Wildlife in winter, how your garden can help

What image does the word winter conjure up for you?

snow scene with robin sitting on a twig

For me it is the snowy scene complete with a cheery robin that has appeared in numerous Christmas cards throughout the years, from Victorian times to the modern day. I am also reminded of the old rhyme:

The North Wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing poor thing.

Winter can be a pretty bleak time for wildlife, but the good news is there is a lot we can do in our gardens to help them survive the winter.

Don’t be too tidy!

When you are tidying your garden for winter it is a good idea to leave a pile of logs and twigs in a shady corner, this is a simple way of providing food and shelter for wildlife and is a good place for hibernating hedgehogs and toads. Newts also like to “hole up for the winter” under logs and stones to sit out the cold weather and reappear with the warmth of spring. Hedgehog and insect houses are also readily available at garden Centres and on the internet in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Windfall apples left on the ground will make a tasty treat for small mammals such as bank voles and hedgehogs and larger mammals such as foxes, badgers and deer, as well as birds such as Blackbirds, starlings and Thrushes and also insects.

Also don’t be too swift to cut off seedheads at the end of the Season, not only do they provide an attractive architectural feature in the garden, particularly when covered in ice and snow, but also a free and nutritious source of food for many of our seedeaters, including Siskin, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrows. Q Lawns, “Birds and Bees” Meadowmat includes a range of plants that provide Seed heads, including teasel, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Common Sorrel, Poppies, Scabious and Yarrow. Another good feature of Meadowmat is that it will encourage Ladybirds and other invertebrates to shelter in its tufted grass stalks during the winter months.

teasel seedhead with a snowy cap

Hedging

Hedging provides an excellent and attractive natural barrier in any garden. Hedging plants such as Pyracantha and Hawthorn produce berries which are a good source of food and shelter for birds, protecting them against predators. Their spiky thorns also provide security against unwanted visitors to the garden. Privet berries are loved by softbills, particularly thrushes and blackbirds. Blackthorn produces sloes which the birds love and the other advantage is that they make excellent gin!

Winter pollinators

We are all used to seeing bees and insects buzzing round our gardens in the summer months and have become familiar with the large range of plants which provide pollen for them at this time. However what many of us may not realise is that not all Bees hibernate in the winter. In the South of England certain species of Bumblebee have started nesting in winter. It is therefore essential for them to have a source of pollen to help them get through the colder months. Some of the more common winter and early spring pollinators include the Winter flowering Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), the Lenten rose (Helleborous Orientalis), Winter Heather (Erica Carnea), Primrose (Primula Vulgaris) and Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus). They also bring life and colour to an otherwise dreary and dormant garden.

Water

Water is especially important to birds in Winter when natural supplies may be frozen, not just for drinking, but also for bathing, We have all seen birds bathing when the snow and ice is on the ground and wondered why. The reason is that they need to keep their feathers in good condition, and bathing is an important part of feather maintenance. Dampening the feathers loosens the dirt and makes their feathers easier to preen. When preening, birds carefully rearrange the feathers and spread oil from the preen gland so they remain waterproof and trap an insulating layer of air underneath to keep them warm. It is important to keep the water clean and ice free. If you have a pond or bird bath in your garden then have a small light ball floating in the water this will be moved even by a gentle breeze and will keep a small amount of water ice-free.

The bird table

The bird table can provide a great “pop up restaurant” for our feathered friends when the weather is bad and other food sources are limited. Like all eateries to attract a good cross section of diners it needs to offer a variety of appealing and nutritious food.

Sunflower hearts are rich in oil and protein and full of energy and goodness and provide a good year round treat to a wide variety of birds including tits, greenfinches, goldfinches, blackbirds and House Sparrows.

Niger seeds are oil rich and are likely to attract the smaller seedeaters such as goldfinches, siskins, greenfinches and redpolls.

A particular favourite of species such as robin, wren and great tit are larvae and mealworms. They are packed full of energy and goodness.

You can buy these dried in wide variety of mixes either on-line or at your local Garden Centre or pet shop and again are good to feed all year round.

Another popular winter favourite is the fat ball. You either buy these, or make them yourself in true “Blue Peter” style using a few cheap and easily sourced ingredients, such as suet or fat, a yoghurt pot, and a few items from the store cupboard such as porridge oats, dried fruit and cheese. It’s a good idea to try different recipes and see what the birds like best. a great fatball recipe from the Eden Project in Cornwall

Bird table with blackbird in the snow

 

bird table with living green roofFor added value to wildlife, why not put a living green roof on your bird table?  It will be useful then to insects as well as to birds.