Wake up to Wildlife!
PUBLISHED: 12:46 13 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:19 20 February 2013
It's no good snuggling under your winter duvet and wishing the cold weather would go away. So why not make the most of it and wake up to the county's wonderful wildlife, says the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Susan Litherland
Think of Christmas and images of robins and holly always spring to mind, but some unexpected species live alongside these festive favourites, and if you brave putting a toe outside you may even catch a glimpse of them. If you really cant face the cold, however, you could always attract some to your garden where you can watch them in warmth from your window.
If you get a rare crisp and sunny day you may be tempted to go outside and have a big garden tidy-up, but this is a crucial time for wildlife. If you disturb creatures now, they will waste precious energy trying to find a new habitat the last thing they need in the cold.
Its so easy to attract wildlife to your garden in winter because its mostly about what not to do! says the Trusts Jacky Thomas. Dont be too tidy; leave some leaves under the hedges and some stalks standing simple things that can make all the difference to wildlife.
Its a good idea to give them plenty of places to take shelter. Some animals use dry leaves to line their nests or burrows, so if you make a pile in the corner of your garden, something is bound to move in. The mulch left over from dead leaves is full of nutrients that are good for worms, spiders and other mini-beasts, and it also helps to keep down the weeds and add nutrients to the soil for plants.
Rotting wood is also a valuable part of the ecosystem, and if you leave it in place, or make a pile, it could become home to beetles, fungi, centipedes and more. Leaves and long grass left around hedges and fences can provide a corridor for animals like frogs and mice to move around the garden.
Hedgehogs, once common, now need our protection, so if you are planning a bonfire please check that hedgehogs arent hibernating within it before you set it alight. Its a good idea to move the material from where youve stored it to where you plan to burn it a day earlier so they have a chance to creep away to safety.
Ivy, berries and cake crumbs
Ivy can press all the wrong buttons with gardeners, but it is fantastic for wildlife and does less damage than people think. If you leave it you will be doing many species a huge favour. Insects like butterflies can take cover in it during the winter months and birds can feed on its berries when other food supplies are scarce.
In fact all sorts of berries are a valuable food source for birds and mammals. If youve got a hedge that has berries you could also plant some fruiting bushes such as gooseberries and blackcurrants into it. In this way both you and the birds can have a feast, says Jacky.
Jacky, who coordinates the Wiltshire World Changers Network, based at the Trust, has noticed that a lot of the climate-friendly groups around the county are becoming increasingly interested in local food production and at the same time gardening for wildlife.
Groups are starting to share allotments or to help elderly people with their gardens, and in this way everybody gets a share of the produce. Of course children are fascinated by animals and insects, so its a great way of sparking their interest in gardening and the world around them, she says. If you want to join a local group check out www.wiltshireworldchangers.org.
You could also give wildlife a helping hand by leaving out some food. Blue tits and great tits can often be seen in gardens where hanging feeders full of seed have been left out. Thrushes prefer to fill up on bread and fat and finches love niger seed and wildflower patches. Feeding the birds is another lovely way to interest small children in care for wildlife. They can help to put out the food and then learn to watch the birds quietly from a safe vantage point.
Holly livens up the winter landscape with its vivid berries. There are many varieties, and it is worth planting some if you want to attract redwings and blackbirds to your garden. The beds of leaves at the foot of a holly bush also make a warm bed for hibernating species like hedgehogs.
The hardy robin is not too perturbed by an icy winters day. In fact, the month of December is when they often pair up. Hedge fruits are an important food source for robins too. A dish of mealworms left outside for them will attract them even more, and some crumbs of juicy Christmas cake will be the icing on their cake.
The butterfly and the fox
If you see a flash of red in your garden at Christmas time, dont assume its a robin though it could be a red admiral butterfly. Red admirals often overwinter in garden sheds, but may become active again on warmer days.
You can make your garden more butterfly-friendly in winter by laying down some winter-flowering plants such as honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). Butterflies use up valuable energy reserves by being active in winter so if you see any on the wing, leave out a dish of sugar water to give them a boost.
December and January form the mating season for the fox, so you are much more likely to spot them prowling at this time of year when there is less foliage on the trees. If you have any scraps of food in your garden they are likely to come scavenging, and they are not fussy either they will eat anything from apple peel to bird food.
So, there is much we can do to help our wildlife in winter. And with the onward march of climate change and the continuing break up of habitats in the wider countryside, our gardens become increasingly vital for the creatures that visit them.
Our gardens may seem small, but viewed together they form a mosaic of spaces which link together urban green areas and nature reserves with the rural landscape, says Jacky. Gardens are a lifeline for all the wildlife that populates our natural places here in Wiltshire and throughout the country.
And remember that during the winter season you dont have to stay holed up in your house little can beat a day spent out amongst the frosty brambles, stealing glimpses of deer and other winter wildlife. Some bird species come to the UK especially for winter including fieldfare and redwing, which come from Scandinavia and mainly move in flocks. They do not frequent gardens that often, but love hawthorn hedges, and can turn one from a quiet shrub into a seething, twittering hive of activity. Woodland can be a particular draw for these birds, so get out to your nearest Trust woodland nature reserve, which you can find by visiting http://www.wiltshirewildlife.org
Vine House Farm is the official bird seed partner of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. Every time anyone in Wiltshire or Swindon buys their bird seed from Vine House Farm a donation is triggered to the Trust a generous 5% of the purchase price. The family that owns the farm is dedicated to bird conservation, especially to reversing the decline in farmland birds.