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Top tips to help winter wildlife

Posted: Sunday 28th December 2014 by Community

Mistle Thrush (c) Amy Lewis

The bitter cold of winter is forcing many of us to stay indoors and huddle up to the fire, but spare a thought for wildlife in this cold weather...

Wildlife has many different strategies for surviving the cold winter - some migrate, some hibernate, and some just try to tough it out. But those that do stick with us have a hard time as the temperatures drop.

 Much wildlife, particularly garden birds, have a short day in which to gather food to replace the energy lost whilst staying warm on the long cold nights. With little food to go around, this is your chance to make a real difference to your wildlife.

We've put together a few tips for you to help the wildlife in your garden survive the winter.

  1. Feed the birds

After a long cold night, come the morning, garden birds are ravenous and very eager to replace the energy used to stay warm so there is never a better time than now to start feeding the birds. Make sure you top up feeders to stop them running out, and use fat balls and blocks and other suet based foods to give the birds a real boost in the early mornings. Other good energy rich foods which will help bring in a good range of birds include peanuts, niger seed, black sunflowers, and mealworms - a top tip for those who would rather feed dried mealworms rather than live, soak the dried ones before putting them out, this will also help provide moisture at a time when water is frozen.

Putting out chopped up fruit and vegetables on feeders is also useful, or pinning halves of apples and pears in trees. Grated hard cheese as an occasional treat is also an energy rich favourite for garden birds.

But remember, when you start feeding birds in your garden please continue to do so throughout the winter period. Birds are creatures of habit, so will return daily and can come to rely on your feeder in harsher times.

  1. Think about water

When temperatures drop water freezes making it difficult for wildlife to find fresh water to drink. Break the water on bird baths daily or replace with tepid water, putting a bowl of warm water out will also help other wildlife - click here for a top tip for keeping a bowl of water from freezing during the day.

Garden ponds can be an important water source for wildlife, but not just for drinking. It's important to ensure that pond life is safe too, as the oxygen in a pond can be depleted if it is completely frozen over for long periods of time. To ensure that your pond is healthy, you could prevent the whole of the surface of the pond from freezing over by putting a tennis ball or a sealed plastic bottle (half filled with salty water) into it. The bobbing and slow movement of the object should help at least a small part of the pond from freezing over, and if it does get trapped pouring warm water over the object will help create a hole.

You can gently break the ice crust and remove sections, however, please be careful when doing this as breaking the ice can send shockwaves through the pond which can kill hibernating frogs, fish and other animals.

Do not use salt on the surface of the pond as de-icer, this will prove toxic for pond-life.

  1. Clean out nest boxes

Don't forget to remove old nesting materials from bird boxes to prevent the build up of parasites and diseases, replace the old with a little fresh material, and don't take them down for long periods as come nightfall many of these boxes will still be in use as birds shelter from the harsh weather. Now is a great time to put up more boxes too, ready for the spring - you might even get some birds roosting in it over the winter.

  1. Keep an eye out for hedgehogs...

By now hedgehogs should be safely asleep for the winter, so if you do see a hedgehog out and about it's most likely searching for food. Provide a bowl of fresh water and put out hedgehog food (available from most pet stores) or cat or dog food. If it looks particularly small (they have to weigh over 450 grams to survive the winter), ill or you are otherwise concerned about it contact the Help a Hedgehog Hospital for advice.

  1. Don't be too tidy

Slow-worm - 2012 Photography competition runner up (c) Harry AtkinsIt's tempting, when plants begin to die back and trees loose their leaves, to 'have a tidy' and cut back vegetation. However, should you manage to resist the urge, wildlife will find a haven in your garden. Leaving seed heads on and not pruning berry laden shrubs will provide much needed natural food sources; and plant stems, and piles of leaves, rocks or logs make a great place for invertebrates such as ladybirds and lacewings, toads, slow worms and even hedgehogs to hibernate.


  1. Christmas waste

Every year there is a lot of Christmas waste produced by households. Why not compost non-metallic and non-glittery wrapping paper, tags and cards - it makes a great additon to your compost. Christmas food waste can also be used in this way or put into scrap feeders for garden birds to feast on.

Turn your compost heap over winter to keep it ticking over - but do it gently and carefully - many invertebrates and even toads and slow worms are likely to take refuge in a warm compost heap over winter.


  1. Think about next year

Winter berries (c) Christina Catlin-Groves

It's easy to forget about these things come the spring, so start thinking and taking notes on the kind of plants you might like to plant ready for next winter.

Plants and shrubs which bear fruit, nuts or berries are a great way to give something back to wildlife come winter and provides interest and a splash of colour when other vegetation dies back.

  • Planting plants with hollow stems such as angelica, fennel and queen annes lace, and leaving them to stand through the winter will provide a great home for wildlife to hibernate.
  • Also, keep in mind wildlife when thinking about the design of your garden - contrary to popular belief a wildlife garden doesn't have to be full of wild 'messy' areas or loads of native plants (although this is obviously good if you can!), making small changes to your garden design can help wildlife in a big way.

Open faced flowers are best for pollinators, daisy-like plants such as rudbeckia are particularly good.

  • Ivy and mahonia are great everygreen plants to grow as they are autumn and winter flowering plants, great for pollinators on mild days when they venture out - and, when the berries appear, great for birds too.
  • Choosing some early flowering plants will make you ever popular with your local bees in early spring.
  • Have a herb garden and leave it to flower, not only will this help create culinary delights in the kitchen and a heady scent when brushed against, but will also draw in lots of butterflies and bees.
You might be interested in buying your bird food, feeders, nest boxes and other garden and wildlife accessories from one of our supporters, Vinehouse Farm. Everytime you purchase from Vinehouse we get a donation too!

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