Britain gardens

Posted on March, 01 2012

Gardens grow wildlife conservation 

Gardens grow wildlife conservation

As urban areas expand, the potential for gardens to provide habitat for nature becomes more important. The Homes for Wildlife programme of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is a model for wildlife conservation, even of declining species like song thrushes and bumblebees. It uses mass popular education to facilitate wildlife-friendly steps for homeowners. The implementation of the programme at elderly care homes provides powerful evidence of benefits to humans of bringing wildlife into gardens.

Keywords: gardens, conservation, habitat, wildlife surveys, biodiversity

The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) programme Homes for Wildlife was launched in 2007. The RSPB provides advice to the public to help wildlife – ranging from birds and mammals to insects and amphibians. There is particular focus on species that have declined, e.g. house sparrows, song thrushes, bumblebees, butterflies, and hedgehogs.

The public can receive tailored and individualised advice from the RSPB on what actions are wildlife-positive in gardens, even on windows and balconies, e.g. window boxes and window feeders. The RSPB also engages the public in wildlife surveys for conservation purposes. In 2008 the geographic division of documented participation in Homes for Wildlife was 12% urban, 48% suburban and 40% rural.

Everybody can act
There is an extremely low threshold for participation. People without gardens can participate by setting up window-feeders or plants on balconies, or doing wildlife species counting. The huge range of activities includes building a pond, putting up a nesting box, or planting trees. Participation may involve a single action or hundreds of actions at a particular place.

In 2008, some 54,000 people registered, 3.4 million actions were proposed to participants through advice sheets, and some 310,000 actions were taken and reported to the RSPB. Further, some 4,000 members of the public participated in the RSPB’s wildlife survey. The RSPB’s Homes for Wildlife conservation scheme and design is large-scale, highly participatory, and covers a large area.

Gardens more important
The increasing importance of urbanised/suburbanised areas for conservation is an additional factor. Private gardens – residential yards – in Britain cover twice as much land area as Britain’s nature reserves. Home gardens represent 23% of total urban land area in Britain, and can take up as much as 60% of an urban area’s residential zones. In Sweden, the total garden area of single family homes represents circa 30% of the total area of the largest 100 urban areas. A 1998 study noted that up to 50% of high-density residential neighbourhoods in the US city of Tucson, Arizona consisted of pervious (unpaved) surfaces.

The role of gardens can be even more important for species in decline and RSPB motivates the Homes for Wildlife programme based on wildlife’s increasing reliance on gardens for food, water, and shelter. Britain’s population of house sparrows dropped by over two-thirds in the last 30 years. Research suggests that the decline is due in part to a lack of insects for feeding young. Homes for Wildlife works against this, for example, by promoting measures to attract more insects into gardens.

Popular actions and surveys
Among 100s of recommendations, some of the most popular have been providing seed mixes for house sparrows and starlings, growing a range of plants including flowering, nectar-rich plants, and growing plants attractive to insects in tubs. Providing dense and thorny bushes that provide cover for song thrushes and blackbirds and providing nesting boxes for small birds have also been popular.

The Homes for Wildlife surveys included a bird survey where participants were asked to count four species of birds once a week in April and to record nesting in gardens. Over the course of the year there was a swift and house martin survey (in July), an amphibian survey (in May), an invertebrate (insect) survey, and a nocturnal mammal survey (in July, of bats, hedgehogs).

Nature nurtures
Research over several decades has pointed to a range of health benefits as a result of contact with nature, and recent research finds humans benefit from contact with higher levels of species richness (one measure of biodiversity). These benefits include general psychological wellbeing, sense of place, and sense of belonging.

This appears to be consistent with experiences from the implementation of Homes for Wildlife at elderly care homes. Residents, staff, even relatives and visitors benefit from therapeutic environments, greater opportunities for contact, discussion, and friendships, and a wide range of activities like making seed cakes for birds and creating habitats. The benefits for residents and staff, and their enthusiasm, have been strong enough to solve the problem of limited staff time for implementing the programme. The garden of a BUPA care home in Ashby-de-la-Zouch (Leicestershire) now has a ‘hedgehog hotel’, ‘butterfly bistro’, ‘bugs’ bed and breakfast’, and ‘insect inn’.

The enjoyment of outdoors, nature, and wildlife, in easy reach and view from buildings, is a vital benefit where stimulation of the elderly and people with illnesses is important and difficult. It leads to a decisive change from the indoor-orientation of elderly care homes. One report describes a new lifestyle developing because of the Homes for Wildlife programme at a care home, e.g. a resident became more active and thereby no longer suffered from pressure ulcers from too much time in bed.

Other mass-participation conservation programmes
Other similar programmes include the USA National Audubon Society’s Audubon at Home Healthy Yard Pledge, the American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign and the USA National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Certification Scheme. There are also many popular wildlife observation programmes to collect data for conservation purposes, such as the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch and Project FeederWatch in Canada and the US.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “Homes for Wildlife 2008 results”,

Carol Davis, "How nature can be used to create a therapeutic outdoor environment", Nursing Older People, April 2011, Volume 23, Number 3

M.A. Goddard, A.J. Dougill, T.G. Benton, 2010, “Scaling up from gardens: biodiversity conservation in urban environments”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol.25 No.2

Susannah B. Lerman, Paige S. Warren, “The conservation value of residential yards: linking birds and people”, Ecological Applications, 21(4), 2011, pp. 1327–1339

Text by: Aaron Thomas

Blackbird, Turdus merula: adult male, on flowerpot in garden.
© Chris Gomersall (

Related links

Map Ashby/Britain gardens
Blue tit Parus caeruleus, juvenile, perched on garden fork with lupin seedpods.
© Ray Kennedy (