When I first moved to a city from extremely rural Cumbria in early 2016, I was dubious about what I’d be able to do to help nature in my new home. My parent’s home in Cumbria was a nature haven – smack bang in the north Pennines, I’d watch kestrels hunting from my bedroom window, we had a resident sparrowhawk that sat round the back of the house and would hurtle around it to catch the birds feasting on the feeders at the front. Of course the feeders were always busy, house and hedge sparrows, many tit species – including long tailed tits, ever faithfully appeared in groups, the occasional family of great spotted woodpeckers, starlings, blackbirds, song thrushes – suffice to say it was awash with wildlife.
Our new flat overlooked a graveyard in fairly central Newcastle. The main road nearby was noisy and oppressive but the street was full of mature beech trees, horse chestnuts, cherry trees, there was the occasional hawthorn in a back garden and the graveyard was full of beautiful big ash trees. Despite the volume of trees and shrubs and the proximity to a graveyard, I was still full of trepidation.
We invested in one or two bird feeders to place on our ample balcony – the balcony was a real treat as the rest of the flat was small albeit cosy. I initially hung the feeders off the side of the balcony so they were visible but after months of the food remaining untouched, I’d started to worry that nothing would come; maybe the balcony was too exposed for them?
Determined to create a home for nature, I invested money in cheap plant pots, compost and a selection of plants – if I couldn’t feed the birds, I could feed the bees instead. I nearly broke myself lugging bags of compost up three flights of stairs to our top floor flat but I persisted. One evening after work, when I’d finally bought sufficient plants, pots and compost, I set myself to work. Each pot was filled with soil and each plant carefully planted. I chose the plants based on what I knew the bees would like – lavender, purple and pink petunias, lobelia, honeysuckle and French marigolds. Soon my pots were full of these tiny green splashes of life and every morning throughout spring, I’d pop out like a patient mother with my little tin watering can to feed and water them. Watching plants grow is like watching water boil – slow but so rewarding.
Whilst the plants began to grow, I had a long hard think about my bird feeders. Where they currently were evidently wasn’t working, so I decided to shift them to a small bracket that had previously been used for a hanging basket. Although I never witnessed any birds visiting, I soon noticed that the seed had began to go down and one morning whilst nipping out for my morning coffee and cigarette, I had the delight of coal tits and blue tits landing on the balcony, inspecting me and verbally abusing me with their soft little tweets for being in the way when they wanted to eat. I’d finally done it! Birds were coming to my balcony!
From there, the proverbial flood gates opened – at one point I had seven feeders on the balcony providing peanuts, fat balls, sunflower hearts and seeds, mealworms – you name it. For Christmas we had bought a rather gargantuan Christmas tree and as we couldn’t transport it downstairs without needles going everywhere, I’d chopped off all the limbs and bagged them up and up-cycled the trunk with its remaining branches as a bird feeding station. The volume of species that came to visit the feeders astounded me – as mentioned, blue tits and coal tits were the first visitors but soon there were great tits, long tailed tits, blackbirds, jackdaws, a pair of bullfinches, lots of wood pigeons (who defecated everywhere unfortunately) and one morning when I nipped out, a grand total of three little nuthatches on the balcony all at once. Nuthatches are among my favourite birds so that was a real treat! My boyfriend had never seen a woodpecker before and I was endeavouring to take him somewhere he was likely to see one. I needn’t have bothered – one had landed on the balcony whilst he was outside one afternoon and gave him a really good view and a close encounter I probably couldn’t have emulated.
My plants grew wonderfully and soon were spilling out of the pots, heads heavy with a multitude of flowers. Much like the birds, very few bees came at first. But soon it would audibly hum with bees – I diligently sat and counted them all one day and counted 26 bumblebees busy pollinating my flowers and all of that was on a modest balcony in plant pots.
I cannot explain the raw joy I felt when the birds and bees were consistent regular visitors – I had created a home for nature in a city. I had achieved something. It took a while so I’d had to be patient but seeing the flowers awash with bees and the feeders busy with so many species made me so genuinely happy, it was completely worth the patience.
In my job as a fundraiser with the RSPB, I often encountered people who said they couldn’t help nature at home because they just had a yard or a balcony or couldn’t be bothered with their garden. I always used my balcony as an example of how easy it was to help nature with a modest space. Nature needs all the help it can get at the moment and if everyone made an effort to do something – anything – to help nature, our wildlife would benefit enormously and maybe we could stop or at least slow the rapid decline of so many species that we’re witnessing at the moment. Do something amazing – help nature in whatever way you can. You don’t need a lot of space, you don’t even need to commit a lot of time – but the effort pays off.