Posted 12th Jun 2014
In celebration of The Wildlife Trusts' Our Meadow Wildlife Weekend we caught up with their Vice-President and keen conservationist, Bill Oddie, to find out his top tips on attracting wildlife and how you can get involved this weekend
Some of our readers live in urban areas so how would you recommend they garden for wildlife if they only have a small garden or balcony?
That's exactly what I have now. I live in London and have a garden the size of half a tennis court with a balcony that I suppose is a bit of a roof garden. Firstly the key to attracting birds is to feed them, and most importantly put out the right food. I support Haith's and have quite a few of their feeders. My advice is to put out as much food as possible but don't bankrupt yourself! Mail ordering your food is incredibly efficient. No matter how small your garden is you can attract something. I have gone over the top in my garden with six ponds, but the biggest is only around 2ft wide – they're tiny. The ponds attract birds and I enjoy watching them splash about as they bathe. Any little pond is better than no pond at all.
What is the most effective way of attracting wildlife to our gardens?
Planting is important. With the right plants you can attract insects as beautiful as dragonflies, and by the end of February the ponds can be full of frogs and maybe newts too if you're lucky. It is great to see things in an urban garden. Planting to attract insects, especially bees, is also good. I would say to plant British is a good rule, especially plants and trees with berries that will provide food in the summer and autumn.
We often get asked what to feed birds in the summer, as in the winter we're putting out lots of high energy foods. Do you have any tips on good summer fare?
It is much the same food as winter to be honest. Mealworms are particularly good to feed birds and can be put out all year round. It wasn't long ago people used to say don't feed birds in the winter, but it's in winter that there are young birds which means there are more mouths to feed. Birds use an incredible amount of energy to catch and collect food. Mealworms are good for youngsters as it's soft food, which they need.
Is there anything we can leave out to feed other creatures in the garden?
Grey squirrels need feeding, which not everyone is happy to do. It's a similar decision to be made with foxes. We have a lot of urban foxes where I am but I don't feed them as such. I might put out a leftover leg of lamb after a Sunday roast which I know they've taken before. Really as long as it's animal-friendly food you can feed them anything. It's what you don't need to feed them that's the problem. For example if you want to go and feed the ducks at the pond, you might throw them a bit of bread but bread isn't great for ducks, it doesn't give them any energy. Seed is much better for them just scattered over the pond. No matter what food you put outside, animals will be attracted. If you have a bird table then the spillage from that will attract wood mice and even rats. I don't mind rats myself, it often attracts the baby rats which actually are really rather pretty. Rats are notoriously good parents and are fascinating to watch.
For The Wildlife Trusts' Our Meadow Wildlife Weekend, what sort of things should we look out for when visiting a meadow?
You don't have to visit an area that is very large or incredibly wild, The Wildlife Trusts has masses of information on places to visit and people to see if you go to an event. There's really no reason not to go somewhere and see something. If you're visiting a meadow and you see some flowers, photograph them. Some you may already recognise and some may look similar to something you've seen at a garden centre, or are a wild version of something you have, such as wild pansies and violets. The first thing to notice is if they have insects feeding on them. It's great fun, I can spend hours on my hands and knees just looking at them.
In June, it depends where you are in the country, but you can often see orchids just starting to come out. My favourite types of meadow are chalk downs where everything is low down and miniature so you have to take a magnifying glass. Many plants you see will be plants you already know just in a different context. June is a great month for seeing things as the weather is brighter and you can enjoy a good walk outside. I love limestone pavements which of course aren't pavements at all. You get them in the Yorkshire Dales and on the west coast of Ireland. I love going where there are lots of cracks and crevices that on the surface look bare but when you get lower down they're just filled with flowers and plants.
Lots of our readers like to do things as a family, are there any family activities you can recommend on a day out for the Our Meadow Wildlife Weekend?
Collecting creepy crawlies like bugs and beetles is a good one. It's great to look at them so closely. Pond dipping is also good in June as tadpoles will be swimming by then, having lost their tails. I have a pond in my garden that frogs absolutely love. It attracts unbelievable numbers, it's like a sea of frog spawn. It really doesn't have to be somewhere big to see stuff like that.
The newly launched WildWalks website (developed by The Wildlife Trusts in partnership with the British Trust for Ornithology to help people record their local wildlife) will allow people to create their own special walk perfect for this weekend. Is there a particular walk or part of the country you're especially fond of?
I live in north London close to Hampstead Heath which is a large green area and I'm happy to say it's considerably well managed for wildlife. In June there is a lot going on, most birds have paired up and they might have had youngsters or perhaps you'll see birds still on their own. My advice is don't make a walk just a walk, look around, see something, then watch it. Listening is very important too, especially for the birdsong at this time of year.
The whole philosophy behind The Wildlife Trusts campaign is walks and animal habitats. We all go for walks but it's a matter of making sure you notice things. People often think as a birdwatcher I must sit in a hide all day but I don't, I might spend half an hour in there. Walking at a leisurely pace you might see something interesting. I have a little rule – try and put a name to everything you see. Nowadays most of us have a camera on our phones that we can later connect to a computer to find out what that flower or insect might be. Or, you can go out and make notes. It is always possible to look up something in a book, there are so many great books out there. It makes a walk more interesting and of course provides really valuable scientific information too.
For more information on the The Wildlife Trusts' Wildlife Weekends visit www.wildlifetrusts.org/weekends.
Images courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts: Chris Taylor Photography