Helping wildlife in your garden this winter

What could be better than sitting at your window on a cold winter’s morning with a hot drink to watch the birds and animals in your garden? Winter is a difficult time for our native wildlife. Still, you can do many things if you want to encourage animals in your garden during the colder months. Here is how you can help…

During November and December, we get around seven to eight hours of daylight each day. For animals who do not hibernate, this makes it a real struggle to find enough food before it gets dark. What’s more, the landscape is bare, and the temperatures are cold, so it’s no wonder that the wildlife in your garden might need all the help it can get. By following these tricks and tips, you can help to sustain a range of beautiful wildlife in your garden and keep them well fed over the next few months while food is scarce. 

Feed the birds and watch your garden go wild

There has been a severe but gradual decline in the numbers of our native birds, with the song thrush, skylark, lapwing and house sparrow showing particularly worrying drops. Putting bird feed and fresh water in your garden is one of the best ways that you can help them right now. If you or your neighbours have cats, then hang feeders or nutritious fat balls up high on branches to encourage birds to eat in a safe place. 

At this time of year, you are most likely to see smaller bird species such as wrens and tits in your garden. These animals need to eat almost regularly throughout the day to get enough energy to keep warm at night. Even smaller birds like the firecrest and goldcrest might occasionally join in with the other birds to peck and forage for food together. Look out for them hopping about in outer tree branches, where they like to search for moth eggs and spiders. 

Blackbirds and robins are also likely to be hungry now, as they mainly eat worms and other invertebrates that are hibernating under the cold and frozen ground. December is the time of year when robins will start to pair with a mate and begin their courting behaviours. 

If you see male robins feeding females, this is a good sign that chicks will be on their way in the next few weeks. Leave food scattered in the grass for them; try a combination of seeds, cooked rice and grated cheese, which will give them all the energy they need – but again, leave this higher up if you have feline pets. 

Tips for Tawny Owls

If you live near woodlands or close to a park with lots of mature, broad-leafed trees, you might have Tawny Owls nesting. These small, brown owls are likely to be heard from dusk onwards, twit wooing to each other in the dark. Tawny owls have territories that they like to stay in and patrol at night, coming back to their nests where they hide away during the day. They can be very tricky to spot, as they camouflage so well with the tree trunks, but you can always hear them. 

During the summer, the owls devote themselves to raising their chicks. In the autumn and early winter, the chicks become fully-grown, and this is when things get a little noisy. The younger birds are pushed from their nests by their parents, who do a lot of shrieking and squawking to defend their territories from these newly grown adults. The chicks, in turn, try to attract mates to set up new nests with, which requires even more noise to find each other.

As the nights get colder, the small mammals that owls like to eat, such as mice and voles, become less active. It is harder for these winged hunters to hear and catch their prey as they do not rustle and move as much. If you want to feed owls, the best food you can give them are dead chicks that can be obtained directly from hatcheries, but of course, this doesn’t appeal to most people! It is better to let owls find their food rather than trying to feed them raw meat like beef or chicken, which are not ideal for their diets. The perfect way to help is to fit a well-positioned nest box for them and avoid using rat poison that can get into their food chain and make them sick. 

Jump around with frogs and toads

Small ponds will encourage amphibians into your garden, which will reward you by naturally taking care of pests like flies or slugs without the need for pesticides. Frogs and toads like to either bury under soil or live in mud at the bottom of ponds, keeping themselves away from frost. They slow down their metabolisms to help them survive the temperatures. They breathe through their skin, but this becomes a problem when ponds ice over and oxygen levels in the water become too low. 

You can help frogs and toads by making sure your pond has at least one gently sloping side for them to get in and out. Planting around the edge of the pond will create an ideal, covered environment and a couple of rocks raised out of the water will provide a resting place when the sun comes out. One great tip to keep your ponds from frosting over is by including a small pump or water feature that keeps the water moving. 

Homes for hedgehogs

Everyone loves hedgehogs, especially children! Not only are they sweet little things, but they are also a gardener’s best friend by eating all the slugs, snails and insects. If you want to encourage them into your garden, make sure there are wild areas of your garden with lots of leafy coverage and logs for them to use as a shelter. 

After November hedgehogs go into hibernation, so now is the time to help them fatten up by feeding them with hedgehog feed, or tinned dog or cat food, which they also love. Just be aware that tinned food can freeze in colder weather, so cat biscuits are a good alternative. Hedgehogs will get up for a few days at a time while hibernating, usually to look for food. 

Hedgehogs are always at higher risk during the winter, as they like to hide away and sleep in bonfire piles or compost heaps, which you should check before disturbing. You can make a simple home for them in a quiet part of the garden by leaning a board or some planks against a wall or fence. Cover with grass, twigs and leaves and leave it well alone all winter so that they can hibernate in peace.

Wildlife forms a vital part of your garden’s ecosystem, and there is plenty to do to help them during the colder months. Most of these things we can do in our gardens are very simple and do not require too much of our time. Not only will you be helping these beautiful creatures, but also you will be keeping your garden free of pests at the same time.