With winter well and truly
upon us, it is only natural (and tempting) for some of us at
least, to baton down the hatches and watch the garden from the
cosiness of the fireside. Outside, however, your local
wildlife will be desperately trying to survive the harsh
weather, with maybe two more months of it to come. If you
brave the wintry weather and venture outside you can ensure
that shelter for wildlife in your garden is secure and
adequate, and that there is food available for those creatures
that need it. For many gardeners – even the most
wildlife-friendly – it can be a case of out of sight, out of
mind. Very little wildlife may be visible from your windows,
with the exception of the ever-hungry birds, so it is easy to
forget how vulnerable smaller creatures are and how vital your
help can be to enable them to comfortably survive the winter
weather. A few simple measures now and a little knowledge
about where animals are and what their winter survival
strategies might be, can make a huge difference.
Some creatures hibernate
though the winter, but for many species this is not the
continuous long sleep that we once thought. Those of us who
feed the birds will have noticed that grey squirrels now
appear not to hibernate at all, but spend only the coldest of
days sheltering inside a winter nest. They are often out and
about especially on cold, sunny days, taking advantage of the
food in our bird feeders. Hedgehogs too will wake frequently
if the weather is mild. This can cause problems, as waking
and wandering means that vital stored energy reserves are used
up and not necessarily replenished. Providing a continuous
supply of food for your local birds will help in this
instance, as hedgehogs will readily seek out peanut scraps
beneath a hanging feeder. Foxes are very active in the winter
– in fact it is likely that you will see them more often now
as they become bolder in their foraging habits. Again, these
mammals can be actively fed if you wish, but in many areas our
dustbins appear to provide them with an adequate source of
food! Smaller mammals such as shrews, mice and voles will
also be seeking food through these cold months. They can be
fed with seeds, nuts, fruit and scraps on a small table
outside a window and can provide endless entertainment.
The majority of insects
have life cycles that take the winter weather into account.
Most have evolved to have an inactive period during cold
weather, as over-wintering eggs or in a pupal or larval
stage. Others spend the winter as fully grown adults
(ladybirds and lacewings are good examples) but are able to
withstand the cold conditions as long as they can find a cosy
crevice, perhaps in a wooden fence, or are able to squeeze
into a hollow plant stem.
Honeybees may well venture
from their hives at any time through the winter when the
weather is mild. This will be to seek water, and you may well
see the workers on the edge of your pond in these conditions.
Food, of course, they have conveniently stored as honey, but
water is vital to their survival until next spring.
Bumblebees have a different colony structure and only the
queens survive, sleeping in underground chambers. Any that
emerge during this time will need to find early nectar to keep
Ensuring that a variety of
hideaways and winter habitats are secure and undisturbed will
give your resident garden wildlife every chance of surviving
until next spring. Garden sheds, if they are dry and cool,
make great sheltering places for all sorts of over-wintering
insects, especially butterflies. Some species, in particular
the small tortoiseshell, peacock and brimstone, hibernate as
adults, which is why they appear in our garages and sheds at
this time, having been woken by bright sunshine or a rise in
temperature. These are insects that suffer if they wake
prematurely, again using stored energy reserves so a garage,
greenhouse or potting shed that is heated from time to time is
not the best place for them. For them, there will be little
or no nectar to replenish their reserves. Butterflies found
fluttering inside buildings at this time should be relocated
quickly to a cool outbuilding where they should return to
their hibernating state.
Some garden 'pests' can be more
easily dealt with in the garden in the winter as they are less
active than during the warmer months. Snails spend the winter
in a torpid state, generally clustered together in stone
walls, under loose paving or inside your store of flowerpots!
This can be a good time of year to remove these creatures
unless you have a healthy population of song thrushes to feed
in the spring. Finding their hibernation places now and
removing them to a wilder habitat suitably far from your
garden, is an eco-friendly and organic method of dealing with
them. They will provide food for some other creature further
up the food chain. Slugs, unfortunately, are less easy to
find being hidden away in the soil in very cold conditions.
Whether your particular
favourites are the birds, insects or amphibians in your
garden, all these creatures will be struggling to survive
outside your cosy home at the moment. Sadly we cannot control
the weather but what we can do for our wildlife over the next
few months is ensure that conditions in our gardens or on our
allotments are adapted to the needs of the wildlife that’s out
there. Food and shelter are the most important factors at
this time and these are things we can control. Making sure
your local wildlife is well catered for now, will mean reaping
the benefits of their presence when the weather warms up.
tips to ensure winter wildlife survival
Feed the birds with mixed
seeds, sunflower hearts, nyjer seed and peanuts – these will also
provide food for other creatures – especially small mammals.
Construct a log pile and
leave it undisturbed. A huge range of creatures from wrens
and robins to toads and newts will find food and shelter
there, and hedgehogs may hibernate.
Make sure your compost
heap is active. Adding compostable material all through the
winter will ensure that there is always a deep layer of
vegetation to provide shelter.
Leave some grass uncut.
Small mammals, especially shrews, voles and mice will use an
area such as this to find food and shelter.
Leave herbaceous borders
uncut. Many insects, particularly ladybirds and other
beetles, seek shelter through the winter months amongst dead
Keep your garden shed,
garage or a small outbuilding unheated but frost-free to
allow butterflies to hibernate.
Make sure your garden
pond doesn’t freeze over completely. Lots of creatures
still need to drink and bathe even in the coldest weather.
Clean out bird boxes
after they have been used, and put a little dry hay or grass
inside. They will be used for roosting by small birds such
as wrens and may save lives.
Don’t be too tidy. There
will be plenty of time in the spring to tidy up where you
Always be aware that your
garden wildlife is out there somewhere – even if you can’t