by Elizabeth McCorquodale
Winter is a tough time for wildlife in the garden, both for species that we gardeners rely on to tackle pests and pollinate our crops, and for those garden inhabitants who simply give us pleasure
Gardens can be real life-savers for wildlife in winter, providing food, water and shelter for all sorts of animals, whether they hibernate through most of the colder months like hedgehogs, bats and bumblebees or for the more active creatures that have to battle their way through all kinds of harsh conditions. We can make a real difference simply by providing vital habitats and a few well chosen meals when conditions are harsh.
The high-rise haven that is the log pile provides cover, food and nesting sites for invertebrates, amphibians and small mammals. They hole up in the cracks and crevices in and around the logs, in the rotting core of the logs themselves and in the protected ground beneath the pile. Place your log pile on the sunny south side of a sheltering wall or fence or drape a heavy tarp or old carpet over the top and down one side to prevent winter winds whistling through the gaps.
A no-cut corner, where stems and stalks are allowed to stay standing through the winter, is a great addition to any winter garden, ensuring a safe haven for the insects and small mammals that naturally occupy grassy habitats and who search out hollow stems and seedheads in which to spend the winter. With a little forethought these wild areas will add a bit of architectural interest to the winter garden, coming to glistening life whenever a frost settles. When the garden begins to warm up in late spring cut the stems back and lay them out for a week or two to allow overwintering insects to make their getaway.
A few well placed terracotta tiles or flat stones in your garden pond will provide extra shelter for pond dwellers to hole up in when the temperatures dip and a couple of old terracotta pots placed on the margins and well covered with insulating leaves, will give amphibians and invertebrates a lovely, cosy waterside retreat to see out the winter. Keep pond life happy and healthy by ensuring your pond stays oxygenated in winter; a pan of very hot water set upon the ice will melt a hole in thick ice without causing distress to submerged pond life.
Plant a thick evergreen or mixed hedge that will provide shelter for birds and small mammals, as well as safe nesting sites, berries, nectar-rich flowers and fruit. A light early autumn trim, with a late spring cut will keep your hedges looking neat and tidy without disturbing nesting birds in spring and will avoid severe frost damage on flushes of new growth.
Enrich the foraging habitat around your garden by spreading a thick mulch of fallen leaves all over your flower beds, beneath trees and around ponds. This will provide shelter for small creatures and is a great foraging area for birds and larger mammals to hunt out invertebrates.
Bats, hedgehogs and dormice go into true hibernation as do several species of bumblebees, butterflies, lacewings and ladybirds while frogs, toads, lizards and small mammals such as shrews enter states of torpor, a sort of halfway point between sleeping and hibernation where body temperatures drop and heart rates slow in order to preserve fat reserves while food is scarce. All these animals will occasionally wake during warm periods to top up their fat stores with a meal or two before settling down again. They all need a safe and cosy place in which to spend the winter.
Insect lodges come in all shapes and sizes, from a few lengths of bamboo trimmed to size, stuffed into an old tin and placed deep in a sheltering hedge, to blocks of wood and old logs peppered with neatly drilled holes suitable for bumblebees, lacewings and ladybirds, among others. To make the most of these hibernaculums set them in place in early autumn when the these animals begin looking for safe, warm places to see out the winter. The give and take of providing homes for beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings is simple: provide the homes wherever the services of these beneficial insects are needed and in turn they will be ready to leap into deadly action as soon as their prey begin egg-laying in spring.
Hedgehog housing is easy enough to make. In a sheltered, quiet corner of your garden place a layer of dry bedding such as leaves or straw, and cover it with a small box or upturned basket propped up at a corner to allow access. The space inside should be around 25 to 35cm tall and broad. Cover the shelter with a thick waterproofing and insulating layer of leaves and branches. Hedgehogs commonly go walk-about in mild spells and may swap houses if another one is available, so if space allows, an extra hedgehog hut or two is a welcome addition.
Emergency rations and winter treats
A dry summer followed by a dry autumn can spell starvation for insectivorous animals like hedgehogs and badgers. Badgers don’t hibernate, though they do tend to sleep longer and deeper than in the warmer months in order to minimise their food needs when food is scarce. Help badgers and hedgehog to bulk up before they set in for the winter by providing wet or dry cat or dog food from early autumn onwards.
Several overwintering insects seek out flowers on the occasional mild days of winter, then tuck themselves back up again when the temperatures drop. Without a supply of nectar they simply would not make it through to spring. This essential top up can be provided by planting hellebores, aconites, hardy primroses, winter flowering viburnums, winter honeysuckle, winter flowering heathers, pulmonaria and willows.
Cotoneasters, ivy, buddleia, holly, crabapples, pyracantha, hawthorn, rowans and roses all provide a feast of berries and fruit through the winter to feed small mammals and fruit eating birds while alliums, honesty, sunflowers, autumn and winter clematis, teasels, buddleia and all the thistles provide seed heads for seed eating birds through winter.
Water is an often-overlooked essential in the winter garden so provide troughs and shallow bowls around the garden and try to locate them out in the open to prevent cats pouncing when birds are drinking or bathing. In freezing conditions pop out every now and then to ensure your drinking stations remain ice-free.
Home made bird cakes
You can make inexpensive, tasty and nutritious winter treats for your garden birds that are far superior to most shop bought fat or suet balls. All you need is suet (available from supermarkets, or fresh and cheap from your butcher), good quality bird seed, thick string and a plastic cup, or other mold.
1. Gently melt a cup of suet over a low heat.
2. As soon as it’s melted, stir in a cup of mixed bird seed and allow it to cool for 15 -20 minutes.
3. Tie a thick knot in one end of the string and rest the knot in the bottom of the cup. Slowly spoon or pour the seed/suet mix into the cup keeping the string central. Allow it to harden and set.
4. Once it is set, remove the bird cake from the cup by squeezing gently then hang it from a branch in the garden.