Winter is always the toughest season for Britain’s wildlife. Temperatures drop, food becomes scarcer, and there’s the added problem in our towns and cities of a lack of natural habitat for overwintering animals.
Is your garden or outside space ready to help wildlife this winter? It’s easier than you might think – a lot of it is just putting off awkward gardening jobs until the warmer spring months!
Here are our top tips for making your garden a haven for wildlife this winter.
1. Make a tidy mess
It’s tempting to tidy up the garden for winter but putting it off until spring will help all sorts of animals. Rake leaves into piles and don’t cut back dried stems and seed heads – they’re all prime spots for insects like ladybirds and lacewings over winter. If you’ve got a big garden, hedgehogs, amongst others, love a good pile of fallen branches.
Don’t touch hedges or ivy until spring, they’re valuable shelter for smaller birds and the berries are a great food source. If you have leaves to get rid of, spread them on bare borders – they’ll rot down into a rich mulch and make a great foraging habitat for blackbirds. And unless you desperately need to dig over the soil, leave it over winter so you don’t disturb spider eggs and moth larvae.
2. Put up a bird box
Winter is the perfect time to put up a bird box – small birds will use them for shelter during the colder months and often come back to nest in spring. If you already have a bird box, clear out old nests and kill off any parasites by pouring boiling water over the box.
Different birds prefer different boxes. If you’d like to attract blue tits or house sparrows, go for one with a hole. Open boxes draw wrens and robins, if you’d like a splash of red-breasted colour in your outside space. With an open box, make sure it’s safe from cats and other predators.
3. Give your pond some TLC
Ponds are a great source of food and water for birds and other animals throughout winter, so leave them uncovered.
Winter is the best time to pull out any unwanted growth or muck from your pond – but be sure to sort through it to put back any invertebrates, snails or other animals. Leave the waste from the pond on the side for a couple of days to encourage any wildlife you’ve missed to get back in the water. In particular, watch out for dragonfly larvae stay as they stay active throughout winter.
4. Put out food
In early winter, fallen apples and other fruit are a great food source for birds and other animals. As the weather gets colder, food becomes scarcer and birds become more dependent on the food you put out.
It’s not an obvious thing, but it’s important to clean bird feeders before each time you fill them to avoid spreading parasites and diseases. Birds like sparrows and chaffinches are happy to use hanging feeders – put one up outside your window for all-day entertainment. Blackbirds and thrushes are happier with food scattered on the ground but only do this if you don’t have regular visits from cats and are sure it’s not going to attract pests.
5. Look out for amphibians
Toads like to spend the winter in greenhouses or sheds, or under pots or stones if they can find a cosy nook. In early winter, you can set up a few toad-friendly spots but be careful not to disturb them later on.
Some frogs overwinter among damp leaves, another reason not to get rid of them in a winter tidy-up. Others prefer to hide at the bottom of ponds – you can put in a few clay tiles in the pond to provide cover for them. If the pond ices over and there’s no thaw in sight, melt or break the ice so that the water doesn’t run low on oxygen.
6. Make a wildlife highway
Hedgehogs and other animals will only come to your garden if they can get in. If you have hedges there will be natural gaps but if your garden is fenced, make a 13cm wide hole in the bottom of it somewhere, so that wildlife can crawl in and out.
If you live in a terrace or estate, see if you can get your neighbours to do the same to create a giant, linked habitat in which hedgehogs can explore and hunt.
7. Set up a bug hotel
Like bird feeders, bug hotels are something almost all of us can put up somewhere. Many insects survive as eggs or larvae in cracks or crevices over the colder months – even a bundle of sticks inside a sheltered box with a good variety of spacing will help them see out the winter.
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