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Sitting by a roaring fire with hot cup of tea while winds rage, and rain lashes down outside can leave one feeling cosy and snug, but it’s easy to forget that in the open air the local wildlife is engaged in a constant battle just to survive as the seasonal temperatures hit glacial lows.

So, what can we do to help? With just a few surprisingly simple measures we can help improve the chances of the weaker or more vulnerable species making it through a testing winter.

Planning pays dividends
Sadly, more than half of all hedgehogs die during their first winter, either through lack of food or because those born in late summer are too small to hibernate. Those who survive will, most likely, have found an undisturbed nest among leaf piles or in other sheltered spots. Gardeners can smooth the way for them earlier in the autumn by simply leaving piles of leaves or wood untidied and in situ. If the winter is mild, hedgehogs are often tricked into waking up and can waste valuable body fat looking for food before returning to their nest, so putting out a dish of water and perhaps a small amount of (non-fishy) dog or cat food will cut out the need for excess energy use.

By leaving a small dish of water and a mouthful of food out during mild winter nights, you can help hedgehogs get through the worst of the winter months.

By leaving a small dish of water and a mouthful of food out during mild winter nights, you can help hedgehogs get through the worst of the winter months.

Allowing an area of the garden to run wild is also a great way to help wildlife. Even leaving healthy herbaceous plants unpruned can ensure perfect home for overwintering insects, but if you have already cut back herbaceous perennials a bundle of stems left in a secluded area can encourage ladybirds, beetles and other small mammals to take shelter among them.

Anything that offers wildlife respite from the elements is to be encouraged – from covered bird tables to piles of leaf litter. An unmown area of long grass offers shelter for insects to overwinter in their various forms. Even your compost heap can be a cosy corner for frogs or newts, so take care when forking it over or, better still, turn it over to them for the winter!

If you fancy going one step further, you could have a go at building an insect hotel using old wooden pallets stacked on top of each other. Fill the gaps with leaves, sticks or other natural materials and you can even grow a mini wildflower meadow as a green roof to keep the rain out. Your insect hotel can provide a home for much more than just insects. With lots of space inside, it will provide a cosy winter den for hedgehogs, shrews, mice, frogs, toads and newts and much more besides.

An insect hotel created by stacking wooden pallets on top of each other can provide shelter for insects and places for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals to hibernate. This one also includes a mini wild flower meadow as a green roof.

An insect hotel created by stacking wooden pallets on top of each other can provide shelter for insects and places for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals to hibernate. This one also includes a mini wild flower meadow as a green roof.

Plant for the future
Of course, here at the Heart of England Forest we love planting trees, and we would encourage anyone with a bit of spare space in their garden to plant their own, too. With each tree providing its own self-contained ecosystem, different animal species are attracted to different trees. All you have to do is decide what type of tree to plant – whether you go for a native species such as rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) or guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), or a non-native decorative species, planting a tree will offer winter benefits for generations to come and entertainment for you and your family. Trees and shrubs that produce a bounty of winter berries will attract beautiful birds such as the song thrush, redwing and fieldfare. If you are lucky, you may even get a visit by the punk rocker of the bird world, the stunningly attractive, startling-sized waxwing which migrates to the UK for its winter getaway.

If you are lucky to receive a winter visit by a gang of waxwings, it will be something to remember. You can increase your chances by planting a native tree such as a rowan which produces lots of berries during the winter months. Photo copyright Steven Cheshire (Heart of England Forest) 2019.

If you are lucky to receive a winter visit by a gang of waxwings, it will be something to remember. You can increase your chances by planting a native tree such as a rowan which produces lots of berries during the winter months. Photo copyright Steven Cheshire (Heart of England Forest) 2019.

So, let’s recap with our top 5 tips for helping garden wildlife in winter

  • Leave wild areas in your garden. Undisturbed piles of leaves or brushwood can make the perfect hiding and hibernating spots, while untidy garden borders and shrubs provide shelter for insect. Compost heaps make a welcome home for toads, grass snakes and even slow worms.
  • Carefully melt a small area of ice on ponds as toxic gases can build up in frozen water which may kill any fish or frogs hibernating beneath.
  • Ensure access to fresh water. This will encourage both birdlife and hedgehogs to visit your garden. Young hedgehogs like milk but it can cause diarrhoea and even death so is best avoided.
  • Small amounts of food left out, dog meat (not fish-based), chicken carcasses, chopped apples or carrots or lightly cooked meats will encourage a range of potential visitors to your garden, from foxes to hedgehogs, squirrels or even badgers, but avoid leaving food out for days on end or you will encourage less-welcome visitors such as rats!
  • Plant a tree… preferably a native species which has lots of spring blossom and over the summer will produce plump berries that will ripen in time for hungry winter visitors!

Everything we do at the Heart of England Forest is geared towards helping our wildlife throughout the year, and a crisp, sunny winter’s day offers a great chance to visit and see what you can spot. Of course, with foliage at a minimum, the chances are they will see you before you see them, but tread carefully and you might be lucky enough to spot some extraordinary sights, from waxwings flitting among the branches, to a short-eared owl scanning the undergrowth for a tasty morsel. Remember to let us know what you see!

For a variety of self-guided walks in the Forest, visit our web site https://www.heartofenglandforest.com/things-to-do/walks/

Are you ‘doing your bit’?
If you make a special effort to help wildlife during the winter months we’d love to hear what you’ve been up to, or if you’re making plans for next winter already by adding features such as hedgehog homes, a pond, a tree or two or even a small garden hedgerow, share your plans with us by emailing steven.cheshire@hoef.co.uk, post them to Twitter @the_hoef or  on our Facebook page facebook.com/heartofenglandforest/

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