Emptying the compost bin

Posted: Friday 20 April 2012
by Kate Bradbury

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine opened his compost bin and found a hedgehog and her babies staring back at him...

Waste in a full compost bin

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine opened his compost bin and found a hedgehog and her babies staring back at him. He was shocked – he didn’t know he had hedgehogs in his garden, and was worried the disturbance had harmed them. He closed the bin quickly and hasn’t touched it since.

Occasionally he mentions wanting to access the compost inside, but he’s too scared to return to the bin – the image of the mother with her pink, bald babies has stayed with him.

Compost bins are very good for wildlife. As well as the regular gamut of rove beetles, slugs and woodlice, they’re also popular with nesting bumblebees, wood mice, slow worms and wasps. And hedgehogs, of course. A fair number of species that breed in compost bins will also hibernate in them. In most cases, adding to the bin won’t do much harm, but emptying the bin is another matter entirely. Whatever time you do this you are potentially removing shelter, putting wild creatures at risk of predation and could even cause them to abandon their young.

So when is the best time to empty the bin, causing the least upheaval to wildlife? I asked a selection of experts, including Richard ‘Bugman’ Jones, frog expert Jules Howard, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The answer was: about now.

Most hedgehogs have emerged from hibernation by April and are fattening themselves up for breeding (which tends to get going in May). They may still use the compost bin for shelter, but there's enough food around to ensure any disturbance won’t cause them lasting harm. (If disturbed in winter, for example, hedgehogs have to travel far to find food, as it's in such short supply, wasting energy reserves and making them less likely to survive.)

Frogs, toads and newts should have already left the compost bin for the nearest pond, and you’re unlikely to find mating slow worms or a clutch of grass snake eggs either. Other compost critters such as centipedes, beetles and flies, which are at risk of developing fungal infections if disturbed in winter, will also benefit from an April-May emptying.

It's slightly different for bumblebees. Although some species will have started nesting by April, others may still be hibernating. If you disturb a hibernating bumblebee, gently move her to a safer part of the garden, under some leaves, or - if she's awake - make a solution from equal parts of sugar and water to provide her with energy to fly off. Bumblebee nests can be moved, but it's far better to just be patient and avoid disturbing them at all.

But regardless of when you empty your bin, do so with care. Spend some time watching it first – preferably during the day and night. Do you see bees coming in and out? Are there cats sniffing around, indicating something tasty inside? Are there signs of recent activity, for example holes, or droppings? Have a gentle root around before turning the bin over, mindful of what could be in there. And never, ever plunge your fork straight in the heap. You may end up harpooning a frog, or a hedgehog, or a slow worm, or...

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Talkback: Emptying the compost bin
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oldchippy 20/04/2012 at 17:03

Hi Kate this not about compost but about your Sid,I think he has moved to Ewell I was woken by a blackbird at 5am this morning singing his lovely head off,All I have is worms and slugs in my compost bin.


COATSWORTH 20/04/2012 at 17:17

all l have is weeds  in my compost bin. l was going to empty it today but the rain has not stoped so l am hoping that l can do it on saturday


Margaret 5 20/04/2012 at 19:07

Last year I found a rat on our compost heap at the allotment. I don't know who was the most suprised! The rat ran off back to the nearby brook, but I've been wary ever since and usually get my husband to lift the cover

happymarion 21/04/2012 at 18:17

My compost Dalek bins had to be moved when my new design raised bed veg. garden was built. I left everything in a heap and made sure there was shelter for anything that wanted it and the workmen built the beds round the heaps. When I spread the contents in the beds there was no sign of my very long slow worms but now the repositioned bins are half full the slow worms have taken up residence again.

oldchippy 21/04/2012 at 20:03

Kate,I haven't seen a Hedgehog for years and I haven't seen a slow worm ever,Just Sid your Black Bird and a couple of woody's eating the leave's on my golden plumb.

Dave Oldchippy.

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