Squaring gardening for wildlife

Badgers leftover tulip bulb
Badgers leftover tulip bulb

I have always naturally gardened organically, environmentally call it what you will.  Even early on before the whole organic movement got full under steam I only occasionally used the odd bit of weed killer on a particular weed.  I have always encouraged wildlife; feeding the birds copious  amount of food and planting flowering plants with single flowers for bees and other pollinators.  To me it seemed the natural thing to do – instinctive.

However, over the last year I have increasingly fustrated with this approach.  If you read any book  or article on organic gardening they will all say at some point that it is hard to start with until you build  up the biodiversity of the site and thereby have a natural balance of predators and pests.  I would dispute this.  It  isn’t that simple and you  have to realise that it is one of those endeavours where you take one step forward and sometimes two back and you really have no control whatsoever over matters no matter what you think.

My disgruntlement started at the allotment where I tried to grow vegetables organically but every insect for miles around honed in on my plot even when it was one of only a few being cultivated.  I really think pigeons must have an amazing  sense of smell to be able to pinpoint my cabbages in a vast field in the middle of more or less nowhere.  It seemed the only answer was to  smoother everything in netting or enviromesh but even that backfired when we discovered a dead  grass snake tangled up in some netting which was incredibly distressing.

In my current garden, where I have created a garden from nothing over some eight years albeit it more industriously in the last five years, it seems that no matter what flowers I plant there are rarely any butterflies.  This  really disappoints me as I love butterflies and I presume it is because the surrounding gardens aren’t very floral but I don’t even get any migrating butterflies  who might pop in for a refuel en route.  I  do have lots of bees and other pollinators which is very good.

Possible viburnum  beetle damage
Possible viburnum beetle damage

I threw all my lilies two summers ago having finally had enough of the annoying lily beetle and in particular its disgusting excrement.  I used to have gorgeous lilies and I patiently picked off the beetles, squashing them but there comes a point when you really start to wonder if you have lost the battle and there is nothing worse than a pot of lilies with munched and tatty leaves.  Today  I realised that there is a high possibility that my Viburnum rhytidophyllum has been attacked by viburnum beetle.  I am ashamed to say  that it is only due to me having more time to garden, having given up the allotment, that I actually noticed it though the leaves are so munched I am surprised I didn’t notice it before.  I have always been told there is nothing to tackle lily  beetles but reading an article the other day  I discovered  that this wasn’t so and that there is a chemical I could spray on lilies but of course this isn’t organic and no doubt it would kill beneficial insects too.  On researching viburnum beetle it seems that I could use a spray in April but again there would be a question over how organic it was.  So I am presented with a dilemma so I carefully treat the plant or do I  leave it to nature and watch a significant sized plant become increasingly attacked and damaged. Pests such as the lily beetle and viburnum beetle aren’t preyed upon by predators in our gardens. I assume that this is because they are aliens to this country and therefore there is no predator but how do you square this with organic/wildlife gardening and managing your space.

However, all this pales into insignificance when you consider the trail of destruction left by the badger that has taken a liking to my garden.  We were thrilled back in November to discover a badger was visiting and spent some time watching him tidying up the bird food.  But like many a toddler he decided to push the boundaries and see what he could get away with and has had a lovely time digging up my tulip bulbs and generally turning the garden into real mess.  As if that wasn’t enough he leaves the chewed remains of the bulbs on the lawn for me to tidy up – talk about adding insult to injury.  I tried to ignore this  but on Boxing Day having not been in the garden for some days and seeing the result of a real rampage I was close to tears.  We decided to take control of the situation and blocked up the hole under the fence with some thick plastic from an old cold frame and metal rods.  New Years Eve saw me jumping out of my skin as the badger unable to get through its usual route decided to climb over the  fence onto the roof of the low bike shed and fall onto the patio.  Whilst it was a treat to see such a beautiful animal so close it was also very distressing for both of us.  I tried to help by unlocking the side gate but the badger pulled itself up  onto the garden and crashed  around for a while  before disappearing.  I think he may have used by epic compost pile to get back  over the fence although it seems he has tried to dig under our barrier.  The whole event left me with mixed emotions.  The last thing I want to do is cause an animal distress but at the same time I have put a lot of time and money into the garden especially in recent months.

I find myself wondering about the pros and cons of wildlife gardening.  After all we can’t choose what wildlife we attract; we can’t just have the nice birds, bees and butterflies.  If we try to attract one we will attract the less desirable other: the slugs and snails, aphids, mice, deer, squirrels  and even badgers.  It seems to me that the only way forward is to adopt a laissez  faire approach and accept that in reality we are only lodgers on our plot and the wildlife will come and go as it chooses regardless of our  wishes and all we can do is manage the consequences – good and bad however frustrating.

As for the badger, we haven’t seen  any sign of him since New Years Eve and I am hoping that the incident will have discouraged him but I  think  that hope is  a little optimistic.


Update 7th January – Good news  the RHS have advised that the viburnum damage is not viburnum beetle and probably some sort of caterpillar ot slug


22 Comments Add yours

  1. Diana Studer says:

    In all honesty, while I garden for wildlife, I don’t have any problems like yours. No deer, no badger. We do have mole rats, but they tunnel along eating bugs, and leaving my bulbs in peace. No lawn, so the tunnels don’t bother me either. It is sad to see chewed up remains of your tulip – I love bulbs!

  2. Helen I have adopted the same attitude especially where deer are concerned. I can only manage the damage and keep them at bay but they will breach the garden and my defenses and wreak havoc or it might be rabbits, chipmunks, voles or squirrels. And organic gardening is tough…but I will keep up my organics, put in plants for birds, butterflies and bees and try to keep that optimism…good luck and hopefully that badger will think twice.

  3. We had a chicken problem (they belonged to a neighbour) so we spent a fortune on fencing – I hope you have solved the badger problem by barricading him out! I try to garden for wildlife (I don’t kill slugs or lilybettles I collect them and release them at the other end of the field) but the whole point of gardening is to CONTROL the wildlife so I do resort to sprays sometimes. Difficult one!

  4. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Badgers are one animal that was not introduced to NZ by our ancestors – thank goodness! Amazing animals they may be but we don’t need them with all the other pests!

  5. hillwards says:

    A real dilemma, and you’re certainly taking the brunt of it. 😦 Hope that Brock finds somewhere with easier access to rampage instead.

  6. I can well imagine your frustration ! You can try placing chickenwire just under the surface above your bulbs and for butterflies there is nothing better than the butterfly bush; budleja and verbena bonariensis. Good luck !

  7. Alex says:

    I understand your frustration, we have had problems with badgers too, particularly with loss of chickens and chicks. On the other hand, it’s enchanting watching them rambling about in the dark. I think wildlife gardening can be difficult at times, the books make it sound so easy, and instant, but in reality, like good compost, it takes a lot of time and patience. It helps me to think of the bigger picture, there are over one million acres of private garden in the UK, all with the potential to provide sanctuary and corridors for wildlife, we may not always see the benefit, we are in our small way doing our bit- don’t get disheartened!

  8. djdfr says:

    By gardening we are intervening in the natural flow of things. We have to set our own limits. Sometimes enough is enough.
    I don’t plant tulips anymore.

  9. chorlton gardener says:

    this might help – it’s from the badger trust & even describes electric fences! http://www.badger.org.uk/_Attachments/Resources/55_S4.pdf

  10. There is an ongoing badger problem at the allotments. They nick the sweetcorn every year, without fail. I gave up growing it, but others perservere. Its quite funny seeing some of the fortresses that get built every year. A guy just down from me made one with palettes and old radiators, only for the badger to dig underneath.

    The committee trialled fencing and sonar, with no success.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post Helen. I garden organically, and sometimes it drives my wife mad when caterpillars get my brassicas or snails take my salads, but its just how I am. It probably doesn’t help that I’m become fairly laid back about things, and try and think of myself as part of the environment. If I grow something, I’m fair game.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jono
      I think badgers are a force you cant control as we have discovered. There havent been any signs of the badger since our New Years Eve incident so maybe the experience scared him off but I have a strong suspicion he will be back!! As for the rest of the bugs and pests I am happy to go along with nature but I have to be honest I am with your wife when it comes to caterpillars on brassicas – drove me mad. Apparently diluted milk is the way to go for brassicas though I never tried it

  11. Christie says:

    Certainly no badgers here in SE Queensland, where I might add we are currently sweltering in temperatures close to 40 degrees. Our little raiders are possums and hares. During Spring I nurtured my cos lettuce, fed and watered them, talked to them. I couldn’t believe my eyes one morning. The hare had fed well overnight and kept coming back thereafter for the bits missed. Ah well, one little creature appreciated my efforts.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Christie
      Thinking of you all in Australia. The temperatures and bush fires are being reported on our national news. Very worrying, keep safe

  12. Cathy says:

    Gosh, it is a dilemma. I try to live and let live where possible, and have so far tolerated rat runs in our woodland edge border but if my plants were regularly damaged I am unsure what path I would take, although some neighbours use poison which may well be keeping the population down. The local foxes don’t try and get in as the fences are more secure and we think our chickens are safe. No badger visits, and our main pests in terms of damage are Messieurs Squirrel and Collared Dove – irritating but tolerable

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Cathy
      Luckily our cat sees to rats and mice and is quite good at seeing off pigeons and squirrels but she isnt so sure about confronting a badger and I dont blame her!

    2. Cathy says:

      We get neighbours’ cats in our garden but I don’t think it makes any difference to the rats and squirrels, even though they act as if they own the territory! The sparrow hawk periodically sees off a few pigeons, and other birds unfortunately. Cat versus badger – hmm, interesting contest 🙂

  13. Eeek. I sympathise Helen. There is a badger that regularly visits the Old Forge – luckily most of the garden is ‘wild’ and he just roots about under the trees. I have seen one up on the drive at the Priory but luckily he hasn’t yet decided to come down into the garden – I don’t suppose the rabbit netting would stop him. As much as I’d love to see one again, I certainly don’t want a resident one. Let’s hope you scared him as much as he scared you. Dave

  14. Good for you, pointing out that this organic gardening lark isn’t all perfect natural pest control and pretty little critters. I really feel for you losing the tulip bulbs like that. So frustrating – and expensive. I tend to give up on plants that require too much attention to protect them from being predated upon, hence no more lilies, or use protection, hence my brassica netting. No easy answers, just a question of doing what is right for you, like giving up the allotment despite the “growing your own” hype. Though when push comes to shove, I think my personal philosophy is that I am only a temporary caretaker of this space, and I try to live by a horticultural version of “first, do no harm”. Which also happens to suit my lazy nature and health issues!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Janet
      I dont tend to have plants that have challenging requirements either as I just dont have the time or memory!!

  15. Jean says:

    Helen, This really resonated for me. While we don’t have badgers here, I do have woodchucks and deer that rampage through the garden while I’m asleep and leave the damage for me to view in the garden. I often find myself caught between the image I would like to maintain of myself as a kinder, gentler sort of gardener and the murderous rages I find myself in when I come upon the scenes of these gardening crimes.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jean – I did laugh and I agree heartedly with the feeling of murderous rages.

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