Our wildlife gardening tasks guide you through the year with specific advice for each month. We also highlight different creatures that you can spot throughout the seasons.
What to do this month
Spring is at its height. The dawn chorus is a medley of native and migrant birds, wildflowers are colouring the landscape, and everywhere you look there are animals engaged in the rituals of breeding. And although it may seem that our wildlife is in full flow, there are still more appearances to be made as migrants continue to arrive and the late sleepers awaken from hibernation. May is vibrant; it's a great time to be out in the garden.
Jobs for the month
- Put out nesting boxes for migrant birds arriving in the UK
- Take care not to disturb nesting birds in garden shrubs and hedges
- Top up bird feeders and put out food on the ground and bird tables
- Avoid chunky foods that could choke young fledglings
- Keep the bird bath topped up
- Regularly clean out the bird bath and table
- Make a log, twig and/or rock pile to create shelter for wildlife
- Put up a bat nesting box
- Put out food for hedgehogs and badgers
- Choose annuals and perennials to attract insects
- Make the pond more wildlife friendly
- Leave informal hedges un-trimmed for a while to provide food and shelter for wildlife
- Leave nesting birds undisturbed in garden shrubs and hedges
- You can still use plug plants to plant a wildflower meadow
- Mow recently established perennial meadows (but not annual cornfield meadows)
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 start breeding this month, often in 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.
Hedgehogs are very active this month, looking for mates and foraging for food at night. 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. Do also take care to be sensible with slug pellets, and don’t use more than is necessary. Use wildlife-friendly brands to avoid any risk to hedgehogs and other garden animals.
Most gardens will be in view of nesting birds within nearby hedges and dense trees. Native birds commonly spotted like this include blackbirds, dunnocks, sparrows, thrushes, greenfinches and bullfinches. Wrens, tits and robins can be seen pecking for food at the base of the hedge.
Migrant summer-visiting birds from other continents are among those now common in British gardens. You may see willow or garden warblers, housemartins, swifts and swallows. There are special nest boxes available for swifts and housemartins, but swallows will nest on any suitable ledge or shelf in a quiet outbuilding.
The spotted flycatcher can often be persuaded to nest in a homemade tray, hung on a bracket in a safe spot on your garden boundary, camouflaged by climbing plants. You can then watch the flycatcher from your back door or window as it perches waiting and then flutters up to catch a fly.
If you are lucky, you may hear a cuckoo. These birds have a habit of laying their eggs in other native birds’ nests.
The song thrush may be heard singing at dawn. Although it is a shy bird, you might see it out hunting for snails, bashing them against rocks to crack open the shells. Once its clutch of eggs hatches, it will return to its more usual shy retiring behaviour.
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 and wrens.
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 squirrels and vermin, 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.
Bug life is thriving this month, and should be encouraged. Without insects and other invertebrates, there would be no birds and mammals, and many flowers would fail to pollinate, set seed or produce fruit. Bugs help to keep eachothers’ populations in check, avoiding large build-ups of unchecked pests.
You might notice ants clustered around primulas (primroses), where they are attracted to the waxy coating on the seeds. Bees are common now that the weather is warmer. You may see large iridescent dragonflies (and their smaller cousins the damselfly) swooping around the garden pond. Pond skaters and also water boatmen can be seen skating on the pond surface in search of food. Water boatmen will even dive down into the water in search of a meal - perhaps a tadpole.
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.
Bee homes are now widely available. Initial reports suggest that nesting boxes for colony-forming bees (such as bumble and honey bees) are not always effective, but homes for solitary bees (such as mason bees), made from tubes and tunnels in boxes, are more successful. They are also attractive. Models with a backing are more successful than those open at both ends. This kind of bee house is easy to make at home. Even a tin can filled with straws will do the job. South-facing positions, hanging at chest height or above, are best. Bees usually colonise these homes in spring, hibernating over winter to emerge the following spring. The boxes can be left out over winter, or taken down and stored in a safe place to avoid bees being eaten by predators.
Put out log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled trees. These provide valuable shelter for wildlife, and can be made into attractive features by planting up with ferns, primroses, or other suitable plants. A site well away from the house should ensure that unwanted creepy crawlies do not stray into domestic rooms.
Piles of slabs or rockery stones will act as a suitable wildlife habitat, as will old bales of straw, hay or prunings.
Corrugated iron or plastic laid on the soil can provide ‘tunnel’ hiding places for small reptiles and mammals looking for shelter and warmth.
As a very general rule, single flowers attract more insects than double blooms. Bear in mind that insects can be attracted to a particular plant for its nectar (Sedum spectabile), its pollen (Lavatera species), the shelter it provides (many ornamental grasses and other species) or its suitability for breeding (many native trees, shrubs, climbers, or weeds, such as the common nettle). A variety of insect-friendly planting fulfilling all these needs is likely to attract many more insects than is a mass planting of a single species fulfilling only one.
Hedges, even non-natives and conifer hedges, are a very good resource for wildlife, providing shelter, nesting sites and food for wildlife. Deciduous trees, particularly natives like oak, or coppiced hazel, are excellent for wildlife. Some insects that happily feed from a variety of plants are more selective about their breeding territory, and show a preference for native plants. Deciduous trees also support so much more plant life underneath their canopy, with bulbs, annuals and perennials thriving in their dappled shade. This is not the case underneath dense coniferous planting.
Be less frequent with your hedge trimming to provide greater shelter and food for insects and birds. Don’t trim any hedge that has birds nesting in it. You can get the growth under control once the fledglings have flown the nest and it is left abandoned.
You may wish to identify a suitable part of the garden to leave untouched as a wildlife area. A small patch behind a shed is perfectly fine if you’re worried about it looking untidy.
Although it is now too late to sow a wildflower meadow, you could still plant one using plug plants that have been grown on a little in the greenhouse, or outside. Spray a weedkiller containing glyphosate on patches of the existing grass. Plant the plug plants into the bare patches once the grass has died. 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.
Recently 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.
Recently sown annual wildflowers do not need mowing. Just leave them to develop and flower, but be aware that will only last one year, and will die back completely in the autumn.
What to look out for this month
More and more summer migrant birds are arriving now with the most common being the willow warbler, which should be appearing in large numbers by early May. They can often be seen in gardens, but are largely insectivorous so are unlikely to visit bird feeders. Look for them at the ends of branches, searching the undersides of leaves for aphids. Another very similar bird is the chiff chaff, which can often only be distinguished by the very different songs. The chiff chaff's song is how it gets its name, a repeated "chiff chaff" sound, whereas the willow warbler has a far more melodic, rippling sound.
As their name suggests, slow worms are not the fastest of reptiles. They feed on slow moving invertebrates such as slugs and spiders, so can often be found hunting after rain or at dusk, when their prey is more active. Slow worms prefer humid conditions and will generally spend most of the day hiding under rocks and logs; including these features will help to attract the legless lizards to your garden.
By May, any frogspawn in your pond should have hatched, and depending on where you live may have done so quite some time ago. Tadpoles take about 3 months to develop into frogs and it can be fascinating to watch the changes take place. Look for hind legs developing, followed by the front legs and the gradual loss of the tail. Less obvious may be the point at which the tadpoles switch from water breathers to air breathers, developing lungs and losing their gills. This process is generally completed about 9 weeks after hatching, and you will notice them coming up to the surface to breathe.
One of our less popular insects arrives at this time of year, often with a bang. A thud against a window may signal the arrival of a cockchafer beetle attracted to the light. These are large beetles which can often be seen (and heard) buzzing around a light at this time of year, having emerged from the soil where they may have spent up to 5 years in their larval stage. The main reason for their unpopularity is their appetite, with adults feeding voraciously on plant leaves and flowers and the grubs feeding on plant roots, often causing serious damage to crops.
Little flashes of iridescent blue will be appearing in gardens throughout the UK as the common blue butterfly takes to the wing. These have only just pupated, having spent the winter in their caterpillar stage. You might be lucky enough to find a chrysalis and even see the adult emerge from it, but if not you will get more chances; these are short lived once they reach their adult stage and there will be one or two more broods throughout the year.