Autumn is also a key season for the wildlife garden. A few simple steps taken now can help a host of animals to find safe hiding places for the coming winter, and ensure birds and mammals have something to eat and a little protection when times are hard.
Most people tend to tidy their gardens in autumn, but often take this to the extreme. They blitz them, removing most of the shelter for wildlife and leaving overwintering invertebrates homeless in the process. You can help
wildlife by leaving as much tidying up as possible until the end of winter, and doing so can make your garden look more attractive, too. Natural foods for birds are their first choice – so leave some behind! Most berries are great food for birds, and leave some windfall fruit on the ground. Other natural larders include ivy berries and the seeds of plants such as docks, herbs and teasel.
Gardens don’t need to be messy to offer a variety of wildlife habitats in winter but don’t be too tidy! Log piles and other features (such as upturned flower pots) will provide cover. Try to avoid disturbing them over the
As well as providing habitats for a host of overwintering residents, a good wildlife garden will attract flocks of birds. In fact, the harsher the weather and the less food there is in the countryside, the more important gardens become for our feathered friends. Feeding birds throughout the winter is important, because it increases their breeding success the following year. So start preparing now.
As winter progresses of course, birds will become more dependent on the food you put out. This is when they use feeders most heavily, so hygiene is important: clean your feeders and tables now by soaking them in sterilizing fluid, and get into the routine of washing them at least quarterly. Feeders can be sanitized with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water. Commercial birdfeeder cleaning solutions are also available,
mind you, a mild solution of unscented dish detergent is reasonably effective.
The onset of winter is also an ideal opportunity to clean out nest-boxes (scalding the box with hot water will kill parasites). Don’t forget to carry out any necessary repairs and check the boxes are still firmly attached, replacing dilapidated ones. Remember though that some birds will use them for shelter – so put them back in good time! Wrens for instance can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight on cold nights. They conserve heat by roosting communally, often in empty nest-boxes.
Pay special attention to your flowerbeds and hedges – it’s time to single out the plants that do not contribute very much, swapping them for species that will attract more animals to your garden. Plant new hedges or replace some of your existing ornamental species with natives such as hazel, hawthorn, buckthorn and guelder rose. Doing this now gives the plants time to establish roots, and will add to the overall diversity and interest in your garden in years to come.
Other tips to help:
- Spread fallen leaves over your flowerbeds - as well as providing a rich mulch, they create a superb
foraging habitat for thrushes and blackbirds in winter. Frogs and invertebrates also like to overwinter among damp leaves.
- Leave dry plant stems standing – all kinds of insects will crawl inside to spend the winter. They often have an interesting architectural quality, too, and look great covered in frost or spiderwebs. When you do cut them in spring, leave them in a stack until May to allow all of the overwintering insects to emerge.
- Avoid cutting hedges until the end of winter to provide valuable shelter for birds and give them more time to eat the berries.
- Resist the urge to cut back ivy growing on walls and fences. Wait until March so the berries are
available to birds and the foliage can provide a foraging habitat for insect-eaters such as tits. Planting different varieties of ivy, with a range of leaf shapes and patterns, creates a bold visual impact.
- Clear your pond out between October and early January – this is when wildlife activity is lowest. However, there will still be plenty of snails, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs and other invertebrates in the vegetation that you pull out, as well as the occasional newt. So sort through it to rescue trapped animals and spread it out on the edge of the pond for a day or two.
- Put a few clay (not concrete) roof tiles in the pond to provide cover for overwintering frogs and other aquatic wildlife.
- If there is a cold snap and your pond freezes over, do not leave the ice or the water will become deprived of oxygen. Melt it by placing a pan of hot water on the surface. This will also relieve the
pressure of ice (which expands as it freezes) on your pond