More than four fifths of the homes in the UK have a garden, providing a valuable foraging and breeding habitat for a vast number of species.
On the debit side, domestic cats can and do play a part in making some gardens far from safe for birds and small mammals - the Mammal Society estimates that up to 275 million prey items are taken each year by felines, including 55 million birds.
Against that, it is fair to assume that the birds which are caught are usually common species which benefit from regular feeding by householders, leading to improved winter survival rates and better breeding. Nor is there any indication that cats have had any serious effect on populations of less common birds, which tend to be shyer and less likely to come into gardens anyway.
A more definite negative is over-zealous use of chemicals in gardens, which wipes out countless invertebrates regarded as pests as well as many which definitely are not.
Manicured lawns, for instance, are sought by many property owners and all sorts of artificial chemical assistance are applied to try and obtain this equally artificial shangri la. Even in sandy soil, where creating and maintaining a quality lawn is often love's labour lost, bare patches, however small, tend to be seen as a threat to civilisation as we know it even if they are on the margins.
Such patches provide a wonderful habitat for probably our most attractive mining bee, Andrena fulva, and the much rarer cuckoo bee which cleptoparasitises the species, Nomada signata. Watching perfect grass grow may be an ideal for some people but the sight of one or more fiery female Andrena fulva bees flying across the lawn and into the burrow (as shown above) outscores it by a margin of around 100 to 1. There are more pictures of Andrena fulva and Nomada signata on the Bees page below.
Yet the majority of gardens offer a safe resource, particularly those with ponds lacking goldfish. Garden ponds can be vital, given the importance of water for life, the disappearance of many ponds in the wild over the last 50 years and the effects warmer summers and drier winters are having in drying out a number of wet habitats each year.
Gardens also have the huge advantage of bringing nature literally within reach, as with the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly shown below, though whether this is a bonus across the board is debatable. Nature in the raw is not always a pretty sight, and a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) zooming in to catch a Blackbird (Turdus merula) or Great Tit (Parus major) goes down poorly in the majority of households, even in those whose occupants claim to be bird lovers. To some extent this response is because, erroneously applying a warped notion of human morality, nature is widely perceived as being by definition sweet and lovely if it is beautiful.
Additionally, the majority of people show a preference for birds and mammals, sometimes absurdly seeing such as Badgers (Meles meles) and Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) almost as pets rather than wild animals. Not that the mammals are supposed to prey on other creatures, defecate, dig up the lawn or borders, or damage any of the property.
By the same token, as hinted at above, invertebrates are often excluded from the narrow if rosy vision of life generated in the sitting room. Those that are coloured yellow and black, from whichever family they come, are widely viewed with suspicion or downright hostility, and often end up being chased and squashed.
No question, nest boxes for birds, together with suitable cover, channels of passage and food for both mammals and birds, are popular and effective, but a little more understanding of the value and requirements of smaller creatures would be beneficial. Happily progress is being made, with such television programmes as Gardener's World doing their bit to emphasise why it is worth helping the 'right' sort of invertebrates. In other words, mainly bees, ladybirds and hoverflies - but not aphids.
This includes putting in as many, preferably perennial, pollen-bearing plants that flower from February to November, starting with Crocuses and finishing with Ivy (Hedera helix), which, it probably still needs pointing out, may pose a problem for mortar in walls but has no negative impact on trees. Other items to provide include dead wood, piles of stones or pebbles and leaf litter.
Above all, it is important to plant deciduous trees and shrubs rather than cherry laurel or the conifer crew headed by loathsome leylandii, the most abundant tree in the country and one that blights thousands of properties visually and in terms of biodiversity.
If all this is done, nature should be a bit closer to the Promised Land in the average eighth of an acre.
Of course even homes without a garden have plenty of wildlife, albeit not necessarily of the kind the owners like. Butterflies and moths (providing they are not clothes moths) are accepted but spiders - especially the fast-moving and sizeable House Spider (Tegenaria gigantea) - together with flies and wasps or even bumblebees are rarely welcomed. The same goes for dragonflies, which sadly can instil considerable dread in some people who seemingly fear they might be attacked and/or have part of their anatomy eaten.
More than 80 per cent of the photographs in the following pages were taken in a single garden in a residential road backing on to a public park with good deciduous woodland within two kilometres of the North Downs and only 800 metres from a busy town servicing the centre of a borough with an overall population of more than 100,000. This wildlife is the subject of my book My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden, which was published in 2013. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. Since publication around 200 new species have been found in the garden, confirming just how rich the habitat there, and in the areas surrounding the site, are.
Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.