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What can I do for biodiversity?

Mary Green provides 10 ways to ‘think global, act local’.

Last month I wrote about some of the things we could collectively do locally to help with biodiversity. Biodiversity – maintaining a habitat for all natural life – is one of the key ecological issues we have, along with climate change, pollution and depletion of natural resources.

I wrote about how farmers, local councils and other bodies could improve the environment for wildlife – and us. This month I will concentrate on what each of us as individuals can do for biodiversity.

To tackle environmental issues, you have to “think global and act local”. Here are some big thoughts you can have for the new decade, and how you can act on them locally, in your own life.

1: Don’t see “nature” as primarily there for your benefit, to improve your physical or mental health (though it will) or escape into for the weekend. Treat it with respect and get to know it first. Spend time really looking at the natural world around you. Everywhere is covered with plants, which also live under the soil in their roots. Birds, mammals and smaller creatures live on these plants.

Everything feeds on and feeds something else. Nothing is ever wasted. Try keeping a daily wildlife diary so you have to spot something every day, and notice how things live.

2: Stop thinking about creatures and plants as pests and weeds. In the balance of nature there’s no such thing. I heard a radio presenter recently saying that we shouldn’t hate wasps. Wasps, she said, were really useful – they preyed on other pests which destroy crops.

All this did was exempt wasps but carry on demonising the other insects. We need them all, however irritating. In the same way we need nettles, brambles, ground elder and all the other plants we call weeds. You can change the way you speak about nature – no labels as pests or weeds – and see them differently.

3: This means rethinking our ideas about beauty and cuteness. A wasp or hoverfly isn’t pretty whereas a blue butterfly is, but both are needed. Cute furry animals don’t need more protection than slugs and snails. Dandelions are just as beautiful as roses, and far more environmentally valuable. Look at images of all wildlife, not just cute furry animals with big eyes, or pretty flowers. See how delicate and intricate they all are. Watch a bramble patch for a while.

4: It follows from this that we shouldn’t use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. All are meant to kill wildlife. Whatever you do to kill a creature or a plant will have knock-on effects on the whole environment. Manage your house and garden without any of these chemicals and see if you can get your neighbours to do so too.

By allowing slugs you will protect thrushes and hedgehogs. By not weedkilling dandelions you will provide vital nectar for early emerging insects. Fungi are essential for the natural cycle – our soft plants and trees need them.

5: Plants need to live and die in their natural cycle. So, don’t routinely mow or prune in your garden during the spring and summer. If you have to mow grass (for sports, say, or for walking access) keep this to a minimum: leave other areas of grass and just mow paths through. You’ll see a great diversity of plants come. You can cut it in winter.

Let hedges and trees flower and fruit and grow tall, and only trim them in winter if you have to. Leave seed heads on flowers until they have shed seeds. This way you will help the plants thrive, let nutrients go back into the soil, and provide habitat for insects and birds the year round.

6: In nature, dead leaves are a rich source of nutrients for the soil. Don’t sweep them up. Let them lie on any planted areas, just clearing paths through and getting them off hard surfaces if you want to. Dead twigs and clippings are great habitat for fungi and insects, so leave them in piles. No need to spend money on “bug hotels” and less to put in the garden waste bin. There’s no point putting up bat-boxes if you cut down and remove vegetation that hosts the insects bats feed on. Be untidy!

7: Include some native flowers in your garden as well as “garden” varieties. Non-native flowers may produce nectar, but they will not host insect larvae. Every insect has a special plant or plant group it feeds on when young. When the butterflies have got nectar from your buddleias, they will need native plants to lay their eggs on for next year. Native flowering trees and shrubs make great hedging round your garden and will feed insects and birds.

8: If you have wildflowers in your garden which you see as weeds, decide which ones you quite like and leave them to grow and flower alongside your garden ones. They will provide habitat for native species of insects. Let the others grow on a bit and if you feel you have to remove them, pull them by hand and compost them to add to the richness of your soil.

Or eat them, if you know what you are doing! “Weeds” are strong successful plants – herbs – and contain many beneficial chemicals. I had my first salad of dandelion, garlic mustard, cow-parsley and Cornish garlic on January 5!

9: Make compost out of everything you can. A simple heap left for a year will produce wonderful compost from green waste. If you want to include lots of cardboard and twiggy bits, you need to be more sophisticated about having a hotter compost system. If this is too daunting, get together with neighbours and do one together.

Don’t use artificial fertilisers. They disturb the balance of the soil and are actually unnecessary. Look at nature. It produces its own fertilisers. Don’t use peat: in fact, don’t use any soil material which comes from a different place. Your soil is right for your patch.

10: There is no bare soil in nature. Trees and plants take in carbon and lock it up in the soil. Every time we dig or rotavate or clear by covering with plastic, or even worse, weed-kill it, we have destroyed the complex balance of organisms in the soil and released the carbon back into the atmosphere. Arable farming, which involves clearing the ground every year, is the greatest cause of habitat loss in Britain.

So, only make holes to plant things and avoid bare earth. Think about layers of plants, from ground cover to soft low ones to tall woody ones with climbers and shrubs in between. Don’t cover ground with decking or paving unless you have to. If you have to, say for parking, put flowering plants in tubs round it, and make the most of native hedging.

There is a basis for ten actions – and I could easily think of ten more! The great thing is that by acting for biodiversity you will also help counter climate change, depletion of resources and pollution. For example, leaving hedges to grow long and tall helps them absorb diesel particulate pollution.

Following a no-dig method helps absorb carbon and slow down climate change. Using your own compost instead of artificial fertilisers and not using peat helps save the earth’s resources. Not mowing a patch of grass allows it to absorb excess water and prevents flooding.

Don’t worry if you can’t do everything. If you do even half of this, you can be helping restore our local habitat. What’s more, it’s enjoyable, finding out more about what’s around us, and seeing how to help it without feeling you have to control it.

Here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago for St Valentine’s Day, our early spring festival.

St Valentine
Those medieval poets who invented romantic love
How would they see us now, sweet Valentines,
Presenting hot-house roses that look like plastic
And sitting in with our M & S dinner for two?
I’ve never got the point of dating sites, or lonely hearts –
Start with the relationship and seek someone to fit –
I still see it the old fashioned way. There’s a person
Comes into your life, by any road, windfall or ice fall
And you work out what the hell to do with them.
They move into your days, your heart, sometimes your body
And when you look around you find
You are now walking in another direction
Where strange flowers grow and all the maps are gone.
Or not, of course, and they just touch your life
And you move on the way you want to go.
Not just romance or lust, but friendship too
So unpredictable. You meet someone who seems
Just right to get along with, sharing your views
But somehow you never like them. Someone else
An odd choice, living with a mind so different,
Becomes a fast friend, walking alongside you.
How lovely that this mystery endures
People who fill the corners of your life.

Mary Green
Mary Green
I have been writing a monthly Nature Diary for The Village magazine since 2008.

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