Wildlife Garden Maintenance in December

The winter solstice on the 21st of this month has a significant effect on our winter garden wildlife.  As soon as the length of daylight increases, many subtle changes can be observed especially in the behaviour of some bird species.  Song thrushes will soon start to sing from treetops or roofs to define their territory, in preparation for the breeding season ahead.  Great tits may investigate nest boxes, especially on sunny days.  For many people December is a time to enjoy the garden from the comfort of the house, but there are still important jobs you can do to ensure your local wildlife survives the winter.

In a small garden, native shrubs such as goat willow, dogwood or hazel need to be kept in check to prevent them from taking over completely.  These valuable species attract a large variety of moth caterpillars and other insects and are well worth growing.  They can be ‘coppiced’ this month, which means cutting them to within 10 cms of the ground, encouraging them to produce new strong shoots from the base next spring.  If dogwood still has shiny black berries, delay coppicing this species until the fruits have all been eaten by wood mice or birds.

This is still only the beginning of the winter and if the weather is mild, an ideal time to plant a tree or a hedge.  Choose a native tree if you have the space – silver birch or rowan would be good choices for gardens as they support many insect species and insectivorous birds.  Rowan berries are also a favourite with blackbirds and thrushes.  Native mixed hedging is a wildlife magnet, providing nesting and hibernation places, food and shelter. Hedges are also important corridors in urban areas, linking gardens, allotments and green spaces to allow wildlife to move about in safety.   Include hawthorn, blackthorn and wild roses for their protective prickles as well as the wild Viburnum, spindle, holly, wild privet and buckthorn.  Mulch your hedge or tree well after planting and water if the weather is dry, until established.

Even in the tiniest garden it is possible to provide food, water and shelter from bad weather for common garden birds.  On a balcony or small patio make sure hanging feeders are topped up. Birds will venture closer to the house as food supplies run out.  In colder weather an ‘umbrella’ cut from a conifer and laid on the ground can keep an area free of frost, allowing birds like robins and wrens to find insects, but make sure local cats can’t use this as a hiding place.  Special seed and peanut feeders with plastic suckers can be attached to windows, and small drinking saucers of fresh water will be used when lodged in a window box.

When the weather is too miserable to venture out, keep up to date with what’s in your garden by starting a wildlife journal. A catalogue of the birds feeding, mammals passing through or unusual sighting of insects out of hibernation can be valuable information now or at any time throughout the year.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017