As autumn draws to a close and winter weather starts to bite, many animals benefit from the food and shelter that our gardens provide. This is a wonderful time of year to see wildlife from a different angle: to watch birds hopping through bare branches and learn about the mammals that visit the garden from the tracks they leave behind in the snow.


It’s also a good time to plan ways to encourage more wildlife into the garden next year by planting bare-root shrubs and trees, putting up nest boxes, or by making the change to organic growing. And, with fewer jobs to do in the garden, you’ll have time to take part in citizen science projects such as the Big Garden Birdwatch and visit local nature reserves to discover more about the wildlife that lives in your area.

More wildlife gardening advice:

Plants for wildlife

Cotoneaster frigidus 'Cornubia'
Cotoneaster frigidus 'Cornubia' provides berries for birds


Ivy is a valuable habitat and food source for many species, especially in the colder months, so avoid cutting mature plants back now unless absolutely necessary. Ivy flowers, which bloom from September to November, provide nectar and pollen for late-flying insects like hoverflies, wasps and ivy mining bees. The black berries attract birds such as woodpigeons and blackbirds in late winter.

As this tenacious climber scrambles along fences and up trees, its dense mass of foliage creates shelter for a wide range of insects, birds and small mammals. Ivy is also an important food plant for the larvae of certain moth and butterfly species such as the holly blue butterfly, which lays its second brood on ivy during the summer, and yellow-barred brindle, willow beauty and old lady moths. Ivy sap can irritate skin, so take care when handling.

Evergreens and semi-evergreens

Evergreen and semi-evergreen trees, shrubs and climbers provide much-needed habitats for wildlife, especially in the colder months when deciduous plants have lost their leaves. Several species of birds may well make their first nesting attempts of the year in evergreens.

More like this

If you have space, you could add holly, yew, Cotoneaster frigidus ‘Cornubia’ or Berberis darwinii. Wall shrubs such as pyracantha and ceanothus, and climbers like ivy, honeysuckle, star jasmine and winter clematis, also provide shelter for a range of birds, insects and small mammals. Don’t be too tidy – allowing these plants to spread increases their usefulness to wildlife.

Since we gave our Lonicera japonica ‘Hall’s Prolific’ and Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’ the space to sprawl along the fence, the local house sparrows regularly congregate in the foliage – even nesting in the garden for the first time this year.

Pruning with wildlife in mind

Winter is a good time to prune many deciduous trees and shrubs. Most birds have finished breeding, but it is still a good idea to check prior to cutting back, as some species like collared doves can nest at any time of year.

Winter pruning allows you to see the framework of plants clearly once they are without foliage, making it easier to remove dead, diseased and damaged material, and create an improved shape. Woody prunings can be used to make habitat piles around the garden to provide more shelter for wildlife. Ensure that pruning is completed by the end of February when the main breeding season gets underway again.

Thrifty tip

Plant bare-root trees for wildlife during the dormant season between November and March. Bare-root plants are generally cheaper, many nurseries offer a wide choice and plants are more sustainable as there is no need for plastic pots. Although deciduous trees and shrubs can look bare and unimpressive during this time, once planted their energy is focused on developing a good root system, which should encourage healthy growth in the spring.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and crab apple (Malus sylvestris) are among the best wildlife-friendly trees suitable for small gardens. 

Feeding wildlife

Terracotta pot bird feeder
Terracotta pot bird feeder

Keep feeding the birds during the winter when food is scarcer and the nights become colder. Natural food sources such as berries, fruits and seeds are important at this time of year, and supplementary feeding helps support winter bird populations too. It is important to use good quality bird food as research suggests providing poor quality food attracts birds, but fails to provide the resources they need, with detrimental effects to health and breeding.

Good winter foods include sunflower hearts, sultanas soaked in water (these are toxic to dogs, so make sure they can’t get to them), quality peanuts guaranteed aflatoxin-free (a fungus that can kill birds), high-energy seed mixes, suet cakes and homemade fat balls. Only put out enough food for a day or two, and remove waste food under feeders regularly.

Make sure that bird baths are filled daily and that water does not freeze. Reduce the risk of disease by cleaning bird feeders weekly with soapy water and an animal-safe disinfectant. As some bird diseases can affect humans and domestic animals, it’s important to wear gloves, clean feeders outside, use separate brushes, buckets and cloths, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Moving feeding sites around the garden regularly helps avoid the build-up of disease.

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Creating and maintaining habitats

Put up bird boxes before spring to encourage nesting in the first year
Put up bird boxes before spring to encourage nesting in the first year

Nest boxes for birds

As well as planting trees, shrubs and climbers to provide nest sites for birds such as blackbirds, robins and wrens next spring, you can also put up nest boxes to accommodate a wider range of breeding birds in your garden. Bird boxes can be added at any time but if they are in place before early spring, birds are more likely to nest in the first year. Adding nest boxes in autumn or winter also enables birds to use them for roosting in the colder months. Nest boxes should be situated facing between north and east to provide shelter from wind and rain, and avoid strong sunlight.

Different styles of nest box are suitable for different species, so check before you buy. Open-fronted boxes are ideal for robins and pied wagtails (with a front panel height of 100mm) and wrens (with a front panel height of 140mm) and should be placed up to 2m off the ground, sheltered by thick vegetation. Blue tits prefer a small hole-fronted nest box with an entrance hole diameter of 25mm. Situate the box 2-4m off the ground but, unlike robin and wren boxes, blue tits need a clear flight path so avoid vegetation in front of the entrance.

Several other species nest in hole-fronted boxes, such as great tits (28mm hole) and starlings (45mm hole). House sparrows will also nest in hole-fronted boxes, but they prefer to breed in colonies, so two or three boxes can be positioned close together or you can buy sparrow terraces with three nesting spaces in one box, each with its own 32mm hole. Make sure nest boxes are not easily accessible to predators like cats and squirrels.

Gardening organically

Gardening organically encourages thriving, biodiverse ecosystems that benefit wildlife and people. If you find any leftover synthetic pesticides or weed killers while sorting sheds and garages this winter, dispose of them safely and consider replacing with organic methods of control.

Biological methods such as nematodes, and physical methods like removing slugs and snails by hand, mulching and hand weeding are effective ways to control unwanted animals and plants. Given time, gardens with healthy ecosystems should encourage more natural predators like ladybirds, ground beetles, toads and blue tits that will do much of the work for you.

Growing Greener

When choosing timber for wildlife projects like nest boxes, you can ensure it has been sourced from a responsibly managed woodland by checking it has a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) label. FSC timber comes from forests that are managed to preserve biodiversity and benefit local people and workers, while the PEFC endorses national forest certification systems around the world that focus on sustainable forest management.

Look out for… winter thrushes

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Getty Images
Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Getty Images

If you’re lucky, migrant thrushes such as redwings and fieldfares might visit your garden during cold spells to feast on berries and fallen fruit. Resident thrushes like blackbirds and song thrushes can be seen in gardens all year round and numbers of these common species increase over winter as migrants arrive from the continent:

  • We love it when redwings congregate in our silver birch before descending to feed on cotoneaster berries. These small thrushes are easily identifiable by the pale stripe above the eye and red underwings. Arriving in the UK in mid-autumn (last year I first heard the ‘tseep’ calls overhead on 16 October), they feed on berries and earthworms in small flocks, sometimes alongside fieldfares and other thrushes.
  • Fieldfares will seek out food in gardens when the weather turns cold and snowy. Some winters, we’re lucky enough to get a few visiting to feast on windfall fruits and berries. These large, attractive thrushes are particularly fond of hawthorn, yew and holly berries.
  • Other migrants to look out for in the garden over winter include waxwings, blackcaps and bramblings. Waxwings are winter visitors from Scandinavia. Although some years they are scarce, numbers can reach the thousands, especially during irruption years when berry crops are poor in Northern Europe and birds must seek out new sources of food. I’ve never been more astonished than when I looked out of the window several years ago to see one of these delightful winter migrants with its striking pinky-orange crest at the top of next door’s rowan tree.
  • We tend to think of blackcaps as summer migrants, breeding in the UK and leaving around September for North Africa, but increasingly these warblers are coming over from the continent to spend the winter here, particularly in gardens in the south-west, most likely due to our warming winters and the availability of bird food in gardens. As well as favouring garden bird food (we spotted a male blackcap on our feeders during the Big Garden Birdwatch a couple of years ago), blackcaps will also eat berries and windfall fruit in winter.

10 berried plants for birds

Key Late Autumn/Winter Dates

November – before enjoying the festivities on Bonfire Night, ensure bonfires are not being used by hedgehogs or other wildlife for shelter or hibernation. Ideally, build bonfires on the day you intend to light them.

December – support wildlife and minimise your carbon footprint this Christmas by giving friends and family membership of nature charities, preparing homemade presents like festive wreaths and fruit preserves, and sharing plants and seeds from your garden.

January – take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, now in its 44th year. Running from 27-29 January 2023, this citizen science project involves watching the birds in your garden, local park or from your balcony for an hour during the birdwatch weekend and sending your records off to the RSPB. It’s a great way to learn more about the species that visit your garden and to contribute to data collected across the UK.


Will house sparrows still be No. 1 in 2023 or will their declining status mean they slip out of the top spot? To help support these gregarious garden birds, you can add house sparrow terraces to walls, avoid using pesticides and clean feeders regularly to prevent the spread of disease.