How to make your fence a benefit – not a barrier – to wildlife

posted in: Natural Word, Wildlife gardening | 0

Those of us at home during the lockdown can take the opportunity to enhance our garden boundaries for wildlife and make our gardens more beautiful in the process.

If you have a garden, take a close look at all the edges and boundaries. If you have a fence, is it a place where birds can feed and raise their families? Is it somewhere where insects can buzz and flit amongst the flowers? Or is it a just a sterile row of planks or a smooth, lifeless wall with no way through for wildlife?

Wall and fence
This small garden area has a wall and a fence, but there is a hedgehog tunnel under the fence and an iron gate with room for a hedgehog to squeeze under further along the wall

Like most species, humans are pretty territorial, but far too many of us live behind barriers that keep not only our neighbours out, but also roaming wildlife such as hedgehogs and newts.

The territories and boundaries used by other species are different from our own – and often go beyond single gardens, as other species need to find enough food, water, shelter and members of the same species to breed with.

If you had an aerial view of a typical road or lane with houses and gardens, showing all the wildlife comings and goings and all the different edges of territories, I imagine you would see a very complicated-looking Venn diagram of overlapping circles and other shapes, with very few species staying in one place. If you could track a hedgehog’s journey from garden to garden overnight, perhaps it would look something like my diagram.

Garden diagram with hedgehog routes
An imagined hedgehog route around a residential area

We should bear this in mind when thinking about our gardens and their boundaries. ‘Our’ bits of property are only ours in human law, and remain ours for a short time in the grand scheme of things, which is why it is so important to share our love and understanding of nature with others, including children. Fortunately, it is very easy to share our gardens with wildlife, because nature abhors a void and usually tries hard to overcome our boundaries too!

While keeping and even enhancing our own privacy, we can make almost any kind of fence or wall into something beautiful that helps insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and maybe even reptiles. Just think of your garden edge as a great corridor, highway and place of shelter for wildlife.

Here are some tips and ideas:

A fence tunnel

If you cannot make a hole in an existing fence to let hedgehogs through, why not scrape out a shallow tunnel underneath, or build a new fence with parts of the bottom above ground level. (This might help against rotting, too.) Use only wildlife-friendly paints and preservatives in the garden.

Hedgehog in garden
A hedgehog, spotted on the trailcam, walks along this garden border each night and crosses into other gardens through a hole under the fence

A vertical garden extension

Extend your garden upwards by growing climbing plants – the more beautiful and scented and the more covered in berries the better! Include native plants or similar species, as caterpillars (never forget the caterpillars) may have a diet restricted to certain plants, including shrubs, trees and grasses that you can allow to grow tall near your fence. A fence or wall covered in plants gives butterfly pupae cover, too. Many small species can climb over to find a mate. (Adding extra poles to support a sturdy trellis can protect weak fences from damage by heavy plants.) Even pots hanging from fences change a blank canvas to a living picture.

Clematis on garden border
This clematis has added extra wildlife value to a wire garden border fence

Grow a hedge

Replace your fence with a hedge. Although a little patience is required while your row of hedging plants grows, it is so satisfying watching the process. Different shrubs grow at different speeds and in different shapes, so choose your species mix carefully. A native mixed hedge or a mix of native and non-native species adds extra interest and attracts more wildlife. You can choose hedging plants that include evergreens (like wild privet and holly) and leaf-retaining deciduous hedging trees (like beech and hornbeam) and you can allow ivy and other climbing plants to grow into the mix too, for added privacy in winter. Our lowest hedge is covered in scented clematis flowers at the moment.

Hedge and fence
Contrast between a living hedge and a solid fence
New hedge
This quite new hedge, with a mix of native and exotic species bordering the front garden,
is replacing a row of Leylandii trees that were too tall and wide for the space

I enjoy pruning hedges by hand, thanks to some great long-handled tools and a very safe sort of garden ladder. If you can do so, it’s much quieter and you are less likely to shred overwintering caterpillars and pupae, nests or sheltering species. It is also important to do all possible pruning and trimming outside of the spring and summer nesting season.

Goldfinches are among the many bird species that appreciate a garden hedge

Cornish hedging

A Cornish hedge is simply wonderful and (in my opinion) is the ultimate wildlife hedge. It is (certainly at the bottom of our garden in East Cornwall) a bank made out of two piles of stones filled with earth in the middle, and also covered in earth (and therefore covered in flowering plants). There is a hedge of shrubs and trees on top. In other areas, there may be more visible stone and less in the way of outer earth and trees.

Bluebells in roadside Cornish hedge
Bluebells in May along a roadside Cornish hedge close to my home
Hawthorn in a Cornish hedge
Hawthorn – a beautiful and beneficial star of the Cornish hedge
Lovely elderflowers in a Cornish hedge in May

The design/pattern of the stones varies from place to place too, but all Cornish hedges offer countless useful nooks and crannies for wildlife.

Cornish hedge wall, herringbone style
A Cornish hedge in East Cornwall with a herringbone design

Hedgehogs are able to climb well, and so a Cornish hedge is not necessarily a barrier. Gateways in hedges, fences and walls are useful, though. We are privileged to have a Cornish hedge at the very bottom of our garden, where it adjoins a field.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust produced a simple Cornish hedge diagram in a 2008 edition of Pawprint, our former newsletter for younger members before we subscribed to Wildlife Watch magazine (rough initial design and words by Rowena Millar, final drawing by artist Sarah McCartney). If you want a Cornish hedge of your own, look online for advice and professional hedge builders.

Cornish hedge diagram courtesy of Cornwall Wildlife Trust. By Rowena Millar and Sarah McCartney
Cornish hedge diagram written and designed by me and drawn and enhanced by artist Sarah McCartney. Courtesy of Cornwall Wildlife Trust, from a historical edition of their former Pawprint magazine for younger members

Walls for wildlife

If you have a wall, is it a home for wildlife? We are fortunate to have a tall brick wall around the larger part of our back garden. It’s over 100 years old and has gained in wildlife value over those years without falling down. You can make a home for wildlife by leaving nooks and crannies, or growing climbers and wall plants. Wires can hold them in place as they grow. A textured surface can help mosses, lichens and tiny plants to take hold, and a bit of dung or compost (or even yoghurt) mixed with water will help accelerate the process. 

Hedgehogs are able to access the walled part of the garden through the gateway

Remember that fences and walls provide useful navigation aids for birds and especially bats, and a living fence will provide insects to eat along the way, too.

Rowena on garden wall
Here I am on the wall (trying not to be disruptive during the bird nesting season), trimming a bit of ivy which was spreading over the roof of the lean-to greenhouse behind the wall

I hope I have convinced you to make the most of your garden boundary, and to remember that a boundary for people need not be a barrier to wildlife. As a corridor and a vertical extension to your garden, it can enhance your property and improve the whole area for people and wildlife.

Comma butterfly
Comma butterfly on bramble flowers growing in a Cornish hedge

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