Wild Wanstead part V

Britain’s pollinatorsBritain’s pollinators

In the fifth of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project – which aims to transform Wanstead into a multi-garden nature reserve – Alex Deverill explains why suburbia is at the frontline in the battle to save Britain's pollinators.

More than three-quarters of people with a garden are now actively trying to help wildlife, according to a new survey from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). RHS chief horticulturist Guy Barter says we're no longer a nation of gardeners, we're a nation of wildlife gardeners.

And it's a good thing too. Last year, research in Germany found that in just 25 years, the population of flying insects had plummeted by 80%. It's a shocking figure, but really just tells us what we already know from the almost total absence of squashed bugs on our windscreens. What was once so abundant is now almost gone. Experts are calling it an ecological Armageddon. The way land is being managed in the UK – with our approach to intensive farming and urban development – is killing huge swathes of insect life through pesticides, pollution and loss of vegetation and habitat.

Insects are an integral part of our ecosystem. Around 80% of all wild plants are thought to need them for pollination and roughly 60% of birds use insects for food. A study by the RSPB into the dramatic decline in suburban sparrows found that starvation of chicks due to lack of invertebrate prey was the main cause of high levels of chick mortality.

Many people may not particularly like insects but they're essential for human activities too – they keep our soil fertile, degrade waste, pollinate our orchards and control pests, such as aphids.

The good news is that with so many private gardens in Wanstead, we're the ones in the driving seat and at least able to influence what happens to wildlife in our patch of London. The RHS survey found that some 40% of people are now specifically planting wildlife-friendly plants in their garden. Researchers say there is huge potential to turn suburban areas into giant nature reserves if enough gardens take part. With insect life in the countryside decimated by intensive crop production, there are now more species of wild bee living in suburbia than in farmland!

The nation is getting behind our beleaguered pollinators – meadow-style planting was a big trend among garden designers at the Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows. So, how can you recreate a bit of Chelsea magic in your own plot?

Alice Bowe, gardening columnist for The Times, recommends creating a naturalistic style of meadow planting in flower beds using domesticated varieties of wildflowers. The key is to create an unstructured effect by jumbling up flower heights and having tall but transparent plants dotted throughout the mix, even at the front.

If you want to have a go at creating the effect, some of the plants Alice recommends that are great for pollinators include:

  • Meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense 'Mrs Kendall Clark')
  • Red valerian (Centranthus ruber)
  • Field scabious (Knautia macedonica)
  • Baltic parsley (Cenolophium denudatum)
  • Brook thistle (Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' )
  • Wild marjoram (Origanum 'Rosenkuppel')

The UK's wildlife urgently needs help – it's great that so many people are now starting to do just that.

For more information on the Wild Wanstead project, including 10 'wild ways' to make your garden more welcoming to wildlife, visit wildwanstead.org

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