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How a lawn can become a wildlife habitat

David Chapman / 03 February 2022

A lawn needn't be sterile and lifeless. A few simple changes can attract wildlife, including garden birds, butterflies and rare wildflowers.

Song thrush with worm on lawn
Lawns are invaluable places for some of our garden birds, such as this song thrush, to find food.

Having a lawn in your garden first became popular among the aristocracy in the 17th century but keeping the grass short would have been quite a job. In the days before lawn mowers cutting the grass was done by an army of sheep or labourers armed with shears and scythes. The first mechanical lawn mower was invented by Edwin Beard Budding and was based on the cutting cylinders that he saw in his local cloth mills. Examples of his lawn mower can still be seen in a variety of museums including in Stroud, where Budding lived.

By the end of the 19th century lawn mowers were a little more widespread and lawns were becoming increasingly popular not just for the upper echelons of society to play croquet but also for the middle classes as places to relax. By the middle of the 20th century most suburban gardens had a lawn, they offered a great place for the kids to tire themselves out with a football. In fact I can still remember kicking a ball through a patio window at a friend’s house when we were about ten years old, that was in the days before toughened glass was common and when footballs were heavy!

Lawns are still regarded as places for our leisure and are too frequently dismissed as being unimportant to nature but I want to speak out in favour of the humble lawn as a valuable habitat for wildlife.

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Managing a lawn to attract wildlife

When it comes to managing a garden for wildlife one aim should be to provide diversity of opportunity. For this reason I encourage a varied mix of habitats including log piles, rock piles, compost heaps, ponds, shrubs and wildflower patches. Each habitat needs to be scaled to the size of garden in which it fits and this also applies to the lawn. In a big garden there might be space for a football pitch but in a small garden it might be little more than a lawned pathway from the back door to the compost heap.

Unlike a patio or paved area a lawn will offer the opportunity to a hedgehog, robin, song thrush or blackbird to probe around in search of earthworms. Larger grubs such as cranefly larvae will also be eaten by blackbirds as well as larger visitors such as rooks while smaller insects including ants will attract green woodpeckers. Patches of moss, if allowed to grow amongst the grass, will provide nesting material for birds including house sparrows and wrens and the seed heads of dandelions and daisies will offer food to goldfinches and maybe even linnets.

Some gardeners will baulk at my suggestions, probably thinking that a lawn should be no more than a perfect patch of grass and nothing else. To achieve this monoculture a mixture of lawn feeds and chemicals to kill ‘weeds’ and moss is required, these things are harmful to the environment from their production through to their application. My idea for a lawn is slightly different, I don’t use any chemicals, whether they are intended to kill or fertilise, I just mow the grass and take off the clippings for composting. Gradually this process reduces the fertility of the ground and increases the diversity of what you find growing there.

Furthermore, when I mow the lawn I leave patches to grow slightly longer. Each year I leave different patches and I let them grow for a few weeks or maybe a month or two. By doing this I immediately increase the diversity of opportunity for wildlife. Even I had concerns that patches of longer grass might look messy but I found that by creating patterns or shapes it can look more ‘designed’ and the wildlife doesn’t really mind either way.

Pyramidal orchid
Astonishingly this pyramidal orchid grew in my garden simply because I left a patch of grass on our lawn to grow longer.

I enjoy looking closely at the unmown patches to see what comes up, it can literally be anything from common dandelions to rare orchids. A few years ago I stopped mowing around the edge of our pond and the very same year I noticed a significant patch of lady’s smock (aka cuckoo flower). This is the food plant of the orange-tip butterfly so now I leave that patch unmown until August when any of their caterpillars will have pupated.

A couple of years ago, after twenty-five years of living in our house, I found a single pyramidal orchid growing on our lawn. This was the first of its type I had seen in our garden, I have no idea how it might have arrived or how long it has been there but because I happened to leave that particular patch of lawn uncut for the summer it had the chance to flower. The following year I also found two southern marsh orchids nearby.

I was astonished and delighted. The establishment of these orchids has meant more to me than the success of any flowers that I might have planted. I now have those orchid locations marked with small canes and aim to mow over them only in late summer, when they have had the chance to set their seed, a perfect excuse to mow less often!

Find out more about wildlife gardening, including the wildlife benefits of turning your lawn into a meadow and how to keep a nature diary

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Disclaimer

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.