| Alys Fowler: fat balls and mealworms|
|My garden looks sad right now. Its saving grace is that there are seedheads, perennials and stalks still standing, so it is filled with hungry birds, which is a nice distraction.|
Still, however much a wildlife-friendly garden offers, there's always room for more food. You can buy in fat balls, birdseed and mealworms, but it's fun to make your own. Fat balls are the easiest – a mixture of lard or suet or leftover animal fat (but avoid turkey fat and fat from roasting tins, because it's too salty and soft) mixed with oats, sunflower seeds and raisins.
Send the seeds through a blender first to smash them up for smaller birds. Melt the fat a little and mix everything in. Once the fat has cooled (you may need to put it into the fridge), roll it into balls (not forgetting to set some string into the fat) or fill containers – try coconut halves or large, open pinecones – and put in the freezer to set. If you dislike the idea of animal fat, unrefined peanut butter (the sort without salt or sugar) is equally good.
For the brave and curious, the most fun is to breed your own live mealworms. It's a simple, if lengthy process (it takes at least 130 days). Your worms will rarely reach the size of shop-bought mealworms (they must feed them on a superfood), but you still get plenty.
Take a see-through plastic tub, punch breathing holes in the top, then add some hessian sacking, muslin cloth or cardboard to the bottom, a 2in layer of bran or oats (better still, a mixture of both), a piece of bread and a slice of potato or carrot.
Cover with more hessian or muslin cloth. (If you've got one, add a cabbage leaf on top, because this helps regulate humidity.) Buy some mealworms – about 200 – and introduce them to their new home. They'll eat and pupate into creamy pupae (not exactly pretty) and then into little black beetles, which will mate and lay eggs, which will turn into more mealworms.
The beetles don't fly, so don't worry about them escaping. As long as there's warmth, food and a little moisture (very important around egg-laying stage, so add more fresh potato once beetles appear), they'll be happy. Once the eggs hatch, only feed live mealworms to birds: the dead ones go on the compost.
It's a great project for kids, because they learn about life cycles, and the birds will be happy because they need live food for their young. If you start your mealworm farm now, you should have them in time for the first fledglings.