Britain’s Largest Wildlife Reserve

A Wasp Beetle on an apple tree in our garden.

One of the great things about natural history is that you can study it anywhere. Sit down for a cup of coffee on a park bench, look down at your feet and there will be insects moving around, each one busy about its own business. A surprising number of species can be found in an average back garden. Take butterflies for example. This year in my garden I’ve seen: Peacock butterflies, Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Speckled Woods, Brimstones, Large Whites, Small Whites and Green-Veined Whites! Granted these are all common species, but this is just a small patch of suburban Cambridge. Start looking for the smaller creepy-crawlies and the list expands. The flower borders around our stretch of stubbly lawn are alive with tiny creatures. Get down on your hands and knees and peer closely at the earth, and the shady patches under plants reveal themselves to be teeming                                                           with life.

A garden orb web spider on its web, next to our patio.

In the damper areas are groups of tiny springtails, each the size of a grain of sand, but velvety and striped like a diminutive zebra. Soft and nutritious, these tiny arthropods must live in constant fear for their lives. And not without reason; voracious predators stalk the open areas among my marigolds, intent on finding their prey. My favourite are sparkly little ground beetles that have wing cases like polished black plastic and enormous alien eyes. Untiringly they make their way among the giant clods of soil, pausing to raise themselves on calloused forelegs to look around. At only a few millimetres in length, their splendid Latin name belies their minute size: Notiophilus bigattatus. But springtails aren’t defenceless. As their name implies, these Tiggers of the insect world have bottoms that are made out of springs. Or nearly so. The last few segments of their abdomen are specialised into a special appendage call a furcula, which they can lock back, like the catch of a mousetrap. If a predator attacks, they release this catch and propel themselves to safety! By the careful application of a long piece of probing grass, it is quite easy to set springtails off and watch them catapult into the air.

A tiny springtail, sitting on a piece of soil. Photo taken down a microscope.

And the list doesn’t stop there: I’ve found dozens of different species all living in our garden. It doesn’t take much to increase their numbers still further. All you need do is be a little less tidy in your garden. Leave some of your lawn to grow long and grasshoppers take up residence, filling the late summer with their zither. Plant flowers such as daisies and sedum, with their open nectar-rich blooms, and a wealth of bees, butterflies and hoverflies arrive. Best of all, dig a pond and brightly-coloured damselflies and dragonflies soar in. Even the smallest urban garden has the potential to be a minute nature reserve. What’s more these areas add up: back gardens in the UK are thought to cover about 270,000 hectares, an area over three quarters the size of Cambridgeshire! Taken together wildlife gardeners can make a real difference to wildlife in the UK. So why not relax the standards in your back garden. You could save hours by cutting back on the mowing regime and benefit wildlife as well. For me any additional effort to encourage wildlife is more than made up for by the excitement of seeing what new creature moves in. From Red Admirals to Wasp Beetles, and Garden Orb Webs to Privet Hawk moths, you never know what species you’ll see next. And all without leaving home.

If you would like to learn more about wildlife, why not sign up to some of the courses we have coming up at Madingley Hall, such as Marine biology and conservation: exploring planet ocean, Birds in spring and Wild Madingley.

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