As the nights begin to get slowly brighter again (roll on the clocks changing in March), we can all start to look forward to warmer temperatures and signs of spring. As we’re tucked up warm inside our homes, it can be easy to forget about the wildlife that inhabits our gardens, so we’ve put together a few tips on how we can help see them through to spring.
A lot of garden wildlife will hibernate over winter to avoid the chilliest temperatures and general lack of food, but for those that don’t we can provide a helping hand. Birds in particular can struggle to find natural foods such as worms and berries, so providing a variety of food can be a big help. Bird feeders are a great start and there are various designs for different types of seeds – niger seeds suit goldfinches with fine beaks, while greenfinches can cope with whole sunflower seeds.
Not all birds use feeders though, so think about providing a variety of seeds, fruit or mealworms on a table too, and a table with a roof will help to keep the food dry in snowy or wet weather. Suet is also a great food to put out for birds, either in the form of fat balls or pellets (often combined with insects or fruit). This helps our feathered friends to keep up their fat reserves in winter.
We love this bird feeding guide from the RSPCA if you’re looking for specific things to offer your avian neighbours,
And Vine House Farm, which produces wild bird seed in an environmentally responsible way and donates a percentage of its revenue to The Wildlife Trusts, has more great advice.
Why not leave a designated ‘wild’ area in your garden? Undisturbed piles of leaves make a welcome hiding place for animals. A number of your usual visitors will hibernate over the winter months (or enter a state of torpor), such as frogs, mice or hedgehogs. Before you clear any piles of wood or leaves (especially if you’re planning on having a bonfire), do a quick check to be sure there aren’t any creatures sleeping inside. If you do happen to come across any hibernating wild animals leave them well alone, and keep their spot safe until they are ready to emerge in spring.
Don’t be too tidy in your garden! Windfall apples are good winter food for thrushes, and many herbaceous plants have seed heads that continue to provide food for birds in the winter. Why not consider planting shrubs with winter berries – pyracanthus, hawthorn and rowan are good examples, as well as ivy which offers berries that last long into winter – good for wood pigeons. Ivy has the added benefit of providing shelter and roosting space for birds and insects.
Houses for Animals
As well as not disturbing sheltering / hibernating animals you can also actively create spaces they are likely to need. Amphibians such as frogs and toads like hiding under log piles, so you could leave a pile for them, or an upturned pot or clay roof tile. There are lots of options for purpose-built refuges like toad or hedgehog houses. You could even try building a hibernaculum for frogs.
Squirrels don’t hibernate, but during the winter they build warm nests (or ‘dreys’) to curl up in. Purpose-built nest boxes are available, but squirrels will also commandeer unoccupuied bird boxes if they’re large enough. Unrelated squirrels will share their dreys throughout the colder months, huddling together for extra warmth.
The important thing for protecting insects over winter is to help keep them dry and cool. You might find a butterfly hidden away in a corner of your shed, or ladybirds under loose bark on logs. If you find any insects, the best thing to do is to not disturb them. You can help by recreating these sorts of safe spaces by building an ‘insect hotel’ (e.g. a bundle of bamboo stems) and leaving it in a dry spot in the garden.
Fresh, clean water is important for all animals, so you can leave out a shallow bowl for drinking and bathing. Diseases can be transmitted through dirty water so be sure to refresh the water daily if possible and clean and dry the bowl before refilling.
If you have a pond, gently break any ice that forms to prevent toxic gasses building up, as the gasses could kill fish or frogs under the ice. The best way to break ice is by placing a saucepan of hot water onto the surface of the ice to create a hole, rather than smashing or pouring in hot water, as that could harm the creatures in the pond. Apparently floating a tennis ball in your pond is meant to prevent it freezing over completely (please let us know if you try this!).
If you’re lucky enough to have badgers in your local patch you can give them an extra hand too. Badgers don’t hibernate, but will sleep through particularly severe weather. They struggle to find earthworms when the ground is frozen, so winter is a good time to leave out supplementary food for them such as peanuts (unsalted), cheese or fruits. It is worth noting that you shouldn’t leave an excess of food out, as you don’t want your neighbouring animals to become too dependent on you as a food source.
Keep Wildlife Safe From Pets
Encouraging wildlife into your garden can unfortunately lead to conflict between wild animals and domestic pets, but there are a few things you can do to help minimise this.
- Place any bird feeders up high, well above cat height and away from branches
- Position bird tables out in the open, away from cover cats could use for stalking prey
- Keep food off the ground as this can leave birds and small mammals vulnerable to cats
- Choose a bird box or feeder table with a steep roof to stop cats from sitting on top of them
If you decide to try any of these tips do let us know how you get on. We wish you all the best with your wildlife visitors this winter!