Helping your Garden Wildlife through the Winter

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 them alive.

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.

Ten tips to ensure winter wildlife survival

  1. Feed the birds with mixed seeds, sunflower hearts, nyjer seed and peanuts – these will also provide food for other creatures – especially small mammals.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Leave some grass uncut.  Small mammals, especially shrews, voles and mice will use an area such as this to find food and shelter. 

  5. Leave herbaceous borders uncut.  Many insects, particularly ladybirds and other beetles, seek shelter through the winter months amongst dead vegetation.

  6. Keep your garden shed, garage or a small outbuilding unheated but frost-free to allow butterflies to hibernate.

  7. Make sure your garden pond doesn’t freeze over completely.  Lots of creatures still need to drink and bathe even in the coldest weather.

  8. 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.

  9. Don’t be too tidy.  There will be plenty of time in the spring to tidy up where you need to.

  10. Always be aware that your garden wildlife is out there somewhere – even if you can’t see it!


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017