Somerset Wildlife Trust

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Preparing for winter in a wildlife garden

As winter approaches, now is a good time to think about how we can help wildlife through the most difficult months.  It’s likely to be the most challenging time for many species but we can make a significant difference with a little thought and planning.

Many of our plants are likely to be native and therefore should be able to survive the normal rigours of winter.  Some of the wonderful hebes which have provided nectar throughout the summer and autumn may need protection. Generally the smaller- leaved varieties are the hardiest.  Try to leave the flowering stems on the perennials for as long as possible even if they do look very untidy! If possible plant some native bulbs under trees and shrubs to help provide early nectar and this can be done right up until Christmas.

Hedges and hedgehogs

Mammals in the garden simply need plenty of cover and ideally some long tussocky grass. Leave the areas under hedges undisturbed as they are important corridors for the many small mammals who remain active through the winter, that is of course unless you are lucky enough to have dormice in which case they may be safely hibernating in a ball of leaves and bark in the base of the hedge.  A hedge of natives such as hazel, hawthorn, and other berry or nut producing species will be important for all these species.

Hedgehogs, who need all the help we can give, make a nest for their hibernation and this can be under piles of leaves, in compost heaps or anywhere that will be frost-free. The nest is made of grass, leaves, and materials such as straw to make a substantial structure with walls up to10cm thick.

Berries and bird baths

It is always good to feed the birds and evidence shows it can make a real difference to survival, but don’t forget not all birds will come to feeders.  Trees and shrubs with berries, eg. Rowan, Hawthorn, Holly, Spindle, and Crab Apples are always really good and those with seeds such as Birch and Hornbeam are worth having. Leave those seedheads in the borders just a little longer for the finches to enjoy. 

Then there is also shelter which is very important for birds in the winter so those thick hedges will be welcome, any dense climbers and always ivy growing on a wall or a tree will be particularly valuable for the late berries as well.  Don’t forget water which can be vital in the really cold snaps, and it’s best in a bird bath or equivalent, off the ground so its safe from cats!

Piles and ponds

Amphibians and reptiles will generally leave ponds in the cold weather and find somewhere to hide where it is damp and frost-free. Log piles, compost heaps, tussocky grass and stone walls are the most likely places they will chose.  A pile of stones with loose soil between will be particularly ideal and a paving slab over a shallow hole is always attractive.  These should all be in south facing, sunny positions so the animals will be able to warm up easily.

Ponds can be left but need to be kept well oxygenated for the wildlife which stays there through the winter, so ensure plenty of oxygenating plants and remove leaves etc. as much as possible. 

Bees and butterflies

With Bumblebees it is only the fertile queens  which overwinter and they find holes in banks or in long grass to hide in and hibernate.  Another reason why it is so important to leave some areas of grass uncut.  Adult solitary bees all die out but the larvae survive in their various nest cells  which will be in holes in wood, dead stems, in crumbly mortar or in underground spaces, depending on the species. This is where the ‘ bee hotels’ come in but you can just leave logs, packed with some stems between, about a metre off the ground in undisturbed sunny areas.  It’s a good idea to drill some holes ranging in diameter from 2mm to10mm in the ends of any logs  which will then cater for most species. Any structures need to be in full sun so the bees can warm up easily in the morning.

Butterflies and moths will be overwintering as one stage of their life cycle, most commonly as pupae or as caterpillars. In general these will be at the base of the food plant just into the soil or in grass tussocks, so again the wilder areas of the garden should be left undisturbed. 

The main theme of the wildlife garden in winter is to leave things as undisturbed as possible, remembering the many different species hiding in various spots until the weather improves.  This should be a welcome excuse to have a rest and make plans for the spring and summer!

If you are not already enrolled, join the This is a Wildlife Garden scheme, and encourage your neighbours to do the same.

Winter garden


Bee hotel

Squirrel CGH-1

wildlife plaque

Photographs from the top ©
Anna Guthrie, Richard Burkmar, Neil Galton, Kiff Hancock, SWT.