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Where the wild things are: the untapped potential of our gardens, parks and balconies
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Where the wild things are: the untapped potential of our gardens, parks and balconies

In my 20s I lived in Manchester, on the sixth floor of a block of council flats just off the A57, or Mancunian (Mancy) Way. A short walk from Manchester Piccadilly station and the city centre, it was grey, noisy and built up. I loved every piece of it ā€“ my first stab at adulthood, at living on my own. I painted my bedroom silver and slept on a mattress on the floor, and I grew sweetcorn, tomatoes and courgettes in pots on the balcony. (I was 24 ā€“ of course I grew sweetcorn on the balcony.)

I worked and played in the bars and clubs of Manchesterā€™s gay village, and I would walk home in the early hours, keys poking through my clenched fist to protect me from would-be attackers, and I would see hedgehogs.

It never occurred to me that the hedgehogs might be in trouble, that they might not have the best time foraging beneath the ring road, beneath the noise and stench of the city. It occurred to me only that their presence was magical, and that seeing them on the grassy wastelands around my council estate, as I stumbled home from parties and nightclubs, was everything I loved about being alive.

Their home and mine was urban and gritty, but there were trees, areas of long grass, council houses with messy gardens. There was a little park with cherry trees. Not much, but enough. The area was unloved, had an air of urban neglect, but I soon learned that it was a ripe habitat for hedgehogs, along with the birds, bees and butterflies that would visit my balcony, too.

Years later I was living in Brighton and took a trip to Manchester for work. In the morning, before my train left to take me back down south, I went for a walk, to the gay village, to the bars and the clubs, and finally to the estate where I used to live. The flats had had a makeover ā€“ the balconies were now sealed with airtight windows that presumably made the flats warmer and more soundproof, but which furtherĀ separated the residents from the natural world. The gardens of the houses had been paved over and there seemed to be more space for parking. It wasnā€™t just the people who would be suffering from the loss of green space; I wondered how the hedgehogs were getting on.

I posted about my trip on Twitter. An old mate, Choel, who lived two floors beneath me in the flats and still lives locally now, got in touch to say the hedgehogs were gone. The council had signed a private finance initiative (PFI) with a company to manage the area. They felled trees, paved over gardensĀ and bulldozed the small park with the cherry trees. They built the residents an allotment, but erected a huge fence around it, meaning hedgehogs couldnā€™t get in or out. She sent me photos of entire gardens in skips, of upended trees in full blossom withĀ bird feeders still hanging from their branches. She told me she had found 10 dead hedgehogs, andĀ others out in the day and underweight. Eventually, she started rehoming them, going out at night and rounding them up to take to a rescue centre, where they were fed and watered before beingĀ released somewhere they actually had a chanceĀ of living. She regrets leaving it so long beforeĀ she acted; she wishes she could have saved the ones that died. But she did save seven. Iā€™m grateful sheĀ noticed them at all.

We cry habitat loss, but itā€™s theft, really ā€“ no one is so careless as to lose their home. We call it progress, but how dare we? How many people, throughout the planning process, will have thought of or cared about hedgehogs? Or considered any of the other residents, both human and wild? The management company would have conducted an ecology survey, no doubt. But, as is often the case, it was probably done in winter, when the hedgehogs were hibernating. Did any residents other than Choel and me know there were hedgehogs on that estate? Did anyone care? TheĀ council paved over the gardens to save money onĀ maintenance. The trees and park were lost becauseĀ the car parks that replaced them can be a source of income. The residents placed there by the council would not necessarily have known orĀ thoughtĀ about those habitats, making them so muchĀ easier to destroy.

Manchester city council is not alone in its apparently wanton destruction of green spaces. In 2014, a now infamous deal to remove nearly half of Sheffieldā€™s 36,000 trees led to public outcry and a huge campaign to save them (they saved some, and their efforts led to the formation of a city-wide tree protection group that recently earned Sheffield Tree City of the World status). In 2023, Plymouth council ordered 110 mature trees to be felled in the middle of the night. The ill-fated HS2 project is still bulldozing through ancient woodland (again, in the name of progress). Then thereā€™s the London Resort theme park that was nearly built on Swanscombe peninsula, an area of nationally important grasslands, coastal habitats, scrub and wetlands that not only buffers the coast fromĀ erosion but also stores carbon while providing homes for countless rare and threatened species. Thanks to a massive campaign, London Resort withdrew its application, but the threat of losing the land still loomsĀ large. There are many more micro-aggressions and micro-destructions that go under the radar, including those, of course, in our gardens. There are around 30m gardens in the UK, but the trend to lock them beneath paving and plastic grass is growing.

A balcony garden on the 18th floor of a block of flats in Manchester.View image in fullscreen

Back in 2011, Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL) published a study of the changes it had observed in Londonā€™s ā€œgarden vegetation structureā€ between 1998 and 2008. It used drones to look at tree canopies and vegetation, and noted the colour of the ground ā€“ green for grass and grey for paving. It concluded that hard surfaces had increased by 26% over the decade, equivalent to the loss of two Hyde Parks every year. As a young journalist, I attended the press conference, and put up my hand and asked, ā€œIf you measured the colour of gardens from green to grey, how did you account for the replacement of living lawns with plastic grass?ā€ GiGL wouldnā€™t answer my question and, after some hesitation, muttered that, perhaps, the loss of green space was more than it had been able to quantify in this particular assessment.

Plastic grass was only in its infancy in 2011, having started to be used in gardens in the 1990s ā€“ there probably wasnā€™t much laid in London between 1998 and 2008. But now? AĀ study by Aviva in 2022 found that, nationally, one in 10 homeowners with outside space has replaced at least some of their gardenā€™s natural lawn with plastic grass. That means, of the 30m gardens in the UK, 3m have been lost beneath plastic. Where does that leaveĀ hedgehogs?

In Manchester city centre, my old mate Choel witnessed the local extinction of a community that, 20 years previously, had made me feel alive. But everywhere we are all chipping away at life itself: housing estate by housing estate, garden by garden, paving stone by paving stone, roll of plastic grass by roll of plastic grass. And thereā€™s more now, isnā€™t there? TheĀ climate crisis has finally taken centre stage, as raw and destructive as a skip full of blossoming cherry trees. As if hedgehogs havenā€™t enough to deal with, theyā€™re now dying of heat and thirst.

Habitat loss is something I know and have grown up with. I have seen it and mourned it from a very young age ā€“ the old gothic houses we used to drive past that had been abandoned and gone wild, before a developer bought them and turned them into flats; the horse paddock at the end of our road that remained for so long while the town grew around it, until it too was lost to a strip of new-build homes. Habitat loss has remained the same the whole time Iā€™ve known it. Thereā€™s just less habitat to lose, now. (Did anyone thinkĀ to plan for it to stop?)

But climate change threatens to take everything away from us, not least a stable climate in which we canĀ grow food according to predictable weather patterns. Itā€™s already hitting the global south: in the Horn of Africa, people are experiencing the longest andĀ most extreme drought on record, causing crops toĀ fail and livestock to die. In India, rising temperaturesĀ and droughts are reducing wheat and rice crops, while scorching conditions are preventing farm workers from being able to work. Add to that the mayhem caused by fire and floods, in countries where there isnā€™t necessarily the infrastructure to copeĀ with these assaults. Here, in the global north, weĀ are also suffering droughts, dangerous heatwaves, fire, floodingĀ and crop losses. In the summer of 2022, UK crops of berries, peas, broad beans and salad leavesĀ were frazzled in the heat and sun, while in winter we had a tomato shortage due to ā€œunseasonalā€ snow and ice in southern Spain and Morocco. (Yes, I know, Brexit played its part as well.) As climate scientists repeatedly say on Twitter, now X: ā€œYou ainā€™tĀ seen nothing yet.ā€

Most people think of the climate crisis as affecting people (and usually other people at that). We rarely seeĀ or focus on the ecosystems that are collapsing due to global heating, the animals that live in and are a part of them, their roles in keeping those systems functioning. On the news we see skinny polar bears clinging to ever-diminishing icebergs, but what do we see of the birds and butterflies moving north to escape the heat? What of the bees that emerge from hibernation in unseasonably mild weather, only to be frozen to death a week later? What of the hedgehogs that go thirsty, the baby birds that go hungry? As the planet warms, its life systems shut down, making plantĀ and animal (including human) existence much more difficult. And most of us are just carrying on as ifĀ it isnā€™t happening.

Nature has the means ā€“ to a degree ā€“ to limit the effects of climate change. Intact ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, oceans and peatlands are ā€œcarbon sinksā€ ā€“ natural storage systems that remove atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases ā€“ and are essential if we are to minimise global heating. But they also help mitigate the effects of climate change: a bed of sea grass or kelp can reduce the velocity of waves hitting shores, and therefore prevent coastal erosion; a river system, complete with beavers, can prevent flooding in towns and cities downstream, while woodlands, peatlands and other systems absorbĀ and hold on to water.

A frog in a garden pond.View image in fullscreen

Gardens are human-made habitats, but they mimic the woodland edge, so they also hold on to water, slow down wind, create shade and provide food and homes for wildlife. In cities they can absorb pollution and help reduce urban temperatures. Crucially, they also link together to form vast corridors that connect other ecosystems (the woodlands, peatlands and other terrestrial systems mentioned above), enabling species to move between them, potentially giving them space to adapt to climate change. Of course, they also absorb and store carbon ā€“ in lawns, in the bark of trees, in the sludge at the bottom of garden ponds, in soil, in leaf litter and compost.

Gardens are, or at least have the potential to be, an enormous but as yet untapped solution to the climate and biodiversity crisis. But what are we doing? Disappearing them beneath plastic and paving. Beneath weed-suppressant membranes and ā€œdecorativeā€ purple slate chips. Beneath cars, beneathĀ gravel, beneath entire new homes. Beneath large stones and driftwood to make them look like theĀ beach (my absolute favourite).

Climate change has happened several times in Earthā€™s 4.6bn-year history, but it happened slowly, overĀ thousands of years, partly because ecosystems were initially able to take the hit. What weā€™re facing now is the rising of temperatures alongside the chipping away of the very systems that can lessen or even slow its impact. At the exact time we should beĀ halting habitat loss and facilitating landscape recovery (rewilding) for the good of all life on Earth, weĀ are still taking more than we are giving back ā€“ it seems we canā€™t stop ourselves. Temperatures are risingĀ and the clock is ticking.

What if the solution to these problems lies, in part, inĀ our gardens and other green spaces? Not that gardening can stop climate change, but what if gardens could connect us with the natural world, make us more aware of the destruction all around us? What if we rise up, garden by garden, park by park, balcony by balcony and do something ā€“ anything ā€“ to help a bee or a butterfly or a bird or a hedgehog? What would ourĀ world look like if more of us were tuned into the lifeĀ systems that support us? Would we stop our pesticide-laden dog from jumping into the river? Would we switch from eating factory-farmed meat, with its many layers of pollution and trauma, to something kinder and more sustainable? Could we all collectively tread that little bit lighter, for the good of all things, while still pushing for the radical change thatā€™s needed at the top? Would more of us push for that change? I think we would.

So many people tell me they donā€™t bother with their gardens because they are ā€œjust full of pigeons and crowsā€, and they will be, if your garden is just decking and plastic. Bring it to life and see what else turns up. With 30m gardens, 27,000 public parks and countless more allotments and other green spaces, not to mention the millions of balconies, patios and rooftop gardens in the UK, we can bring ourselves back to nature, we can rebuild ourselves. Formerly predictable weather patterns are going full bucking bronco and disrupting daily life. We can create corridors to enable wildlife to travel north as the world heats. We can grow plants to provide food, nesting opportunities and places to rest, that offer shade and shelter. Every single plant we grow will help cool our cities, prevent flooding, absorb carbon and root us back into the world we actually live in. Every insect, bird or mammal we care for will have an extra stab at life, at survival. Every effort we make will help us feel better and more hopeful, more determined to spread the word. Surely itā€™s worth a go?

We are hurtling towards climate and biodiversity collapse at an astonishing and terrifying rate. Most of the time Iā€™m completely overwhelmed. But I have a little garden. And everything I do and grow in it feels like a big two fingers to the world of greed and destruction, of climate change and biodiversity collapse, of big oil giants, media mogulsĀ and ineffectual governments. Gardening helps me focusĀ on the things I can change, helps me be hopefulĀ about the coming year. It lifts me when nothing else does.

I truly believe our gardens and green spaces have the answer to the problem thatā€™s plaguing the modern world right now: our disconnect from nature and the consequent acceptance of living in a dying world. Letā€™s not accept, letā€™s grow!

I grew up in the suburbs of Solihull, a metropolitan borough nine miles south of Birmingham. I never really knew wildlife until adulthood. Not ā€œproperā€ wildlife. Not the sort of species you see in old LadybirdĀ books, not big birds of prey or badgers or moles or even swallows or house martins (although my granny, who lived in the countryside, would point them out on walks near her house). I knew blue tits and small tortoiseshell butterflies, frogs, worms and mothsā€™ cocoons. I knew conkers and spiders and ants, pigeon feathers, slugs and snails. I didnā€™t really know anything wilder than that. But Iā€™ve always craved it. My mum says she always knew Iā€™d end up working with the soil.

Gardening was my way to wilder things. As a child IĀ would lie on my belly and look deep into the thatch ofĀ the lawn, at ants crawling among the blades of grass. I would watch blue tits come and go from the nesting box, I would move nearly dried-out worms stuck on the pavement, on to soil (I still do). I have always been drawn to plants and planting, gardens, the outside. I had my first vegetable patch at the age of 10, a room packed with houseplants at 20, my first allotment at 24. But still there wasnā€™t much wildlife, nothing that Iā€™d really noticed. I guess it took a while for myĀ eyes to open.

They were opened for me. A red-tailed bumblebee made a nest in an old duvet in my exā€™s back yard, andĀ her neighbours complained to the landlord. IĀ searched online for how to move it and, with help from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, managed toĀ transport it ā€“ intact ā€“ to my former allotment. WithĀ just two stings to the face, I fell in love, and suddenly a world opened up that I had barely known existed. I read bumblebee books, learned how to identify the different species (there are 24 in the UK), learned how they live and breed and hibernate. I would go out just to look for bumblebees, see if IĀ could find them in early spring or still on the wing in late autumn. I would pick them up and stroke them, move them from pavement to flower. I would follow instructions on how to make a nest in the hope that, one day, a queen would return and make a nest in myĀ garden.

A buff-tailed bumblebee on a Ceanothus flower.View image in fullscreen

Iā€™ve rescued and moved more nests since ā€“ nests made in walls that were being torn down or in compost bins that were tipped over, or in a bush blocking a doorway or in the ground too near a path. Some have survived, but most had already succumbed to parasites. I moved on to other species: butterflies, amphibians, birds, flies. I learned as much as I could, bought every book, absorbed every tiny detail of their lives and habits, their needs and their declines. Most UK species have been in freefall since those days of lying on my belly looking into the thatch. Most have suffered the double whammy of changes in land use (building cities and towns, making farmland more ā€œindustrialā€) and pesticides, including insecticides, herbicides that kill the plants insects feed on, and fungicides that make the insecticides more potent.

I made it my mission to create as many homes for wildlife in my garden as possible, to understand the needs of these species and use my position as a writer for a well-known gardening magazine to tell everyone how to do the same. I assumed that people, once they knew what was at stake, would want to help wildlife. That they would want to grow flowers for bees and erect boxes for birds. That it wouldnā€™t be long before we had streets of long grass and bird boxes, nectar-rich flower beds, hedgehog highways and native shrubs and trees. That there would be more wildlife. Cities of wildlife. That we would have more hedgehogs and more birds, more bees and more butterflies and, hell, more spiders and earwigs and blowflies ā€“ why not? That one day there would be more, not less. Because we knew about the declines and we had the power and knowledge to stop them. Why would we let things get worse? Why would we let species disappear?

In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson documented the chipping away of life at the hands of those who used the pesticide DDT, which not only killed insects but was also found to thin the shells of birdsā€™ eggs, meaning birds had fewer successful breeding attempts. She died two years after her book was published and didnā€™t live to see DDT banned across the world (in the US in the 1970s and the UK in the 1980s). Nor did she live to know that itā€™s still used in some parts of the world today and persists in our oceans as a ā€œforever chemicalā€. Nor did she live to see the continued destruction of the natural world, the habitat loss, the ā€œprogressā€. Iā€™m glad. To think her silent spring would have been so noisy and raucous to my ears around 60 years later is the cruellest irony. How would she have coped with the silence there is today?

I will never know the abundance of life my parents and grandparents knew, which they probably ignored and took for granted. I wish I could go back to see the abundance of species there was in my childhood because, even though I saw very little, I know now how much more there was 35 years ago. I fill my garden with plants for wildlife, make spaces for only the wild things. And yet still itā€™s quiet. Still, there are few flies buzzing around my house in summer, there are few butterflies on my buddleia. Thereā€™s an eerie quietness that goes with the realisation that you canā€™t hear bees buzzing. Where are they? Why arenā€™t they in my wildlife garden? Iā€™m surrounded by concrete, but someĀ of us are growing flowers. Is it enough? Will thereĀ ever be enough?

I garden for the wild things, for my sanity, for the child with her head in the thatch. I want swifts in my nest boxes, butterflies on my buddleia. I want ants and slow worms and earwigs and caterpillars. I want hedgehogs that are fat on beetles, not cat biscuits. IĀ want a full clutch of tits in their nesting box. I want abundance and noise, and to stop worrying about every last quiet thing. Is that too much to ask?

This is an edited extract from One Garden Against the World: In Search of Hope in a Changing Climate by KateĀ Bradbury, published by Bloomsbury on 6 June andĀ available at guardianbookshop.co.uk

Source: theguardian.com