Few of us can contemplate having a wood in our back gardens, but in truth the most wildlife activity takes place at the woodland edge where greater availability of light supports a more diverse range of plants.
A woodland edge can easily be translated into garden proportions. A few metres is enough to establish the sort of dynamic habitat that will encourage birds and butterflies to stop by, mice and hedgehogs to forage amongst the leaf litter and a place for frogs and toads to hibernate over winter. Mosses and lichens will add velvet and verdigris to the bare stems and in spring there will be a pageant of wild flowers, such as wood anemones, snowdrops, primroses and bluebells.
In your garden
- The most important feature of a woodland edge is that it is made up of different layers – the more layers, the more species will come flocking. Ideally the height should increase from front to back to allow as much light in as possible.
- Trees are the backbone of any woodland planting. If you have room, oak tops the charts in terms of numbers of different creatures it supports – 284 insect species alone! Smaller trees like rowan, holly, crab apple and hawthorn will provide shelter for small animals and birds as well as berries for food.
- Shrubs make up the layer beneath the tree canopy. Among those rich in food for wildlife are brambles, dog roses and dogwoods.
- At the base, herbaceous plants and bulbs attract bees, butterflies and other insects as well as providing ground cover for smaller animals.
- It is best to start with the trees. Keep the soil around them clear while they establish. Next add the shrubs, bulbs and herbaceous plants that enjoy dappled shade.
- Once the upper layer is strong and tall enough, grow some climbers into the branches. Ivy, clematis and honeysuckle are all really good for wildlife.
- Put up some nest boxes. A range of box sizes and entry apertures will encourage tits, robins, flycatchers, owls and other birds to nest. Solitary bees will make use of bundles of hollow plant stems. Bats will use boxes made of unplaned, preservative-free wood attached to tree trunks.
- Stack fallen or dead wood in piles to provide a cosy home for small mammals, amphibians, insects and beetles. Leaf litter also provides a habitat for beetles, worms and slugs – all fine dining for birds and hedgehogs.
- Don’t be too tidy - the decaying plant materials, leaf litter and rotting wood, provide food sources and habitats for thousands of different kinds of organisms. Only cut down dead trees if they are dangerous.
- While it’s best to leave everything to its own devices, you may need to take out some of the more menacing stems of dog rose and bramble.
- A traditional woodland practice involves coppicing, where every few years, all stems are cut back to just above the ground. This prevents the canopy becoming too thick. Ash, elder, hazel, birch and oak all make suitable candidates.
- It is helpful, especially when the plants are establishing to mulch around their bases with a layer of leaf litter to maximise soil moisture.
- Establish which plants are most suitable by looking at what is growing in nearby woods.
- Plant broad-leaved native species which support more biodiversity than conifers and introduced plants.
- When planting trees, be conscious that tree roots spread horizontally, so keep them away from built structures and other areas they might affect like ponds and streams.
- Collect fallen leaves in autumn to make leafmould and stash in plastic sacks (pierced for ventilation) somewhere out of the way. A year later you will have a lovely supply of mulch.