How to make your fence a benefit – not a barrier – to wildlife

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Roving Wildlife Reporter, explains that lock down provides the opportunity to enhance our garden boundaries for wildlife and make our gardens more beautiful in the process. Featuring tips, ideas and best practice, by the end you will be armed with the knowledge to ensure your garden boundary need not be a barrier to wildlife

If you have a garden, take a close look at all the edges and boundaries. If you have a fence, is it a place where birds can feed and raise their families? Is it somewhere where insects can buzz and flit amongst the flowers? Or is it a just a sterile row of planks or a smooth, lifeless wall with no way through for wildlife?

Like most species, humans are pretty territorial, but far too many of us live behind barriers that keep not only our neighbours out, but also roaming wildlife such as hedgehogs and newts (see hedgehog and newt blogs below).

The territories and boundaries used by other species are different from our own – and often go beyond single gardens, as other species need to find enough food, water, shelter and members of the same species to breed with.

If you had an aerial view of a typical road or lane with houses and gardens, showing all the wildlife comings and goings and all the different edges of territories, I imagine you would see a very complicated-looking Venn diagram of overlapping circles and other shapes, with very few species staying in one place. If you could track a hedgehog’s journey from garden to garden overnight, perhaps it would look something like my diagram.

We should bear this in mind when thinking about our gardens and their boundaries. ‘Our’ bits of property are only ours in human law, and remain ours for a short time in the grand scheme of things, which is why it is so important to share our love and understanding of nature with others, including children. Fortunately, it is very easy to share our gardens with wildlife, because nature abhors a void and usually tries hard to overcome our boundaries too!

While keeping and even enhancing our own privacy, we can make almost any kind of fence or wall into something beautiful that helps insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and maybe even reptiles. Just think of your garden edge as a great corridor, highway and place of shelter for wildlife.

Here are some tips and ideas

Fence tunnel

If you cannot make a hole in an existing fence to let hedgehogs through, why not scrape out a shallow tunnel underneath, or build a new fence with parts of the bottom above ground level. (This might help against rotting, too.) Use only wildlife-friendly paints and preservatives in the garden

Vertical garden

Extend your garden upwards by growing climbing plants – the more beautiful and scented and the more covered in berries the better! Include native plants or similar species, as caterpillars (never forget the caterpillars) may have a diet restricted to certain plants, including shrubs, trees and grasses that you can allow to grow tall near your fence. A fence or wall covered in plants gives butterfly pupae cover, too. Many small species can climb over to find a mate. (Adding extra poles to support a sturdy trellis can protect weak fences from damage by heavy plants.) Even pots hanging from fences change a blank canvas to a living picture.

Cornish hedging

A Cornish hedge is simply wonderful and (in my opinion) is the ultimate wildlife hedge. It is (certainly at the bottom of our garden in East Cornwall) a bank made out of two piles of stones filled with earth in the middle, and also covered in earth (and therefore covered in flowering plants). There is a hedge of shrubs and trees on top. In other areas, there may be more visible stone and less in the way of outer earth and trees.

The design/pattern of the stones varies from place to place too, but all Cornish hedges offer countless useful nooks and crannies for wildlife. Hedgehogs are able to climb well, and so a Cornish hedge is not necessarily a barrier. Gateways in hedges, fences and walls are useful, though. We are privileged to have a Cornish hedge at the very bottom of our garden, where it adjoins a field.

If you want a Cornish hedge of your own, look online for advice and professional hedge builders.

Brick wall

If you have a wall, is it a home for wildlife? We are fortunate to have a tall brick wall around the larger part of our back garden. It’s over 100 years old and has gained in wildlife value over those years without falling down. You can make a home for wildlife by leaving nooks and crannies, or growing climbers and wall plants. Wires can hold them in place as they grow. A textured surface can help mosses, lichens and tiny plants to take hold, and a bit of dung or compost (or even yoghurt) mixed with water will help accelerate the process. 

Remember that fences and walls provide useful navigation aids for birds and especially bats, and a living fence will provide insects to eat along the way, too.

I hope I have convinced you to make the most of your garden boundary, and to remember that a boundary for your garden need not be a barrier to wildlife. As a corridor and a vertical extension to your garden, it can enhance your property and improve the whole area for people and wildlife.

Life in a Cornish Hedge by Rowena Millar and Sarah McCartney

Life in a Cornish Hedge by Rowena Millar and Sarah McCartney