Your February wildlife gardening jobs
Want to make your garden a magnet for wildlife? We share the plants to grow and species to look out for now
Chilly February days might feel like the depths of winter, but even snow and ice cannot hide the first tentative signs of spring. Crocuses and early irises are beginning to flower, attracting queen bumblebees on sunny days, and birds are getting ready for the new breeding season. It’s a great time to wrap up warm and get outside to add bare-rooted plants to the borders and put up bird boxes before spring starts in earnest next month.
February wildlife gardening inspiration:
Plants for wildlife
Shrubs have so much to offer the wildlife in our gardens. They provide food, shelter and nest sites for many animals from small mammals to butterflies, birds and bees. Bare-root shrubs (supplied in a dormant state without soil around their roots) are available for planting until the end of next month. They are generally cheaper than shrubs in containers and are more sustainable as they are not supplied in plastic pots. Bare-root shrubs should be planted as soon as they arrive. If that’s not possible, heel them into a temporary spot to keep the roots moist until you are ready to plant them into their final positions.
Dogwoods are a great choice for a wildlife garden. Blazing with fiery orange and red stems throughout the winter, they also produce clusters of white flowers that attract pollinating insects in summer. And with black berries in autumn that lure birds down to feed, dogwoods have something on offer all year round. Cornus sanguinea (our wild dogwood) is the food plant of several moth caterpillars, including the triple-spotted clay and the yellow-barred brindle. It also provides materials for insects to use for their nests. It’s always a treat to see leafcutter bees carrying circles cut out of our C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ foliage to construct their rolled egg cases in the nearby bee box.
Another superb wildlife shrub, the guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), is covered in white flowerheads in summer. These develop into glossy red berries in autumn, which are slow to ripen, so they offer a valuable source of food for birds like thrushes and bullfinches in the coldest months. Guelder roses can grow up to 5m in height, so you might want to consider planting V. opulus ‘Compactum’ in smaller gardens, which only reaches around 1.5m. Avoid growing V. opulus ‘Roseum’ if you are hoping to attract the birds. Although highly ornamental with its large clusters of flowers, this cultivar is sterile so produces no berries.
When cherry plum blossom smothers bare branches in late February or early March, it’s a welcome sign that winter is nearly over. The white flowers attract honeybees and early queen bumblebees and, later in the year, the ripe fruit provide a tasty treat for the birds. Cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) also make excellent hedges and are ideal as fast-growing windbreaks.
Another bee-friendly tree which looks wonderful at this time of year is the elegant goat or pussy willow, Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’. This compact willow has a weeping habit and is perfect for small gardens. Pussy willows produce nectar and, on male trees, furry catkins covered in pollen which attract queen bumblebees, such as the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and solitary bees like the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). The foliage is eaten by several moth caterpillars, including the sallow kitten (one of my favourite moths with its furry head and delicate patterning) and the lunar hornet clearwing.
February is the last chance to complete winter pruning of shrubs and hedges once fruit and berries have been eaten by birds, but before most species start nesting. Always check carefully before pruning as some birds, such as wood pigeons, can nest all year round. Other species like long-tailed tits are already building this month.
Wood pigeons make an untidy platform of twigs, often balanced rather precariously in shrubs and trees, whereas long-tailed tits construct the most intricate of domed nests deep within the vegetation. They collect moss, lichen, hair and spider’s webs, and can line their nests with up to an astonishing 1,500 feathers. If only everyone were fortunate enough to spot one of these wonders of nature in their gardens, as some lucky friends of mine did last year.
More like this
It’s important to keep providing foods like high-energy seed mixes and suet balls this month so that birds can maintain their fat reserves during the cold weather. Then you can sit inside in the warm and enjoy watching finches, sparrows and tits on the feeders. Goldfinches and greenfinches are seen throughout the year, but late winter can bring more unusual species such as siskins into gardens. As well as visiting feeders, these streaky yellow-green finches also eat pine, alder and birch seeds. Siskins breed in conifer plantations in the UK, and their numbers increase during the winter as more birds arrive from Europe.
Although much garden wildlife will still be hibernating this month, some pollinators such as the early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), queen white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) and the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) will be emerging over the next few weeks. You can provide food for these hungry insects by planting spring-flowering perennials in the borders or filling a container with nectar-rich flowers.
When primroses (Primula vulgaris) begin to bloom in verges and gardens, I always feel that spring is on the way. As well as attracting butterflies and bees, this wild flower is favoured by dark-edged bee-flies (Bombylius major), a species of fly that mimics a bumblebee in appearance with a long, outstretched proboscis.
The blue clusters of lungwort flowers like those of Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ or P. ‘Trevi Fountain’ make a lovely contrast to soft yellow primroses, and their funnel-shaped blooms are liked by long-tongued bumblebees. Both these spring-flowering perennials thrive in partial shade, so they make an ideal combination for a woodland garden or a shady spot in the border.
Thrifty tipTo save money on bird food, why not make your own fat balls instead of buying expensive suet cakes? Only use suet or lard, as leftover meat fat can be harmful or even fatal to birds. Mild grated cheese and suet nibbles also provide good sources of energy-rich foods. Homemade fat balls should not be used once the weather warms up, as they can go rancid.
Creating and maintaining habitats
- Ponds: Wildlife can generally survive beneath the surface of ponds when ice forms, but it is helpful to clear snow off the ice to improve light levels. This means plants will continue to grow and produce oxygen. Ideally make sure there are clear unfrozen areas around the edges of ponds so that animals can get to the water to drink, but don’t smash ice as shockwaves will disturb wildlife. Try to keep an area of lawn free from snow too, so that birds like starlings can still forage for insects, even on the coldest days.
- Nest boxes: If you haven’t got round to adding new nest boxes to the garden, make sure they are up by the end of the month so that birds like blue tits, great tits and robins can check out the boxes before they start nest building.
- Track wildlife: Celebrate the wildlife and wild flowers flourishing in and around your garden by logging your sightings this year, including when species first appear or start to bloom. On the Woodland Trusts’ Nature’s Calendar website, you can add the information to longstanding records that date back to 1736. Whether you notice lesser celandines opening on Celandine Day (21st February) or an early brimstone butterfly out and about towards the end of the month, all sightings help scientists understand the extent to which climate change is affecting timings in nature.
Look out for… small mammals
The only UK mammals that truly hibernate are bats, hedgehogs and the hazel dormouse. Many other species remain active throughout the winter, although they may go through cycles of torpor where they become inactive for short periods. Small mammals such as mice, voles and shrews play an important part in healthy ecosystems, providing food for predators like owls, kestrels and stoats. Creating a wildlife pond with a shallow end where animals can drink safely; adding food plants such as hazel, hawthorn and guelder rose; providing shelter in vegetation and wood piles; and avoiding the use of pesticides are all excellent ways to support mammal populations in and around our gardens.
- The wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), also known as the long-tailed field mouse, is commonly found in gardens and woodland. It can be distinguished from the smaller house mouse by its large ears, longer tail and golden brown rather than grey coat. Wood mice are primarily nocturnal, so we most often see these endearing creatures on our trail camera at night drinking from the bird bath and scrabbling around beneath the apple trees.
- Common shrews (Sorex araneus) are classed as insectivores, although they also eat slugs, snails and earthworms. Generally smaller than mice and voles, they can be identified by their pointed snouts and tiny eyes. Tunnels or runways close to the ground in dense vegetation are a good clue that there are shrews around.
- Another common mammal which can be seen in gardens is the bank vole (Myodes glareolus). With their short tails and rounded snouts, bank voles can be distinguished from field voles by their reddish-brown fur. They eat fruits, nuts, vegetation and fungi. My parents even had one in their garden that liked to visit the bird feeders!
- If you are incredibly lucky, you might see weasels (Mustela nivalis) in your garden. These slender mustelids (members of the Mustelidae family which also includes stoats, otters and badgers) might be the UK’s smallest carnivore, but they are fearsome predators, particularly if you happen to be a mouse or a vole. They can be distinguished from stoats by their smaller size and shorter tail which lacks the black tip of a stoat’s tail.