Winter wildlife watching

From mornings crunching about on the sugar coated, frost bitten earth to evenings watching skeletal trees become silhouettes against huge glowing skies, gardens are magical places in winter.  And it’s a great time for wildlife too – there’s a surprising amount to see, plus lots you can do to make your winter garden a wildlife friendly one.

 

The bright sight of winter butterflies

 

While many species hide away over winter, there are still many wildlife spotting opportunities.  One of the most eye-catching might be the bright flash of a red admiral. These butterflies normally over winter in sheltered places like the dark corners of your shed, but on warm days they can become active again and be seen fluttering about gardens.  Climate change is affecting many species’ hibernation patterns, with unusually high temperatures sometimes surprising them in the depths of winter and tempting them to venture out. 

 

Butterflies are delicate creatures and very vulnerable if they emerge at this time of year, burning up vital fat stores searching for nectar. Make your garden butterfly friendly by planting winter flowering plants like heathers, or winter flowering jasmine (Lonicera fragrantissima) and winter flowering honeysuckle (Jasminum nudiflorum).  If you do see active butterflies, treat them to a dish of sugar water and keep their energy levels up.

 

Late blooms and berries

 

Vegetable growing might be fairly limited at this time of year, but you can grow a veritable feast for the wildlife in your life.  Late blooming flowers provide food for bees, butterflies and other insects that emerge on warm days, while trees like holly are a valuable source of berries for birds like woodpigeons and thrushes.  Spindle berries are important for robins. 

 

Evergreens like lavender and climbers like ivy give your garden winter texture and colour, and also provide valuable shelter.  Ivy is a particularly useful plant – birds and invertebrates can take cover in it, caterpillars and holly blue butterflies feed on it, birds can eat its berries well into February and its flowers can provide insects with winter nectar.

 

Grow for shelter

 

Providing areas that are sheltered and safe will encourage beneficial wildlife to take up residence.  On a small scale, you could plant a winter hanging basket with lavender, heathers and trailing ivy to provide food and shelter.  Larger, living walls dripping with berries are great winter resources for wildlife, while species rich hedgerows provide valuable food and nesting places.

 

November through to March is the best time to plant a hedgerow in your garden (but don’t plant into frozen ground).  Aim for a varied mix of foliage, fruit and flowers, and include evergreen and thorny plants for winter shelter.  Include species like hawthorn, buckthorn and dog rose, spindle and crab apple, bramble and honeysuckle.  For a free and comprehensive ‘How To’ guide to planting a mixed hedgerow, visit www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening

 

Recipes and ideas

 

It’s rather satisfying to lay on a spread in your garden and watch all kinds of birds descend, greedy for some winter grub.  There are lots of creative ways you can fill your garden with food.  You could decorate bare trees with strings of monkey nuts and apples studded with sunflower seeds, or make bird feeders from old plastic bottles.  Baking a bird cake is always fun!  Make sure that the food you provide is nutritionally suitable for the wildlife you are aiming to attract.

 

Seed studded hanging apples – you’ll need apples, sunflower seeds, twigs and string.  Tie a short twig onto a length of garden string.  Core an apple and stud all over with sunflower seeds (the pointy end of the seed is easy to push into apple skin). Thread the string through the apple, the twig will slot against one end of the apple and make a handy little perch.  Hang from a branch or bird table.  Birds will love it, and, of course, the squirrels probably will too!

 

Bird cake – you’ll need some old yoghurt or plant pots, string, lard and small scraps of food, like bread, cheese and seeds.  Pierce the bottom of the pot and thread through a length of string.  Melt the lard in a saucepan until it’s runny and then pour over the food, coating it with fat.  Fill the pots with the mixture, press it down well and then leave to set for about an hour.  Then hang out in the garden.  Bird cakes look especially stylish when set into a coconut half!

 

Wildlife friendly garden design

 

Winter is the traditional time for making plans for your garden next year.  Resolving to be more wildlife friendly makes good sense – wildlife friendly garden design will encourage species into your plot that will help protect your produce.  Things to think about including are ponds (frogs and toads eat slugs), wood piles (heaven for mini beasts), and wild areas, with nettles, bramble, campion and rosebay willowherb.

 

A final wildlife friendly tip this winter is not to be too tidy.  Leaving herbaceous vegetation standing until March provides cover, while letting seed head stay on plants will provide food for small birds.  Resist hard pruning in some areas, and delay repairing walls and relaying paving until the weather warms up, as all these places will be sheltering wildlife from the cold.  Put your feet up and indulge in some wildlife watching, and record what you see – especially surprising sightings like butterflies that might be a response to our changing climate.

 

© Helen Babbs / The Wildlife Trusts

 

This article appears in the December issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

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