This is how to get your garden buzzing with wildlife in Sheffield
Crouched over a flower bed, shears in hand, Phil Rhodes is in contemplative mood as he tends to the flourishing Victoria Hall wildlife garden.
For him, he explains in this oasis a stone’s throw from Norfolk Park, gardening is more than just a way to while away the hours and get some fresh air.
“I think our generation has a debt to pay,” muses the 62-year-old grandfather-of-three, a retired cable layer from Gleadless.
“As a boy, I loved exploring the outdoors and I remember the ponds were teeming with sticklebacks, newts and frogs, but you look now and there’s barely anything.
“In my lifetime, it’s all died back because of what we’ve done. I try to do my little bit to help put back what we had for my grandchildren."
Phil is one of a handful of helpers working up a gentle sweat on a crisp morning at the community gardens in the shadow of Victoria Methodist Church, where Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust runs monthly volunteering sessions.
They are busy getting the garden looking its best for the many people who use it, while making it as attractive as possible for the insects, birds and other creatures with which it teems.
The sessions are part of the charity's National Lottery-funded Wild at Heart project to get over-50s enjoying the great outdoors, meeting new people and keeping active.
They are also a great opportunity for people of any age to learn handy tips for attracting wildlife to their homes, whether they have a sprawling garden or merely a window box.
Today, the calm is broken only by the gentle chirping of coal tits in the branches above and a pair of robins scampering across the lawn, but the hum of insects and croak of frogs splashing in the pond will soon fill the air, while foxes and hedgehogs are among the regular nighttime visitors.
You don’t need green fingers to make your garden a wildlife haven, says Ben Keywood, an entomologist who is the trust's membership and customer services officer.
Some of the best things you can do, he explains, require minimal effort – like scattering wildflower seeds or leaving a patch of long grass, without which butterfly species like the speckled wood or gatekeeper cannot breed.
“No matter how big your garden is, or even if you only have a balcony or green roof, making small changes to attract wildlife can make a massive difference because they’ve lost so much natural habitat,” he says.
“One of the best things you can do to is getting some water in your garden, even if it’s just in an old kitchen sink.
“It’s also important to have a wide range of nectar-rich flowers which are open so pollinators can get at them.
“It’s no good having a garden full of showy double-flowered roses, because insects can’t get inside. They prefer open flowers like daisies.
“Insects are at the bottom of the food chain so if you attract them you will get other wildlife.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been using many more chemicals in our gardens to kill aphids and other insects which are seen as pests.
“It’s not just killing them, it's killing all the beneficial pollinators like bees and butterflies, which have also suffered a big decline due to the loss of habitat.
“At this time of year, blue tits are eating hundreds of thousands of aphids a day, so if you put chemicals in your garden you could be poisoning them and their chicks too.”
Promoting wildlife-friendly gardening is a big part of the trust's work, with the estimated 4,290 hectares of urban gardens across Sheffield being important ‘corridors’ animals can use to move around the city.
Wild at Heart project officer Jenny King says: “We have a network of gardens and green spaces across the UK which can make a massive difference to wildlife if people make small tweaks to provide the habitats they need.
“Animals don’t respect our garden boundaries. They want to explore, and people's gardens can act as essential corridors for nature.”
Phil has his own simple tip for transforming your garden into a wildlife haven, which is to look out for the plants teeming with bees and butterflies when you’re at the garden centre, since if they're attracting them there they’ll almost certainly do the same when you get them home.
Mick Dobson, a 71-year-old former watchmaker, travels all the way down from Parson Cross to volunteer in the garden every month.
“I enjoy the company and doing my bit to help the wildlife, and some of the things I've learned here I’ve been able to use in my own garden,” he said.
“Encouraging wildlife should be important to everybody because we need bees to pollinate the crops we eat. We need wildlife more than ever but every day it gets less and less as humans encroach on creature's natural habitats.”
Jingjuan Zhang, a 23-year-old journalism student at the University of Sheffield, is helping out in the garden for the first time, but she is no stranger to volunteering.
She has been keeping herself busy during the Easter break by lending a hand across the city, from mucking out kennels at the RSPCA’s Sheffield Animal Centre to helping children enjoy craft sessions at Manor Lodge.
“It’s been quite tiring this morning pulling up ivy in the garden but it’s such a beautiful spot and it’s great to be able to do my bit to make a difference here,” she says.
Wildlife gardening sessions take place every month at Victoria Hall Garden, on Stafford Road, Sheffield S2 2SF. For more about the sessions and other activities taking place as part of the trust's Wild at Heart project, visit www.wildsheffield.com/discover/your-community/wild-at-heart.
TOP TIPS TO CREATE A WILDLIFE GARDEN
For those who can’t make it down, the charity has compiled a handy list of 10 easy steps you can take to attract wildlife to your garden.
1, Leave some long grass – seeding grasses provide food for sparrows and goldfinches, butterflies and moths can breed in long grass, and hedgehogs, frogs, toads and newts can use it to find food and shelter
2, Choose plants for pollinators – open flowers which are rich in nectar and pollen give butterflies, moths, bees and other insects the food they need to thrive, as well as looking pretty
3, Provide some water – ponds are great for attracting insects and other wildlife, but if you don’t have space, a bucket pond, bird bath or bog garden will do
4, Don’t forget to leave some nooks and crannies – insects, frogs, toads, newts and small mammals all need somewhere to nest,
5, Leave plenty of ivy – ivy provides food, shelter and nesting sites for a host of creatures, and, left to grow wild, it produces flowers and berries. If left to encroach too much at ground level, however, it can stop fungi growing
6, Don’t forget hedgehogs – hedgehogs desperately need our help, and small gaps at the bottom of fences enable them to roam from garden to garden when hunting. Providing a home gives them somewhere to hibernate safely during winter, whether that is just a pile of leaves or fancier lodgings
7, Plant hedges trees and flowering shrubs – Adding height turns a garden from a bungalow into a high-rise luxury hotel, providing homes for a range of wildlife
8, Feed the birds – Feed your garden birds all year long, and they will repay you with a chorus of cheeps. For dos and dont’s, search ‘responsible bird feeding’ on the trust's website
9, Make your own compost and leafmould – this is a cheap and sustainable way to boost your garden's fertility. It doesn't have to be a big job, either – simply brushing a small amount of leaves into a pile in a corner really does help wildlife
10, Don’t forget to look online – there’s plenty of free advice out there to help you attract wildlife to your garden. A good place to start is www.wildaboutgardens.org.uk.