Our wildlife gardening tasks guides you through year with specific advice for each month. We also highlight different creatures throughout the seasons.
What to do this month
Spring is here. Suddenly there is life all around. Leaves are returning to the trees and flowers are becoming abundant. Hibernating animals are waking and coming out of the undergrowth, and summer migrants are beginning to arrive. Occasional cold snaps can still have devastating consequences, but for most this is a time of plenty. With the abundance of food created by new plant growth, animal attentions are turning from survival to reproduction. The breeding season is here.
Jobs for the month
- Top up bird feeders and put out food on the ground and bird table
- Avoid chunky foods that could choke young fledglings
- Keep the bird bath topped up
- Regularly clean the bird bath and table
- Put up a bat nesting box
- Put out hedgehog and badger food
- Make the pond more wildlife friendly
- Plant annuals and perennials to attract insects
- Put out log, twig and/or rock piles to create shelter for wildlife
- Sow or plant a wildflower meadow, and mow newly established meadows
- Buy and hang a bee nesting box
Mammals, reptiles and amphibians
Many garden mammals have given birth to young, and you may spot baby wood mice, shrews or voles, and even fox or badger cubs (most likely in the evenings).
Bats come out of hibernation and start their own nesting season this month, often in the eaves or behind the weatherboarding of south-facing buildings. Why not put up a bat box on a sunny wall? Many bat species are garden-friendly, eating the midges and tiny insects that cause annoyance on summer evenings.
Hedgehog and badger food is now available for sale. It is not a good idea to feed hedgehogs with bread and milk, as this is not their natural diet. Good quality cat or dog food, or raw minced meat mixed with a raw egg make good alternatives.
The nesting season is now well under way. The dawn chorus can be deafening. Migrant birds from Africa (such as willow warblers, housemartins, swifts and swallows) have now joined the breeding frenzy.
Avoid peanuts and large chunks when putting out food for the birds, as there is a risk that large pieces could be fed by adults to their fledglings, and this could result in choking. Safe foods include wildbird seed mixes (but not those containing peanuts or dog biscuit); black sunflower seeds (the birds will remove the outside casing, and the inner seed is soft); mild grated cheese; sultanas, raisins and currants (best soaked overnight); pinhead oatmeal; apples, pears and other soft fresh fruit; mealworms and waxworms. Alternatively, you can buy fat balls from many garden centres and bird food suppliers. This is an easy alternative, and you can be confident that you will be doing no harm.
To maximise the numbers of different bird species that you attract to your garden, it is a good idea to cater to their different feeding habits. Hanging bird feeders attract species such as tits, finches and sparrows. There are many models available, designed to help keep out rats, cats, pigeons and squirrels, or to fit onto walls, windows, windowsills and balconies. Bird tables attract robins, house and tree sparrows, doves, pigeons, bullfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and bramblings. Food scattered on the ground attracts blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks, wrens, fieldfares and redwings.
Hanging bird feeders are best sited over a paved or decked area, which can be regularly swept clear of debris. This may help to reduce problems with rats, if they prove a nuisance.
Bird tables are best sited a few feet clear of cover or high vegetation, so that cats and other predators cannot launch themselves onto unsuspecting feeding birds. They can be quite close to the window or patio, as many birds seem to get used to human activity, and are unlikely to be put off by coincidental human activity.
A birdbath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds. Ensure that yours is kept topped up. Models are available to attach to windows, walls and sills, if you are limited for space. Do be aware of hygiene: change the water regularly and scrub the bath out with a mild detergent (available from bird food suppliers) to help prevent the spread of disease.
Butterflies emerge as temperatures rise and sunshine increases - brimstones, commas, tortoiseshells and early cabbage whites.
Honesty (Lunaria annua or the perennial Lunaria rediviva) is a good plant for attracting butterflies at this time of year, especially if planted near other insect-attracting species.
Gardens with some nooks and crannies, and a few areas where debris is allowed to accumulate (perhaps a woodland area or a meadow within a more formal design), are often more insect-friendly than those composed entirely of paving, pots, lawn and bedding displays.
Why not sow or plant a wildflower meadow. You should prepare the ground, if you did not do so last month. You will need to create a seedbed if you wish to sow wild flower seed. Annual cornflower seed mix gives an instant display in the first year. Perennial seed mixes take two years to flower, and may be less dramatic in their appearance. An alternative is to spray a weed killer containing glyphosate, on patches of the existing grass. Plug plants can be sourced to grow on, and to then plant in the bare patches. This will only work where the existing grass is not very vigorous. Ryegrasses can overwhelm meadow flowers. If you do have ryegrass, another option is to over-seed with yellow rattle. This is an annual parasitic plant that can be sown directly on to grass, gradually weakening it, and hopefully self-seeding from year to year, producing pretty yellow flowers.
Newly sown perennial meadows should be mown about six to eight weeks after sowing, when they reach a height of 5-10cm (2-4in), and then again every couple of months in their first year, removing the cuttings each time. This helps to control weeds and to toughen up the meadow plants. A stronger healthier meadow will be the end result.
What to look out for this month
With warmer weather come the Hirundinidae: the swallows and martins. In April house martins arrive on the wing from sub-Saharan Africa. After stopping off at the coast to replenish their energy reserves on flying insects, they head for towns and villages to build mud nests, typically under the eaves of buildings. They are a common sight in British gardens, flying overhead catching insects. You might be lucky enough to observe nest-building taking place over the coming weeks.
If you're out in the garden after dark this month, you might catch glimpses of bats flitting around trees, hunting for insects. Pipistrelles, the most common of our native bats, leave their hibernation in April and can be easily seen in many gardens across the UK. Identification can be difficult unless you invest in a bat detector; you're not likely to get a good view of them but it can certainly be exciting to watch these tiny, fast-flying mammals flit in and out of vision.
Common toads emerge from hibernation in April and head for ponds where they will commence breeding. Spring is the only time of year when toads will inhabit ponds, being typically a terrestrial species, living in damp burrows for most of the year. Toadspawn can be distinguished from frogspawn as it is laid in strings, rather than clusters. The best time to see adult toads is after dark, but rain can sometimes encourage them out during daylight.
St Mark's fly
St Mark's Day is the 25th April, and these flies are named after their habit of emerging on or very close to this date. Being large, black, hairy flies they have little aesthetic appeal, and their larvae are minor pests of cereal crops. However once they emerge as adults, they set to work pollinating plants, particularly fruit trees. So even if they aren't the most attractive insects in your garden, they should be welcome residents. After only a couple of weeks feeding and mating, they disappear again, hopefully having ensured new populations are ready to return next St Mark's Day.
In December we talked about the hibernating butterflies in your shed. Now is the time when we find out if they survived the winter, as many of our native butterflies spread their wings and fly into the spring. Peacocks are strong flyers, able to roam widely in search of food. Expect to see them on sunny spring days, feeding on popular butterfly plants such as buddleia.