony or in a space that is safe from predators (I’m mainly thinking of domestic cats, but squirrels fall in this category too) you may well end up with birds nesting in your creeper.
Creepers and climbers come in a range of varieties so if you have a small space go for something that isn’t too vigorous so that you aren’t overwhelmed and having to cut it back continuously.
Logs and rock piles
Many animals value a space with nooks and crannies that they can hide amongst. A log pile, compost heap or rock pile will always get colonised by a wide variety of different animals so it’s always worth providing for them. Toads and frogs especially appreciate a rock pile with easy access to a pond. It’s a safe place for them to sleep and warm up before they hit the water.
For centuries we have shared our home with wild animals. Before we got really good at insulation and plugging up all the holes in our houses they used to provide an excellent shelter for a surprising range of animals. In London we used to have house sparrows and starlings living in our roofs as well as house martens and bats. Now that our houses are impermeable there are fewer nesting places for these animals and that is one of the reasons experts think we may have fewer sparrows, because they have nowhere to nest. To make up for this loss it is possible to buy artificial nest boxes. These are aimed at specific species of birds, so think about who you’d like to provide for. You can also buy boxes and specially designed bricks for roosting bats. We can attach these to the outside of our homes. The jury is still out on how effective they are, but it is certainly better than having nothing.
If you have a shed or deck, this can also double up as animal friendly shelter. With sheds you can leave gaps for animals to go in and out, so consider doing that. I know of one family who had a polecat who raised her kits in their garage every year. They set up a camera in the garage so they could watch the antics of the youngsters so it was a win win for everyone.
Aside from the structures we can put on the outside of our homes, there’s a wide variety of artificial nests we can buy for our outdoor spaces. Bird boxes are the most commonly known and successfully used. You can also make or buy bug hotels, that provide a range of microhabitats and safe nooks and crannies to lurk about in. In winter insects might hibernate in them too.
Some artificial nests need to be cleaned out each year to make it easier for the next animal to move in. Be aware that birds start to nest way earlier than you might think. So be sure to have cleared out old nest boxes before Valentine’s day.
Believe it or not, some animals benefit from bare earth. London is especially well endowed with solitary ground nesting bees, and they need bare earth to burrow into to make their homes. If you happen to have a space that is rather dry and difficult to grow anything in, then consider scraping some of the plants away and leaving it for the bees.
Pro tip: be untidy
It may come as a relief to learn that nature tends to be messy and thrives when she is left alone. So if you are trying to green an outdoor space rest assured a little benign neglect works wonders. You don’t need to cut things back hard, or scrape up all the leaves, you can leave them, or sweep them into a pile in one corner of the garden. You don’t need to get rid of all the weeds, as mentioned in a previous blog, lots of insects need the weeds to feed themselves. Weedy laws have way more plant species and therefore animal species than a perfectly maintained monoculture of grass. The wide variety in a weeds lawn is much better for bees. If you do some pruning it’s worth bundling the cuttings together and creating a little log pile. It will provide shelter and as it rots down it will also provide food. Leaving things be is great for keeping your space as nature friendly as possible.