Whilst summer can bring an abundance of wildlife to our gardens, the long days and glorious warmth soon fade into dark autumn evenings and crisp winter mornings.
Although this happens every year, it can still be a real shock to our resident species from birds and mammals to amphibians. Food sources dry up, freezing weather sets in and frost blankets the landscape, making autumn and winter potentially a very rough time for wildlife.
Our garden visitors need a helping hand to give them the best possible chance so make sure you read on to find out our best tips for making your garden a haven all year round, even throughout the cold winter months!
Keep feeding the birds and other wildlife
Whether it’s seeds, scraps or fat balls, putting food out for garden birds is a great way to connect with the nature on our doorstep and give our feathered friends an additional source of food.
However, it’s worth remembering that once you start feeding them, birds will remember the food source and may become dependent on the food you are providing. This is even more important in winter as natural food sources are depleted.
Hedgehogs and other hibernating mammals will also need to stock up before the winter sets in, so consider leaving out cat biscuits, nuts and pet food (not fish-based) to help them out.
Try to keep feeding the birds all year-round, even when it looks like there aren’t many in your garden (they may just be sheltering from the weather!). High-energy foods such as mealworms and fat balls are a great idea to help keep them going through those tough winter days.
Don’t forget to clear out the feeders and keep an eye out for food that might have become frozen and if you’re worried about rats and other pests, make sure you clear up spilt food and keep your feeding tables clean.
Resist the temptation to tidy
Whilst the temptation is always there to always keep your garden neat and tidy, it’s actually much more beneficial for wildlife if we let it get a little wild all-year round, especially in winter.
Messy stacks of logs, leftover piles of leaves and warm compost heaps can make the perfect hibernation homes for amphibians and mammals including toads, hedgehogs and voles over the winter. Try not to disturb these habitat piles otherwise you may wake up your guests, except if you’re planning to have a bonfire – it’s always worth checking beforehand to avoid any accidents… hedgehogs love bonfire piles!
If you’re feeling motivated you could go one step further and create special hibernacula or homes for wildlife such as bird boxes, wildlife hotels and hedgehog houses. These need not be complicated and can provide an extra level of refuge for wildlife – see our Wild Patch website for free information sheets with some great ideas.
Check on your water sources
Providing a source of food is always the first thing that springs to mind over the winter, but ensuring your garden has a fresh, clean and un-frozen supply of water is just as essential for wildlife.
Birdbaths, saucers and drinking troughs can easily become full of debris such as leaves and twigs over the autumn and winter, so try and clean them out regularly (just don’t use soap or bleach). If they become frozen, it’s important you remember to thaw them out using warm water.
This is also worth remembering if you have a pond as when they freeze over they become de-oxygenated which is devastating to the wildlife (such as frogs) that live in them. If your pond does freeze during a cold snap, heat up a pan on the stove until it is hot and use it to thaw out the surface. Another great tip is to float a football or tennis ball in the water over winter as it will prevent the surface from freezing completely over.
If you’re in the stages of planning your wildlife pond, our pond information sheet has some more great tips for hibernators including creating a deeper part in the central area and providing a rock pile habitat area next to the pond.
Finally… think forward to spring!
What better time to begin planning your spring wildlife garden when it’s freezing cold outside and you’re tucked up inside with a warm cup of tea? You don’t need to spend too much time worrying if you want to want to create a wildlife-friendly garden, all it takes is a few clever choices.
Choose nectar-rich flowers and plants including (but not limited to) foxglove, lavender, honeysuckle, heather, cornflower, catnip and oregano to attract pollinating bees, butterflies and other insects.
If you want to help the birds, they love plants and trees that produce berries such as hawthorn, rowan and holly (which are also great sources of pollen), and will also enjoy eating seeds from plants like lavender and sunflowers. If you provide some thick, woody shrubs and hedges along the borders of your garden this will be perfect shelter for birds and mammals too.
To quote Simon Barnes, ‘tidiness is the enemy of life’ and so last but by no means least, segmenting an area of your garden off to create a ‘wild patch’ is perhaps one of the best tips you can follow if you want to help your local wildlife.
Wild patches are areas where we leave nature to do what it does best, growing wild! Whether they’re large or small, wild patch areas can be full of wildflowers, native long grasses and uncut vegetation that provide an important refuge for wildlife and a well-stocked larder of food for our local species. You can read more about how to quickly and easily start your own wild patch on the Wild Patch website.
We hope you’ve found our guide to helping winter wildlife useful, remember there’s a whole host of resources online if you need more tips or inspiration, including the South Yare Wildlife Group website.