As we near the shortest day of the year, the nights draw in, temperatures drop and native animals like hedgehogs need to find a safe, cosy spot to hibernate until spring. Food sources can also be scarce so turning your garden into a sanctuary for wildlife can make all the difference to our native species' survival.
Mark Sage, head of horticulture at Wyevale Garden Centre, believes caring for wildlife in winter is important wherever you live.
"Whatever size outdoor space you have and whether you live in the country or an urban environment, I guarantee you’ll be able to see and support a range of species over the autumn and winter," he says. "Protecting wildlife over the cooler seasons is extremely important – it’s also a great way of getting your children excited about – and closer to – nature. Whether it’s a mammal, bird, insect or amphibian, nature enthusiasts can use our tips to turn their gardens into a wildlife haven for winter."
Helping our Birds
Many of us are familiar with bird feeders and try to encourage birds into our garden. This winter, feed a variety of birds with their own favourite foods to see a flock of variations in your garden.
Try placing fat blocks in wire cages (balls in plastic nets are not recommended as birds such as woodpeckers can get their tongues caught), or create your own fat blocks by melting suet into moulds such as coconut shells or logs with holes drilled in. It is encouraged to alternate different recipes to entice a range of birds; peanut cakes for starlings, insect cakes for tits and berry cakes for finches! Also, snacks such as finely chopped bacon rind and grated cheese are fantastic for small birds such as wrens.
Although fat is important, do also provide a grain mix or nuts to maintain a balanced diet. Sparrows, finches and nuthatches will enjoy prising the seeds out of sunflower heads, and whilst no-mess mixes are more expensive, the inclusion of de-husked sunflower hearts means there is less waste. Watch out though for inferior mixes which are often padded out with lentils.
In terms of delivery methods, use wire mesh feeders for peanuts and seed feeders for other seed. Specially designed feeders are needed for the tiny niger seed, loved by goldfinches, and feed placed on a wire mesh held just off the ground will entice ground-feeding birds such as robins and dunnocks.
On the other hand, thrushes and blackbirds are known to favour fruit over nuts and seeds, so scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them. Maybe in the spring, consider planting berrying and fruiting trees and shrubs such as Malus, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha to fill gaps ready for next year.
Garden Maintenance for Other Species
As temperatures continue to drop, keep an eye on water sources. If ponds freeze, melt a hole in the ice to allow the wildlife to drink, and enter and exit the water. Simply fill a saucepan with hot water and sit it on the ice until a hole has been melted. Try not to hit or crack ice as this can send shockwaves through the water that harms wildlife. Additionally, provide a shallow dish or container of water at ground level, for those who do not venture near your pond (or if there aren’t any nearby) this will benefit other garden wildlife that needs to drink, as well as birds.
If you can, put a few clay (not concrete) roof tiles in the pond to provide cover for overwintering frogs and other aquatic wildlife.
If you have a compost pile in your garden, be careful when turning it. The centre can be a warm and cosy winter resort for lots of animals such as a frogs and toads, so let them enjoy a little heat by neglecting your garden duties for a couple of months. You can make a hedgehog house from wood piles, which will give spiky friends somewhere to hide, sleep and hunt for insects. Shelter is essential for a hedgehog’s survival during the winter so choose a quiet spot that is unlikely to be disturbed from November to March when they will be hibernating. On the theme of neglecting, try to leave healthy herbaceous and hollow-stemmed plants unpruned until early spring as these can provide homes for overwintering insects. If this isn’t possible, consider making an insect or bug hotel and put up in a sheltered position for any ladybirds and lacewings looking for a place to overwinter.
The RHS encourages gardeners to make a significant contribution to supporting wildlife over winter, and it is surprisingly easy to do something to help garden wildlife in the lean and cold months of winter. Something as simple as filling up your bird feeder, leaving your compost heap to nature or adding a few late-flowering plants will attract more animals and ensure your new guests are safe, fed and watered until the cold months have passed.
Even if you carry out just a few of these tasks, it can make a difference. It is also a great way to watch wildlife even in the smallest of gardens or balconies, often at very close quarters so grab your binoculars or camera, and see what you can spot from the comfort of your own home.