Maintaining a healthy looking lawn can be more of a challenge if you share your garden with animals – whether they are your own pets or wild visitors.
We will look at some of the different ways animals can harm your lawn and steps you can take as a gardener to minimise damage and how you can repair your lawn when it has already occurred.
One of the highest impact behaviours our pets share with wild visitors is digging. This can range from the surface of the grass being scraped away to ankle-turning holes. The first culprit we think of when it comes to excavating lawns is the humble mole (and evicting moles is an article in itself) but squirrels, cats and dogs are also fond of digging whether it is to store food, hunt for mice or bury their own droppings. Foxes and badgers also dig up lawns hunting for the larvae of common garden pests such as the Chafer Beetle or Cranefly (Daddy Longlegs). These protein packed grubs are a valuable food source for the larger wild garden visitors and not only cause problems themselves by feeding on the roots of the grass plants but they also encourage some serious lawn damage as their larger predators search for them.
While you may be able to prevent your pet dog from digging by providing alternative entertainment or sectioning off areas of the garden you are less worried about keeping tidy, preventing the local wild population from running amok on your lawn is, short of sitting up all night, less achievable.
Swift damage repair is the key. If the lawn gets a lot of traffic, a daily once over to check for areas where an animal has scraped the surface with its paws after relieving itself (dogs and foxes will frequently do this, for example) is vital. These small chunks of turf can often simply be patted back into place and will generally recover.
Larger holes need to be filled in although you may find the soil has been redistributed across the rest of the grass and will need gently raking back to refill the cavity. Once filled, the surface grass can be patted back into place but if this has been badly damaged you will have to patch with turf or overseed (there will be more on how to speed up this process later in this article).
Another area of stress on your lawn comes from animals wearing a regular path as they move around your property. Some animal visitors such as hedgehogs are territorial and fairly rigid in how they enter and exit your garden. Dogs are creatures of habit too and often wear a path as they patrol the perimeter of your property. Frequent footfall is not necessarily wearing out the grass as such. If the grass is thinning out and water tends to sit on the surface after heavy rain then the soil underneath may have become compacted. Compaction is the reduction of pore space in the soil and just 10% less pore space than ideal will see your turf begin to suffer. This problem is reversible and you may have heard of aerating your lawn. Aeration involves small holes being made in the turf. Unless you have a herd of cattle regularly invading your lawn, animal visitors are unlikely to compact your soil to a great depth and the holes for shallow compaction only need to be 75 to 100mm deep. To relieve compaction in small areas of turf, you can use a garden fork or hand operated spikers that, when pushed into the ground, will create small holes. This is known as hollow tining.
Healthy turf will cushion the soil from occasional activities such as running, mowing the lawn and animal traffic, but any repeated activity will eventually cause compaction. A healthy lawn can better stand up to this sort of stress and your routine care, such as regular fertilising and mowing, will build up its resilience.
What is the best type of seed or turf to use
Using the most appropriate kind of seed/turf will help your grass stand up to the additional stress. A pure ryegrass sports grass mix, for example, is going to offer a good level of wear resistance and reasonable domestic appearance. In dry, free-draining gardens, especially if you live near the coast, then strong fescue or tufted hair grasses could be used in a mix.
Medallion® turf is typically sown with approximately 25% dwarf perennial ryegrass for wear resistance. Medallion® lawn seed, which is the same seed used to produce our turf, is also available for sowing new lawns or overseeding.
Scorch caused by animal urine
Dogs, foxes and even rabbits and hares often leave noticeable patches on the grass where they urinate. This happens because their urine is high in nitrogen, which can be useful in small amounts, but not so much if the animal insists on using the same spot again and again.
Animal urine may cause different symptoms depending on the fertility of the lawn. If your lawn is under fertilised, dark green, faster growing patches of grass usually appear where the animal has urinated (Fig. 1).
In a well fed lawn the urine can scorch the grass leaving dead patches. These can often be distinguished by the presence of a darker green ring around the dead area, where the grass has grown better due to the increased nitrogen level but not scorched (Fig. 2).
How to minimise damage caused by animal urine
If the 'culprit' is your own dog then you are more likely to know where his favourite spots in the garden are. In this case, simply soaking these areas immediately afterwards with plenty of fresh water to dilute the urine may be enough to prevent damage or over-fertilisation.
There are a number of products on the market and traditional remedies that attempt to alter the make-up of your dog’s urine and therefore prevent patches appearing in the lawn. While some people swear by them, it perhaps depends on the individual dog as to how successful these will be. Encouraging your dog to take in more water daily or adding water to their food if they are not a big drinker will certainly help to dilute the nitrogen shed in their urine.
Again, a good maintenance regime will help to improve the appearance of your lawn. If you have lush, darker green areas, regular mowing and an application of a good quality lawn feed will help mask uneven growth and colour.
A healthy, resilient lawn will also cope a lot better with one of the other less desirable animal 'calling cards'.
Don't forget, many dogs can be successfully trained to use certain areas to relieve themselves, whether it’s an out of the way spot on the ground set with gravel or bark for better absorption or even a 'pee post' for male dogs.
Unless you are up in the night watching out for wild garden visitors or have invested in a wildlife camera then unfortunately you are unlikely to realise you have a problem with foxes or other wildlife until the brown patches have already appeared on your lawn.
How to repair scorched patches
The quickest way to repair a scorched area is to replace the damaged patch with fresh turf. You can also overseed with a suitable variety. Earlier, we suggested a pure ryegrass sports grass mix, for example, which will offer a good level of resilience. If you prefer to overseed, mixing the seed with some topdressing or light soil will support germination and make it easier for you to spread the seed evenly. If you regularly get brown patches, you might want to store this in the garden shed as a ready mix. When patches appear:
Use a rake to remove any dead grass
Rough up the surface to help the seed make contact with the soil
Apply the mix and water
Cover the area with a black bin liner and peg it down. This will help to warm the soil and seed to support quicker germination
As soon as the seed has germinated and grass shoots start to show, remove the bin liner to allow light and air to it
Feel free to browse our Information Centre for further lawn aftercare and seasonal lawn care advice.