Most garden wildlife hibernates over winter, as food is in short supply and freezing temperatures make life difficult. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates hunker down in log and leaf piles, nestle behind tree bark, or bury themselves in compost heaps or mud. Some species, such as birds, small rodents and squirrels, don’t hibernate, but struggle to stay alive – using up fat reserves just to stay warm.
There’s plenty we can do to help wildlife survive winter, from leaving seedheads intact to creating habitat piles and filling bird and squirrel feeders. Find out how to help wildlife survive winter, below.
Learn how to help wild creatures through the cold winter months, below.
Help garden birds in winter
Birds are more likely to visit gardens in autumn and winter, as natural sources of insects and grubs run out. They need calorie-rich suet, sunflower hearts and peanuts to maintain fat reserves on frosty nights. In colder weather, look out for less common visitors, such as waxwings, blackcaps, redwings and bullfinches.
What you can do: Leave food out for birds every day, including supplementary food such as suet and sunflower hearts, and fallen fruit. It’s also a good idea to leave seeds on herbaceous plants and shrubs, and don’t forget to keep your bird bath topped up. Find out more about feeding birds in winter.
Help frogs, toads and newts in winter
Frogs, toads and newts enter a state of torpor in winter, rather than hibernation, rising from their slumber in search of food on warm days. They overwinter in log and leaf piles, or beneath stones and plant pots. Some rest in the mud at the bottom of ponds. They’re also fond of compost heaps, so be careful if forking over the heap.
What you can do: Float a tennis ball or similar in your pond to prevent it freezing over completely. It’s also a good idea to create a nearby rock pile, where they can take shelter. Ideally, this should face north, to avoid temperature highs and lows between day and night. You can also make a hibernaculum for frogs.
Help insects in winter
The key to helping insects is to keep them cool and dry. If you do disturb them or have to move them, make sure they’re not exposed to damp conditions. This can lead to fungal infections and kill them.
Insects readily hibernate in gardens. Bumblebees dig holes in the ground or rest in leaf litter, butterflies sleep in garages, sheds and between folds of curtains. Wasps, ladybirds and lacewings shelter under loose bark on logs and in cracks in door and window frames.
What you can do: Recreate the nooks and crannies insects hibernate in by tying up bamboo and sunflower stems, and leave them in a dry spot in the garden. Leave areas of the garden untouched over winter and let areas of long grass remain unmown, so insects such as green shield bugs can shelter here.
Help hedgehogs in winter
Nearly half of all hedgehogs die during their first winter. Many starve, while those born in late-summer are often too small to hibernate, and so are unable to survive the cold weather. In mild winters, hedgehogs are prone to waking up, having been tricked into believing it is spring. They waste valuable fat reserves looking for food.
What you can do: Provide shelter by making a leaf pile, or making a hedgehog house. Leave a dish of water and dog or cat food to help boost their fat reserves, until it’s no longer taken (usually mid- to late-autumn when they enter hibernation). Check bonfires before lighting them, preferably making it on the day you intend to light it. If you find a baby hedgehog, keep it warm in a tall-sided box with hot water bottle on the bottom, covered with a thick towel. Feed with cat or dog food and water and visit britishhedgehogs.org.uk for advice. Find 10 ways to help hedgehogs and the best hedgehog houses to buy.