Winter Wildlife Gardening

WildNet - Tom Marshall

Having spent a couple of soggy hours cutting back a rampant wisteria in my garden recently, I then surveyed the sorry mess of fallen leaves, dead annual plants and the skeletons of deciduous trees and shrubs across the rest of the garden. I was sorely tempted to give the whole lot a general tidy but whilst there are some jobs you can do at this time of year; others are best left till spring if you want your plot to be a haven for wildlife.
Ladybirds Matt Berry

This isn’t just an excuse for inactivity, though it is tempting to simply retire to an armchair with a seed catalogue and hot drink when the weather is as inhospitable as it has been recently, there is real merit in taking a cautious approach in the garden in winter.

Bear in mind that beautiful and beneficial creatures such as ladybirds hibernate in cracks and crevices. Loose bark and hollow stems are ideal so don’t be too quick to cut back old branches and annuals that have ‘gone over’. If your garden has been neglected and needs a major tidy, this really is best left until spring and even then, go steady,  as you could disturb a sleeping hedgehog tucked up amongst the undergrowth.

Walkeringham Nature Reserve NottsWT cpt Nicola Davidson Reed

When you do get round to sorting out the mess, consider creating a log pile which will provide habitat for all manner of creatures once you’ve tidied around the edges to make your plot a little easier on the eye. Any creepers such as ivy growing on walls and fences provide ideal over-wintering spots for insects – so again, leave what you can. If your ivy is well established it might even provide a natural roosting spot for wrens.

If like me you’ve got left over fallen fruit on the ground, leave it there so that birds like fieldfares and other winter thrushes can feast on it during cold snaps. 

If you really do have the urge to ‘crack on’ with work in the garden, focus on creating new habitat by planting trees and shrubs – especially berry bearing varieties such as holly, rowan or cotoneaster. If you’re looking for a ‘project’ you could consider digging out a pond. A pond dug now has every chance of being filled with rainwater and you can always top it up with water from water butts which will be replenished on an almost daily basis throughout the winter. A new pond will be ready in time for spring and there’s every chance you will have new residents such as frogs from the off.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), perched on branch with rowan berries,Clwyd, November 2009, - Richard Steel/2020VISION

Richard Stee l/ 2020VISION

Helping our feathered friends –

There are a couple of jobs you can do to help our feathered friends. In addition to putting out a selection of bird food and making sure clean water is available, now is a good time to clean out any nesting boxes and to put up new boxes ready next year’s nesting season. Everyone tends to think about installing nest boxes from February onwards but by this time some species are already nesting and many will have been seeking out the best nest sites for some time. Records suggest that species are breeding between 1 and 30 days earlier than they were in the 1960s – suggesting that we should have our nest boxes installed by the turn of the year to give the best chance of them being selected.

Another benefit of putting up boxes early is that they are often used by species such as blue tits or wren to keep warm on cold frosty nights. There are records of over 30 wrens cramming themselves into a single nest box to keep the cold at bay!

Any existing boxes should be taken down, brushed out and rinsed with boiling water to kill off any remaining parasites.