Wildlife Garden Maintenance in February

In the wildlife calendar, February is the start of spring and from now on there is plenty happening.  Violets, crocuses, snowdrops and aconites are flowering, providing food for early insects.  The occasional butterfly may be out of hibernation.  In milder areas of the country frogs will be spawning and many birds are now singing to declare their territories.  Thrushes, blackbirds, great tits and chaffinches are the most vocal, and collared doves will soon be laying eggs in their small twig nests.  In the countryside, badgers are producing their young now in spite of this often being the coldest month of the year.  Occasionally we experience very warm weather in February, but this may be followed by severe conditions, causing the loss of eggs or chicks of early nesters such as blackbirds, but they will recover quickly from these losses and lay again.

There is plenty to do in the garden now in preparation for the spring ahead. Buddleias should be cut down to 5 or 10 centimetres at the end of the month to encourage strong new shoots with large flowering heads. Buddleias flower on new branches each year so although this may seem rather brutal, your Buddleia will quickly produce lots of new flowering shoots in the next few months. If you have more than one Buddleia, stagger this operation, cutting some this month and others throughout March.  This will prolong the flowering season into September to the benefit of the late butterflies, especially red admirals and painted ladies.

If you have a dog rose or sweet briar in the garden, these can also be cut back if the rose hips have been eaten.

You can put your prunings to good use by making a ‘twiggery’ this month – a twiggy habitat tucked away in a quiet spot at the end of the garden or allotment, or under a hedge.  Cut the prunings into length of 1 to 2 meters and make a low pile in a shady place.  Many small mammals, especially shrews and wood mice, will use this and hedgehogs may nest here.  Birds that don’t mind nesting close to the ground, such as blackbirds and dunnocks, may also use it as a nest site.  If you hide an old terracotta flowerpot amongst the twigs you may attract a nesting robin.

In milder areas general tidying up can begin, but be cautious.  Cutting back herbaceous growth and last year’s seed heads too early can expose beneficial insects such as ladybirds, lacewings and beetles to unexpected cold weather.  It may also expose tender new shoots to frosts or even snow.  If the weather is very cold wait until the end of the month or the beginning of March before doing too much.  You may even uncover a hedgehog in a hibernation nest if you have left all your herbaceous plants uncut over the winter.

February the 14th marks the start of National Nestbox Week.  There is still time to put up a new nest box in the garden, or perhaps on the wall of your house if you have little outside space.  In this situation a blue tit or great tit box would be the best choice.  Boxes made of ‘woodcrete’ are better insulated than wooden ones and last a long time, but those made from natural birch logs are also favoured by tits.  Try to place your box at a minimum height of 2 metres from the ground where predators, including domestic cats, can’t reach it and position it to face between north–east and south-west to make sure that it does not receive full sunlight. 

If you still have some gentle pruning or cutting back of shrubs or hedges to do, try to complete it by the end of the month.  Several common garden birds, especially blackbirds, dunnocks, robins and thrushes may be thinking about nest building next month.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017