How to make a wildlife winter wonderland

Sunday 8th December 2013

Bill Oddie at London Wildlife Trust's Centre for Wildlife GardeningBill Oddie at London Wildlife Trust's Centre for Wildlife Gardening

Winter is a great time for attracting new wildlife to your garden, and there’s much you can do to help species survive harsh weather spells

When gardens are considered as a network of mini wildlife havens, rather than individual patches of green space, they have the potential to provide linked-up areas of wildlife habitat, particularly important in built-up urban areas.  All gardens are a vital source of shelter and food for wildlife, especially now when many species need safe spaces for shelter.

Bill Oddie OBE, The Wildlife Trusts’ Vice President, and keen wildlife gardener, said:  “It is a truism but any garden, no matter how tiny, can help to support some wildlife.”

The Wildlife Trusts’ offer top 10 tips on giving wildlife a helping hand in winter:

1. Let it grow, let it grow…
If a warmer winter means your grass keeps on growing, let it!  It provides shelter for insects, small mammals and amphibians too.  If you don’t want to leave the entire lawn, adjust your mower to cut the grass to at least 3.5 - 5cm and consider leaving a patch to grow.  This can provide a corridor for creatures like frogs and mice.  Don’t mow grass when it’s wet or frosty, nor when there’s a cold drying wind.

2. Don’t clear away rotting wood
Rotting wood is a really valuable habitat for wildlife in our gardens.  Dead and decaying wood could become home to beetles, fungi, centipedes and more.  A wide range of beetles and flies will feed on decaying wood and the fungi which lives on it, and some solitary bees and wasps re-use beetle tunnels as nest sites.

3. Mini beast mansions
Insects need places to shelter and while many of them aren’t flying at this time of year, the winter lull is a good opportunity to introduce some simple bug homes onto your plot.  Make an insect tower block by screwing three or four old bird boxes together and stuffing them with straw, stones, twigs and pine cones.  If you have an old fence post hanging around, drill holes into it and create a home for solitary bees.  Make sure the holes are well spaced and drilled at angles that point upwards so any water that gets in drains out again. 

4. Fallen leaves and standing plants make great shelter
Some creatures use dry leaves to line their nests or burrows.  If you make a pile in the corner of your garden, something wild may move in!  Toads and newts may seek out this leaf litter but will also look for crevices underneath rocks and stones, in log piles and within the soil itself.  The mulch left over from dead leaves is full of nutrients, good for worms and other mini beasts.  Resist hard pruning in some areas, and delay repairing walls and relaying paving until the weather warms up.  Cracks and crevices in all these places will shelter wildlife from the cold. 

5. Mammal and amphibian hibernators
Of our mammals only bats, dormice and hedgehogs hibernate during the winter.  Amphibians like frogs, toads and newts also enter a state of torpor – a kind of hibernation - but, being cold blooded, the physiological changes they undergo are different.  Amphibians tend to seek out a place in which to spend the winter that will be frost-free as frost can damage body tissue.  Male frogs often spend the winter in the mud at the very bottom of ponds whilst females prefer to hibernate away from ponds; as do toads and newts.  Keep your pond frost-free by floating a ball in it overnight.

6. Let your ivy flower
Ivy flowers can provide nectar to insects like butterflies and bumblebees that fly on warmer winter days and as the berries  ripen they provide food for birds.  The tangle of ivy branches and leaves is also a wonderful sheltering spot for overwintering insects and mammals.

7. Frosty fluttering
Red admirals often over-winter in garden sheds, but may become active again on warmer days.  If you find any butterfly prematurely awakened like this, don’t put it into the cold garden but release it into a cool but sheltered place, such as a garage or shed.  Make your garden more butterfly-friendly by planting some winter-flowering plants such as winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). 

8. A hibernation home for hedgehogs
Keep disturbance of possible hibernating places to a minimum.  Although they may rouse slightly during periods of warmer weather, our hibernating mammals will not usually wake properly and move unless disturbed.  Disturbance places severe demands on the animal’s already depleted fat reserves and lessens its chances of surviving the winter.  It is easy to improvise good hibernating spots for hedgehogs by leaning a sheet of plywood against a fence, wall or hedge in a quiet spot and covering it with leaves and branches: the space underneath the board can become a snug spot.

Our gardens provide many of us with a daily dose of nature at close quarters which, in turn, can provide the perfect natural relief from the hum-drum pressures of daily life

9. Wild winter gardening
Something to consider for next winter is including winter bloomers like heathers, winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) in your planting scheme, just in case warm weather tempts nectar-hungry insects out.   Autumn-flowering cherry, and Viburnum x bodnantense are also good.  Holly, ivy and spindle berries are great sources of bird food.  Evergreens like lavender and climbers like ivy give your garden texture and colour, while providing valuable shelter.  Leaving herbaceous vegetation standing until March provides cover, while letting seed heads stay on plants will provide food for small birds, as well as adding visual interest to your garden. 

10. Don’t cut back hedges when they are producing berries
Hedge fruits are an important food source for robins, so having some brambles on the go is a good way to be robin-friendly.  Some birds migrate to the UK for winter – including fieldfare and redwing, which come from Scandinavia and mainly move in flocks.  Although they do not frequent gardens that often they do love hawthorn hedges and holly berries and can turn a quiet spot into a twittering hive of activity.

 Useful web links to find out more about gardening for wildlife, include:

  • Wild About Gardens aims to bring the worlds of gardening and nature conservation closer together, offering a variety of advice on how to attract wildlife.
  • The Wildlife Trusts offer various wildlife gardening-related publications and handy factsheets too. 
  • Vine House Farm, working in partnership with The Wildlife Trusts, produces wild bird seed to help attract birds to your garden.

Tagged with: Wildlife gardening