The Sidford Wild Garden - as entered into the 'biodiversity gardens' section of the Sidmouth in Bloom competition, June/July 2008.

How to judge a wild garden: biodiversity, economic and environmental parameters.

For a decade, ever since Sidmouth Town Council and East Devon District Council tried to order that all wild plants in my garden be cut down and all lawn areas mown, the famous Sidford Wild Garden has been a thorn in the side of local bureaucrats and 'Britain in Bloomers'.

In the last few years, these people have also been stung by wide Internet coverage on the SeeRed website of their absurd displays of ecologically useless and overly expensive flowers. Now, in 2008, Sidmouth in Bloom, a branch (or maybe an offshoot?) of Britain in Bloom have introduced a new section into their annual competition - for biodiversity gardens. Note the auspicious date of this press cutting - Friday 13 June!

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It is reported that a prestigious cup

"will be awarded to the garden which does the most to encourage biodiversity in order to attract wildlife, does not use chemicals and is run organically."

Also,

"The category will be judged by a committee member with an outside judge"

Could this be because I have consistently said that Sidmouth in Bloom (and Britain in Bloom more widely) do not know what they are talking about in respect of wild gardening?

Following events in early 2005, when the then chairman of Sidmouth Town Council, Tony Reed, threw a few toys out of his pram at a council meeting, I have said that I would assess what a mess Sidmouth in Bloom made of the judging of their new category. Hence, maybe, the 'outside judge' to add a little authority? But does he or she actually know anything about environmental assessment?

Will the Sidford Wild Garden even merit a mention in the acres of local press coverage that are annually devoted to Sidmouth's efforts to win Britain in Bloom at a national level? Probably less than one tourist in 50 is attracted to Sidmouth primarily by the floral displays (which you can see in so many towns and cities across the UK), yet the bloomers contend that their efforts are crucial to the future of the town. The rest of us have to pay council tax to support the outdated and irrelevant hobby of a few councillors and other local worthies.

Judging a wild garden: a complex matter of biodiversity, economics and morality!

Judging a wild garden is inherently different from any other 'Britain in Bloom' activity. Traditionally, bloomers have centred their attention on how a small subset of people perceived their garish displays. The environment has been paid lip service - even if it has been mentioned at all. Judging a wild garden should turn past priorities on their heads - a wild garden is (or should be) created primarily for the benefit of all the species who may choose to make it their home. Whether humans find it pleasurable or not should, strictly speaking, be an irrelevance but in practice it becomes a secondary factor. The reason for this is explained below.

In all matters of 'better or worse' it is the animals, birds, insects and plants who should be asked their opinions. This is not directly possible of course, so as a surrogate we may ask simply how many species choose the garden as their home, and in what numbers. Even this has problems - a garden infested by wild rats would hardly be expected to win many accolades, but rats generally become a nuisance only when people create the special conditions under which they thrive - leaving food scraps around, building ideal living environments such as sewers and killing off natural predators such as foxes, for example.

Thus, whilst the judging of a wild garden must primarily be on the basis of species numbers and populations this may be modified to give negative points for 'unwelcome' wild creatures and maybe extra positive points for gardens that have been especially modified or created to attract 'welcome' and/or rare or threatened species such as barn owls, dormice, water voles, otters or grass snakes. The real point here is that 'unwelcome' species are those whose numbers are already above their 'natural' level because of the activities of humans, and 'welcome' species are those whose numbers are below (often well below) their 'natural' level again because of the activities of humans. A 'natural' level might be defined as that around 1600 - before industrialisation and mass surplus breeding produced a plague of people. Further back, maybe 5000 years ago, there was an equilibrium of species amongst those to have re-colonised the land after the last great ice age.

Thus, a couple of parameters for judging are obvious - the number of species, or maybe the number per unit area (so as not unduly to disadvantage smaller gardens). As a secondary factor, the overall visual appeal is important (if only because other people should be encouraged to follow a good example). Yet from a strict biodiversity standpoint appearance is irrelevant - just ask the birds, insects and plants if they mind a few old cars, a heap of tyres, piles of old bricks and a few decaying tree trunks. Some years ago, I argued that untidiness was good for wildlife and the bloomers could find no logical riposte. Indeed, about this time they formally resolved to ignore me completely, perhaps hoping I would go away. However there are other factors apart from tidiness, a few of which are discussed below.

Britain in Bloom has long been criticised for being in effect 'chequebook gardening' - the more councils spend, the more their displays may appeal to the judges. Yet, the age of people being impressed by prissiness is passing, even within Britain in Bloom itself. It is giving way to a more complex series of judgements. Do the flowers need a lot of water, are they transported long distances using fossil fuels, are they grown in heated greenhouses, do they incur waste disposal costs, do they attract insects and birds, can you eat them? Some of these factors can be transferred directly into the judging of a wild garden.

Here is a birds eye view of the rear part of the Sidford Wild Garden in June 2008. OK, so it was taken from up a ladder but it was the best I could do!

Even in 2008, a decade after the Sidford Wild Garden achieved national recognition and TV coverage, many local councils in the UK would seek to order that the dozens of species of grasses and a wonderful selection of 'weeds' and a few wild flowers be cut down because (in the opinion of a dimwit council official or a few dotty councillors) they "detracted from the visual amenity of the area".

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To traditional bloomers and probably all local councillors, my garden would look a complete mess. The grass is long, unkempt and neglected. There are several large areas of nettles. You can't even see the large compost heap and the garden pond - which is just as well because those look a mess too! Brambles reach down into the river, bits of rotting wood litter the hedgerows and there are several large anthills to trip up the unwary. Perhaps worst of all, the long side hedge is a fast growing conifer. The one token flowering plant (apart from all the wildflowers) is a large acanthus, given to me as a tiny specimen some years ago. Its blooms regularly attain 8 feet (over 2 metres) high. It probably has little ecological merit apart from being a food plant for snails! The grass in front has been cut to allow it a little more light.

However, the long grass is a rich mix of literally dozens if not hundreds of different species. It positively hums with insect life during warm summer days and attracts many butterflies. The pond attracts dragonflies, and much more besides. The rear garden is primarily a habitat for small mammals, slow-worms by the dozen (and probably by the hundred) and a myriad selection of insects. Birds seem not to find it particularly attractive - they prefer the shorter grass and deep litter of the beech hedgerow at the front of the Sidford Wild Garden. A few tits and bullfinches are sometimes to be seen feeding. A list of some of the plants to be found in my garden excludes for the moment the probably 20 or more species of grasses.

I planted the conifer hedge to provide a screen from road noise and drunks. It has proven quite effective and continues to grow rather too vigorously. However, one of the most serious problems that may affect the landscape of the UK in coming decades is hotter drier summers. One impact may be on shallow rooted trees that have traditionally survived well in the UK climate. Other trees, some conifers for example, have a deep tap root that can extract water even during prolonged dry spells. Also, their transpiration rate may be lower (I'm guessing here!). So conifers may be suited to the UK's future climate, whether we like them or not. But what of the birds and insects? Certainly, a conifer is no match for the oak of English lore - a mature oak can support probably hundreds of species directly or indirectly, but you can't plant oak trees in small gardens or near buildings. It is a species suited to woodland or open fields.

I used to think that birds would shun my conifer hedge - most of the nests I have been aware of over the past few years have been in my front beech hedge, now grown and clipped to form a dense bird-friendly paradise with a deep litter base of fallen leaves, rotting wood, numerous weeds and enough worms beetles and insects to satisfy even a large brood of hungry chicks. Here is a specific pointer for judges - hedges for nesting are all very well but they are best located within easy flying range of an abundant source of suitable food - or else the parents may get tired flying long distances every time they want a worm. So a hedge surrounded by acre of neatness might be of little value. Just ask a few birds and never mind the opinions of people. But would any self respecting English bird build a nest in a dense conifer hedge where the undergrowth was non-existent? These trees kill everything beneath them.

I was therefore surprised when last 'pruning' my long conifer hedge (pruning means sawing off 600mm or more every year!) to find a large assortment of birds nests. In all there were about ten - although one or two (see below) looked like the work of amateurs. So one or two points for the hedge: a nest every few feet and presumably the nearby areas of weeds and grasses provided some of the food sources.

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Three of many old nests removed from the conifer hedge of the Sidford Wild Garden - out of the top 600mm that was being lopped. To the top left, the haphazard nest contained the remains of white eggs. The tiny nest at the bottom was made from moss, hair, delicate grasses and feathers. It was a work of art. Ideally, many types of hedges should be cut in February. Conifers need several cuts each year if they are to look their best.

But what about the clippings? Here is an example of 'including an externality' - part of the jargon of environmental assessment. Every year, I make maybe seven to ten special trips to the local 'amenity site' (waste dump) to dispose of what seems like about a ton of clippings. The total distance by car would be around 35-50 miles, and the fuel cost maybe 6 to 10. Most of this is attributable to the fact that I planted a fast growing conifer and not a slow growing yew or something more 'English'. So on balance, maybe minus points for the conifer hedge despite being (obviously) a much sought after environment for nesting. I make maybe 2 extra trip to dispose of all the clippings from my beech hedge. In all my garden provides nesting sites for maybe 6 to 12 pairs of birds each year - far more than I thought because only the blackbirds make themselves obvious. I had a rare song thrush one year - but they have not returned. Bloody cats - and this is no idle point!

Domestic cats are hugely destructive to native wildlife, killing scores or hundreds of small birds and mammals each year. They are an imported (and cosseted) predator and ideally should be excluded from wild gardens. Trapping and killing them is illegal so the most that can be done is to protect some habitats with a thick layer of brambles (for example) or to use a hose pipe and a few well aimed stones. Unfortunately, cats are so dim they soon forget they have been made unwelcome. Here is a further criteria for judging a wild garden - has it been made as unwelcoming as possible to domestic cats? A dog could be useful - if trained to kill.

Trading off an environmental benefit against a distant environmental cost can be difficult even if energy usage is the only parameter. For the conifer hedge, we have a benefit (up to 10 nests per year adjacent to lots of food and producing maybe 20 birds) against the consumption of about 10 litres of refined fossil fuel. Net of tax, the fuel cost would be perhaps 2, yielding 10p per bird. This seems good value when set against the 10,000 that Sidmouth Town Council spends each year on ecologically useless flowers. East Devon District Council spends even more. If it is argued that the cost of fuel should include tax (some of which is genuinely added to discourage driving because it is environmentally damaging) then the cost per new bird rises to 50p. Over the lifetime of the hedge, its minimal capital costs can be ignored. For a more complete analysis, the fuel used in transporting garden waste to a central processing plant should be included, as should the 'value' of any resulting product. As fuel usage becomes less morally acceptable, a wild garden should maybe be able to process all waste products on site.

One of the key 'plus points' of the Sidford Wild Garden is that (apart from buying the conifers) there has been no input from any of the ghastly garden centres that thrive in and around Sidmouth. These sell a vast range of ecologically damaging products (including peat) and any gardener who supports them on a regular basis should not properly be considered for any 'biodiversity' award. If a wild garden has been created utilising plants or supplies from a damaging source (and garden centres are amongst the worst environmental offenders) then its moral equivalent is the production of a new car utilising steel made from iron ore mined in the Amazon (which incidentally contains the world's largest iron ore mine). That the car is energy efficient does not offset the damage in its production - because an alternative and less damaging source could have been utilised, albeit at greater cost. It would also be the moral equivalent of a 'bio-diesel' car - one claimed to be environmental because it ran on bio-fuel. These and similar claims are bogus because of the impacts elsewhere in the world of growing bio-crops for fuel. Tropical forests are destroyed and huge amounts of carbon released to clear land to plant the crops to produce bio-fuels. It is an absurdity but one loved by simplistic politicians who are more exercised about energy security and a few cheap headlines than they are about environmental assessment. But that is another story!

The Sidford Wild Garden scores many points therefore for having 'developed naturally' and with only a few wild flower seeds ever having been scattered about. The garden pond was constructed from an old bath (a better option than landfilling it). Again, there is a zero impact from its construction, unlike buying a bespoke pond from a garden centre and thereby boosting the profits of environmental vandals. The hazel trees (now a small copse) were planted as 'twigs' taken from a friend's garden. They have thrived and are now threatening to take over the south-east corner. Here, there are also some brambles and the whole tangled mess - untended for years - provides yet more nesting sites for birds.

The pond of course was not stocked with fish - just a few bits of weed from the river and some river and rain water. It now has frogs and newts in abundance and may attract the grass snakes that are present in other areas of the Sidford Wild Garden. Here we come to another crucial factor - the interconnectedness of habitats within a wild garden.

Wild gardens that are a selection of small neatly constructed mini-habitats should score few points. Species need to be able to transverse the whole and under suitable cover. This is no problem for birds (provided there are some trees and bushes) but what of the grass snakes who for years have been found only in the front half of my garden? Can they easily reach the pond or take advantage of the compost heap which is an ideal breeding location? Unfortunately not, and again because of the conifer hedge and the mown area of grass beside it. If this had been a beech hedge or maybe yew, its base could have been a deep moist layer of rotting leaves, grasses and weeds. Grass snakes would have felt safe using this as a 'wildlife corridor'. As it is, the area beneath the conifer hedge is like a desert. There is no moisture, no plant life and no cover. No self respecting grass snake (one that knew about cats for example) might risk such a dangerous journey.

So, as an essential feature, a wild garden should be one big habitat rather than a few token bits of wilderness amidst close cropped lawns or other regimented and largely useless neatness. Similar arguments apply (incidentally!) to the doomed plans to preserve tropical forests by creating 'islands of biodiversity' amidst the thousands of acres being felled to grow palm oil - to make bio-diesel! Here, there is another factor - the original forests were big enough to help create their own climate. Small preserved areas cannot do this, thus they are doomed.

Opportunity cost (a concept used within economics) can also be important. As a simple example, I have argued above that my efforts in maintaining hedges so that birds may nest is good value because the cost per bird is 10 to 50p - depending on whether tax is included. However, what else could I be doing in the time it takes me to maintain my hedges? If I worked and earned 500 per day, instead of facilitating the nesting of a few non-endangered birds, I could give maybe 1000 to a charity who could put it to far better use in wildlife projects overseas - where even a few pounds can do much good. It depends on the system boundaries you choose - it is entirely possible to argue that wild gardens in the UK are of low environmental priority on a world-wide perspective, despite that they are far more worthwhile locally than formal and neat gardens. However, even if it is required only to compare one local wild garden to another (which will always be somewhat of a subjective exercise) including opportunity cost may be essential.

One of the key features of the Sidford Wild Garden is that it is very low input and low maintenance. Nothing (or very little) is bought and the time expended upon it is limited to hedge-cutting in some years. Other wild gardens receive lots of attention to keep them neat and tidy and 'looking good' but this can severely diminish their wildlife value - or it may improve it! But the more effort that is expended, the greater is the opportunity cost - what else could have been done with all that time and money? Expensive wild gardens - like expensive 'status symbol' or 'feel good' environmental technology (David Cameron's windmill in central London, the Toyota Prius, most solar heating systems, etc, etc) represent not environmental good practice but poor use of resources. The money spent on them could have been far better spent elsewhere and to far greater environmental benefit. If you follow this line of reasoning, it is absurd for intelligent people to fritter their time away doing gardening - unless they just do it for relaxation, in which case they should at least try not to support garden centres.

So here are a few of the key points in judging a wild garden.

Provision of as large a number and variety of habitats as possible. The emphasis should be on untidiness and variety rather than on 'prim and proper' uniformity. Large areas of untended grasses and weeds can over the years develop into hundreds of species that attract myriad types of insects.

The garden should be 'one big habitat' and not separated into small isolated token areas of wilderness. Close cropped lawns are particularly bad for small mammals, snakes and frogs (for example). The Sidford Wild Garden would score more points if its two halves were well connected.

There should be plenty of nesting sites for birds - and nearby natural food supplies. Hedges should not be clipped before or during the nesting season.

There should be a large percentage of naturally occurring species of plants - and few if any exotics.

Several area of rotting old logs or undergrowth should be provided.

A few pieces of old roofing felt thrown onto the ground cost nothing (and look so untidy!). Yet they provide 'solar heaters' for slow-worms and snakes.

Slow growing and long lasting hedging may be preferred to fast growing conifers.

Low or zero patronage of nearby (or distant) garden centres.

Sufficient visual attractiveness to make other people interested.

Low impact disposal of waste products, preferably on site.

A pond (or ponds) without fish and constructed with near zero 'bought in' resources or materials.

Fruit trees and vegetable plots if these can be integrated without damaging the 'wildlife potential'.

Low or zero use of lawnmowers and strimmers (to help put the manufacturers out of business)

Wide selection of native trees and shrubs if space allows.

Low capital and running costs (see discussion of opportunity cost above) - to release funds that may be used elsewhere for further environmental protection.

Ease of maintenance - to encourage subsequent owners to continue the good works.

So how will the judges fare? If they are typical Britain in Bloom worthies they won't even be able to appreciate the basic arguments. Of course, there is far more to it than is presented above. Chickens for example - good or bad?

Let the blooming judges now be put to the test!


My 1993 report on environmental assessment methodology (still used an a couple of universities I believe) is here. The core analysis based upon consideration of ultimate consequences could be adapted and applied to wild gardens - but no doubt ecologists have their own systems.


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