How to make your garden wildlife-friendly this winter

Winter is coming, and while for us, that means the arrival of cosy knitwear, great telly and the fast approach of Christmas, for the nation’s wildlife, it can be a vastly different story. Food is scarce, environments harsh, and the cold can take its toll.

For this reason, Wyevale Garden Centre and the RSPB have teamed up to provide 10 handy tips that can transform any garden into a haven for birds, insects, hedgehogs and more as the temperatures continue to drop.

Mark Sage, Head of Horticulture at Wyevale Garden Centres, says: ‘Protecting wildlife over the cooler seasons is extremely important – it’s also a great way of getting your children excited about – and closer to – nature. Whether it’s a mammal, bird, insect or amphibian, nature enthusiasts can use our tips to turn their gardens into a wildlife haven for winter.’

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1. Keep gardens untidy!

If you can leave an area of your garden naturally unkempt, hedgehogs, dormice and other wildlife can use the fallen leaves, twigs and dead vegetation to build their nests. A wild area also provides a home for insects that hedgehogs and birds can feed on.

2. Make a hedgehog-friendly compost heap

You can make a hedgehog home from woodpiles, which will give the nations much loved spiky friends somewhere to hide, sleep and hunt for insects. Shelter is essential for a hedgehog’s survival during the winter so choose a quiet spot that is unlikely to be disturbed from November to March when they will be hibernating. Compost heaps also provide another cosy location, so check for signs of wildlife before turning it and try not to empty your bin before April to avoid evicting any hibernating wildlife.

3. Hang nesting boxes for birds

Put up a nesting box as small birds will use them as shelter in winter and often come back to the same box in spring to nest. Nest boxes with a hole of 32mm is perfect for blue tits, great tits and house sparrows whilst open boxes will attract robins, wrens or pied wagtails.

The RSPB recommends that you site your nesting box to face between north and east, so that it’s shielded from direct sunlight and the wettest winds, and well out of reach of roaming cats and squirrels. House martins and sparrows will be happy in boxes high up in roof eaves, while robins and wrens like to be two metres high.

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4. Maintain your pond…

Unless you have a very shallow pond, it’s unlikely to freeze and will remain a crucial spot for birds to drink and find bugs and insects to eat at a time when other sources of food and water are scarce. Bathing’s also important for birds as they need to keep their feathers in good condition and coated in natural oils to help keep them warm.

Hedgehogs are able to swim and may want a dip before they hibernate, so make sure there is a sloping edge so that they can easily climb out. This will also be useful for frogs and toads before they turn in for winter.

5. …and your bird baths and water features

Make sure your bird baths and water features are clean, topped up and free from ice. You can do this by either putting a table tennis ball in the water (the breeze will move it and keep the bath free from ice); installing a heated bird-bath; moving it to a spot where it’ll get the most sun or pouring some hot water on the ice (make sure no wildlife are in the way before you add the hot water!).

6. Opt for hedges where possible

It’s best to use hedges rather than fences for privacy in your garden so hedgehogs and other garden wildlife, before they hibernate, can get in and out with ease. Hedging is also an excellent habitat for wildlife; evergreen hedges such as holly ‘Handsworth New Silver’ and firethorn ‘Teton’ (Pyracantha) not only provide year round colour but their berries provide winter food for garden birds.

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7. Or adapt your fences

If hedging isn’t an option for your garden, you can create a five inch hole in the bottom of your fence or gate so that hedgehogs and other wildlife can crawl in and out. If your neighbours do the same, you can create a series of ‘linked’ gardens through which wildlife can explore and hunt for food.

8. Plant for wildlife

Nectar and pollen tends to be in short supply during this time but they are still essential foods for many insects that over-winter as adults. The RSPB says that you should ensure you have some late-flowering plants such as Michaelmas daisies, sedums, ivy and asters.

And include some native trees and shrubs in your garden such as rowan, holly, guelder rose, wild rose, blackthorn or hawthorn. Not only will you be sure of creating natural food supplies for birds through the winter, these berry trees make great refuges for birds to hide in.

9. Make bug homes and butterfly boxes

You can buy or make a bug home or butterfly box so insects can sleep soundly over the colder months. You may find some species of butterfly hibernating in sheds, outhouses, hollows in trees and ivy thickets, but it’s best to just leave them alone until the spring. The majority of insects will survive as eggs, larvae or pupae in cracks and crevices in the garden or box, or burrowing deep underground away from frosts.

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10. Feed the birds

Fat balls and cakes are full of high calories and perfect food for birds over winter. If they come in mesh bags take these off first, as birds can get tangled in them. You can make your own by adding a range of seeds, nuts and cheese to suet or lard. When buying bird food, always make sure it’s high quality as lower priced foods are often bulked out with nutrient poor grains like barley, or large pulses like lentils and beans, which only the very large birds can eat. Don’t put food out on bird tables or in open feeders as grey squirrels and other pests may get them before the birds!