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Wildlife in the compost heap

David Chapman / 27 October 2021

Compost heaps can make a surprisingly effective wildlife refuge. Find out what role they can play in your garden's biodiversity.

Compost heap
Compost heaps don’t need to be elaborate, a simple heap of material is fine, build it close to a pond or other wild area of your garden to be most attractive to wildlife

I’m not going to start this article by pretending that compost is the sexiest of subjects and the only time I can remember getting any amusement from compost was watching Lenny Henry impersonating David Bellamy in Compost Corner when I was a child watching Tiswas.

Not funny, not sexy but compost is a serious subject, it can reduce waste, promote wildlife, support our gardens and help save the world.

There is an irreconcilable lack of logic to packing off a green bin to the local council every fortnight and then going down to the garden centre to spend money on compost. Make a compost heap in your garden and your waste is transformed into compost. Immediately you have saved money, but more importantly you have reduced the need for green waste and compost bags to be transported and the plastic that’s used to bag it.

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I’ve said that compost is serious stuff, well I stand by that. But my other comment about compost not being sexy was a little glib. Actually, as I get older, I am beginning to get a little more turned-on by the brown stuff. It is remarkably satisfying to see your garden and kitchen waste turned into such a beautifully textured, fertile material and when I handle it I feel a little tingle of excitement.

The key to getting the feel and texture right is to mix layers of kitchen waste with alternating layers of grass clippings and drier textured materials such as paper, wood chippings or thin twigs and branches cut into small pieces. Larger logs and branches can’t be added directly to compost heaps but these make great habitat piles and after a few years of decay can then be added to give it more body. Keeping the heap moist will help the process of decay but don’t let it get too wet and don’t put cooked food onto your compost heap because this might attract rats.

Some people put a piece of tarpaulin over their heap to keep the heat in and a piece of old carpet (natural fibres, only) can help weigh it down. These ideas help speed up the process of decay but a simple, uncovered pile of material will do the trick and might look a little more pleasing in a small garden.

If aesthetics are important then it might be worth considering a purpose-built compost bin. These keep things tidy but if you want to promote wildlife avoid the solid, plastic-sided bins. Obviously buying plastic is not good for the environment but these bins also prevent wildlife getting access to the compost. It is better to use a wooden arrangement with gaps between the wooden slats.

Once you have thought about the type of compost heap you want the next job is to find the best spot for it. Having the heap on bare ground means that worms and other invertebrates can get easy access. If you want your heap on concrete then add some horse manure (complete with a supply of worms) or some compost from another heap to get it started with invertebrates. It might be most desirable to have it tucked away in an out-of-sight part of the garden but to help nature it’s worth having the compost heap close to your wildlife area, assuming you have one. Being relatively close to a pond is ideal because there is a healthy wildlife interaction between compost heap and pond, alternatively have it close to an area of long grass or wildflower patch.

Wildlife found in the compost heap

This brings me nicely to having a quick look at the types of wildlife that might enjoy your compost heap even more than you do. The most obvious, and beneficial, visitors will be invertebrates. Earthworms, millipedes, woodlice, springtails, beetle larvae, slugs and snails will all assist in the decomposition of your waste into a useable, productive compost. As the decaying matter heats you might find fungi popping up. Their wonderfully shaped caps are just their spore-producing fruiting bodies, underground they have far-reaching mycelia (essentially roots) which reach into decaying matter to break it down further.

The warmth generated combined with the mass of invertebrate-life makes the compost heap a magnet for a wide range of animals higher up the food chain. Toads, frogs and newts enjoy the warm moist texture of decaying matter, especially if the heap is close to a wildlife-friendly pond. They visit not only for comfort but also to find food. They eat slugs, so let’s have more amphibians, please!

Frogs spawn in water but for the rest of the year they like damp places where they can find food, compost heaps are ideal for them.

Wood mice will set up their homes in compost heaps, these adorable little mice are the commonest mammal in most gardens and do no harm to us. Hedgehogs also visit to have a root around for slugs and insects before possibly nestling down for a snooze. Robins, dunnocks, song thrushes and blackbirds will be attracted to feed on the earthworms and snails.

The warmth of the heap is a critical factor in attracting reptiles. Slow-worms are the commonest reptile in gardens and can easily be spotted if you have a carpet over your compost heap, even more exciting is the possibility of attracting grass snakes.

The grass snake is Britain’s only native snake which actually lays eggs. The other two species, adder and smooth snake (neither likely to be seen in gardens), incubate the eggs inside their body and give birth to live young in a membrane which splits immediately on birth.

Grass snake eggs
Grass snake eggs are white and leathery, they are often stuck together in chains with each egg being about an inch long.

Grass snakes can only lay eggs in places where they are going to be kept warm so they choose mounds of decaying vegetation and absolutely love compost heaps. Their white leathery eggs are laid in summer and take about two months to hatch. Grass snakes like to hunt in ponds and lay their eggs in compost heaps so there is no reason why a garden shouldn’t be a haven for them.

Grass snake
Grass snakes often lay their eggs in compost heaps where they are kept warm by the decay of the material.

To speed up the process of decay the best advice seems to be to turn the compost every so often, but with all this wildlife inside the heap this is a tricky job. Pushing a fork into a compost heap is like playing Russian roulette with the lives of frogs, toads, slow-worms and grass snakes. It would be better to get a pair of gloves on and lift off the top layers of material then role the heap over by pushing a spade down one side of the heap. However you manage this task be mindful of the possible implications for animals nestled down in their nice warm home.

Whether you regard the compost corner of your garden as sexy, amusing or essential there is no denying that the production of compost in gardens is logical for us and helpful to the natural world. If you haven’t already done so maybe now is the time to take your first steps into the wonderful world of compost.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.