We love wildlife. We're British. We love frogs, hedgehogs, ladybirds, and dragonflies; we spend [pound]180m a year just on wild birdseed. My friend Lucy actually decided who to sell her house to, by working out who'd be guaranteed to keep on looking after the frog pond. Having said all that, as a nation we can also be pretty useless. One recent statistic suggested that at any one time a startling 80 per cent of our garden bird feeders are totally empty. So what's going on with us and nature?
We all generally start off enthusiastic about encouraging wildlife. There's nothing quite as nice as going to clean up your bird box in winter and finding a neat little woven nest inside, which tells you some eggs actually got laid in it. But sometimes things are not so simple. How many of us have bought some amazing palace for hedgehogs but have watched it rot away, never once playing host to any Mrs Tiggy-Winkle?
"What do you expect?" says Andrew Cannon from the British Trust for Ornithology, who argues there is almost no wildlife value to be had from the average British back garden: "In my garden, fledgling blue tits, a species of no conservation concern, are busy devouring expensive, imported peanuts whose production occupied prime agricultural land in a poor country." Harsh. But others are a bit more optimistic: recent work suggests that gardens may be more important places for wildlife than people have hitherto thought.
One of those optimists is Stefan Buczacki, chair of Gardeners' Question Time and a big garden wildlife enthusiast. His current bugbear? Decking. "I cannot, thank goodness, foresee anything else as counterproductive to wildlife imposing itself on our national consciousness in the near future... Decking is biologically almost sterile." For Buczacki, there are many small actions that the gardener can take to encourage wildlife (beyond the major one of letting your decking rot, "with any luck"). To start with, Buczacki is clear on the danger of cats. A survey by The Mammal Society, in 2003, estimated that domestic cats catch and kill an astonishing 92 million animals every year, including 27 million birds. There's only one advantage to cats, according to Tina Bennett at the Nest Box Company: "If you want to know whether your nest box is being used, cats are a brilliant indication. If the birds are in residence, they'll sit and watch one for hours."
Bennett is a great champion of the new breed of wildlife boxes, which don't just include homes for birds. She sells boxes for bats, hedgehogs, butterflies, and even specialist items for dormice. Bees are another creature increasingly being offered the wildlife answer to Barratt Homes. You can buy sets of tubes which will be colonized by solitary mason bees, laying a single egg in each one. The one I bought my ex never worked, I have to admit; but my friend Anne bought a nice wooden version for her four-year-old son, and it was a total hit: "He was so thrilled - within days all the little ends of the tubes were getting sealed up. He kept running out to check."
I'm starting to realize that it's really important for our first faltering garden conservation efforts to work. If they don't, we feel cheated and stupid. If they do, we feel a wonderful warm glow, and we go on to try different, additional wildlife tricks. So what's the best way to ensure we get the encouragement of success?
For birds, there are some good tips around. Even in late May it's not too late to put up nest boxes. Birds need time to get to know where their local boxes are - they don't just flock to one straight off, like humans making a beeline for a luxurious new local gastropub. Even with the odourless, water-based treatments that good manufacturers use, new boxes do smell, well: new. But if you install boxes now, you'll be able to let your bird residents acclimatize themselves to the boxes' existence before next spring. …