Most garden wildlife hibernates over winter, as food is in short supply and freezing temperatures make life difficult.
In winter, wild animals and insects hunker down in log and leaf piles, nestle into tree bark, or bury themselves in compost heaps or mud. Some species, such as birds and squirrels, don’t hibernate, but struggle to stay alive – using up fat reserves just to stay warm.
To discover more ways to help wildlife at this time of year, have a read of our winter wildlife gardening jobs.
Learn how to help wild creatures through the cold winter months, below.
Birds are more likely to visit gardens in autumn and winter, as they rely on bird feeders when their natural sources of insects and grubs dry up. 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.
Three terracotta pots of food for birds hung from a tree with string
What you can do: Leave food out for birds every day, including supplementary food such as peanuts and sunflowers, 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.
Frogs, toads and newts
Frogs, toads and newts 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 bins, so be careful if forking over the heap. Frogs enter a state of torpor in winter, rather than hibernation, rising from their slumber in search of food on warm days.
A toad sitting in an open palm
What you can do: Float a tennis ball or similar in your pond to prevent it freezing over, reducing oxygenation and suffocating any frogs beneath the surface. It’s also a good idea to create a rock pile. Ideally, this should face north, to avoid temperature highs and lows between day and night. You can also make a hibernaculum for frogs.
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. If you disturb them, they’re likely to perish. If you can’t leave them undisturbed, move them to a cool spot where they can settle again.
Bundles of short bamboo canes placed in a slate-roofed ‘house’ for overwintering insects
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. You can also provide late-flying insects with a source of food by soaking a clean sponge in a solution made from an equal mix of sugar and water.
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.
A hedgehog on a lawn
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. Discover 10 ways to help hedgehogs.
Kate Bradbury says
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.