The 2019 State of Nature report presented a gloomy picture of the declines in UK wildlife since the 1970s. According to the report, butterfly and moth populations are down by 17% and 25% respectively and 26% of UK mammal species are at risk of becoming extinct in the UK. Hedgehogs have been in “massive long-term declines.” There are multiple causes of these diminishing animal populations – habitat loss, widespread use of pesticides and herbicides along with other sources of pollution and climate change are included. There is a clear connection with human activities – our actions are having catastrophic effects on our wildlife. This picture is echoed the world over. In many places there are species that have gone extinct before they were even recorded and there are yet more species to discover. Our inland behaviours even impact the oceans as excess fertilisers and manure from animal farming runs off into rivers, causing toxic algal blooms in rivers and the oceans.
Plants and animals need connected areas of habitat. This ensures healthy breeding populations, a range of territory to avoid animals coming into conflict with others and the ability to roam to find food. In addition, it offers mobility, which is essential as our global temperatures become warmer. Animal and plant species are moving northwards at a rate of 4.5 metres per day as a result of the climate crisis. Although trees are pretty static, in a sense they are mobile as they spread seeds to other areas. This requires suitable habitat to move into and is especially important with climate change adaptation. Bees can travel 5 miles in a day. They can go up to 40 minutes before they need to feed, but this means that there must be food available within that time or they will die. Through the seasons, we need to have flowering plants that are accessible to a range of pollinators – so a diversity of flowers within the seasons and through much of the year. Possibly the single biggest threat to bees is the use of neonicotinoids and other similar chemicals. Pet flea treatments have also been implicated in insect declines.
Residential gardens are thought to account for 521,872 hectares in Great Britain (almost 22% of the total land area). Community gardens and allotments add almost another 8000 hectares. These areas can have a particularly high diversity of life. While we can have some influence in agricultural practices, by choosing organic food, we have even greater agency through our gardens, allotments and community gardens. We can grow our own food and other plants without using pesticides and weedkillers and with green manure and mulching, applied appropriately rather than excessive shop-bought fertilisers. We can also help through composting or buying peat-free compost.
Our gardens and allotments can provide essential corridors as well food and habitat for all sorts of animals, including pollinators. Perhaps the most well-known example of wildlife corridors are the hedgehog highways whereby people are encouraged to leave a hole in their fences for hedgehogs to pass. Hedgehogs can roam up to 3 km in a night, searching for food.
While, for many, the focus on the benefits to wildlife is reason enough, there are also many benefits to humans as well. These include reductions in noise, flooding, keeping the urban environment cooler and reductions in air pollution. Connection with outdoor nature is also strongly correlated with improvements in well-being – from reducing blood pressure to the chemicals in soil that have similar effects to anti-depressants.
The idea behind nature-connected neighbourhoods is to encourage people to share their gardens, allotments and balconies with wildlife, providing tips and resources, as well as connecting local communities and hopefully pairing up people without access to a garden or allotment with people who, for whatever reason, would like some help with their outdoor space. It is also about promoting nature connectedness – restoring our relationship with the natural world.
A good place to start in your local area is with Hedgehog Streets. In making our outdoor spaces friendly to hedgehogs, we bring benefits to other species too – by having plants and wilder areas in the garden, not using pesticides or weedkillers etc. The site has letters and posters you can print to encourage neighbours to get involved as well as presentations and lots of advice.
Also check out BugLife for some invertebrate-friendly gardening tips. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is also wonderful and has some information about plants for bumblebees. The Wildlife Trusts are another great source of ideas.
Our next steps are to reach out to local organisations (local authority and conservation groups) as well as our local neighbours. In the meantime, watch this space for further news on Nature-Connected Neighbourhoods.