How to help garden wildlife survive the winter

PUBLISHED: 16:54 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

The Comma butterfly

The Comma butterfly

There are lots of ways you can help birds, beasts and insects find shelter and nourishment in your garden as autumn gets underway and we move into winter. <br/><br/><br/><br/>As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, garden wildlife will be finding life ...

There are lots of ways you can help birds, beasts and insects find shelter and nourishment in your garden as autumn gets underway and we move into winter.

As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, garden wildlife will be finding life increasingly challenging and will appreciate a helping hand.

Feed the birds - birds will need a little extra help finding food, so why not use some scrap timber to make a simple bird feeding station. Keep this topped up with fat for insect eaters, seeds for greenfinches and cheese for robins. Another way to help feed birds is to leave seed heads on plants such as teasel, sunflowers and echinacea for an invaluable winter food supply.

Ignore the mess - The urge to tidy the garden in autumn will be strong, but resist it if you can. Those piles of cuttings and branches can provide smaller garden inhabitants with an ideal winter home, which in turn may well provide an endless food supply for the birds. Go easy on pruning too, as many butterflies over-winter on garden climbers.

Fruitful autumn - As fruit ripens this month don't forget to share one tenth (the old tithe) with the birds. In return they'll eat the aphid on your roses and leather jackets in the lawn. Rotting fruit is also appreciated as a late food source for butterflies. If you don't have any fruit trees, why not celebrate Apple Day on October 21st by planting an apple tree - a local variety of course - and help replenish the orchards now lost from this region.

Mulch your leaves - Instead of burning fallen leaves, why not mulch them for a future supply of rich garden fertiliser? If you haven't got a mulch bin, put fallen leaves in heavyweight bin bags pierced through at regular intervals at the bottom to allow for drainage, and just stash them behind the shed or in a corner to rot down. If you already have some well-rotted leaf mulch spread it around to feed and enrich your soil after a summer of hard work. Also, break out and distribute as much compost as you can from your compost bin and replace the compost in your growing containers. The leaf mulch and compost will already be full of life which will benefit other garden wildlife as well as the soil.

Plan a hedge - This is a good time of year to plan and plant a hedge, which will provide living space and food for all sorts of wildlife, as well as privacy and security for you. Good native choices include hawthorn, blackthorn, wild rose, holly, hazel and elder. In addition berberis, cotoneaster and pyracanthus produce lots of berries for birds.

At the same time you could plant climbers to grow on your fencing, walls or shed which will provide places for birds to nest and roost, and be a haven for insects and small mammals. Choose plants like quince and honeysuckle which have nectar-rich flowers followed by fruit. Make sure you have some evergreens too - ivy is especially valuable as it's one of the last plants in the garden to flower and fruit so is a great source of pollen and nectar for species preparing to hibernate, as well as providing hibernating sites if it's not cut back.

Now, hang up your tools and keep warm inside happy in the knowledge that your garden wildlife is well set up for winter.

Wildlife garden diary

If you have a vegetable patch, why not try planting some 'green manure' this autumn? This is when you sow clover or ryegrass which will grow fast over the winter, mopping up nutrients so they're not washed away by rain and also preventing weeds from getting established. Then, come spring when they're lush and leafy, you dig the plants in so the nutrients are released while they rot and improve your soil quality. Green manure also protects the soil from compaction by rain and provides winter shelter for many mini-beasts such as ground beetles. Top tip - after you dig in your green manure allow at least two weeks before planting or sowing new crops.

Butterflies have had a terrible season this year because of the wet weather. If you find any in your shed or an outbuilding, it's probably because they've decided to overwinter there and you wouldn't be doing them any favours by 'helping' them out into a blustery autumn day. Leave them be if they're not in the way.

Countryside diary

With the wet summer we've had, October should see some magnificent fungi appearing in the countryside. Fungi comes in so many shapes, sizes and colours - toadstools, puffballs, brackets, earthstars, slime moulds and lots of other types that grow on the woodland floor, on tree trunks and even amidst grassland.

The temptation to forage for wild fungi and cook them up may well be strong, but be careful. There are more than 20,000 species of fungi in Europe, 6-8,000 of which are the 'toadstool' shape we're familiar with finding on supermarket shelves, but only around 60 of these are truly edible. There are 12 varieties of fungi that are deadly poisonous and they're all known to be present in Gloucestershire. As a rule, if you come across fungi don't pick them or damage them (it's so tempting to give puffballs a kick, particularly if you're 10 years old) as they could be rare or poisonous so, unless you're with an expert who advises differently, it's best to look, admire and move on.

On the farming front many fields will now be newly sown with winter crops or left fallow after harvest, so it's a good time of year to spot brown hares out in the open landscape. Did you know: with their long powerful back legs, hares can run up to 48 miles an hour? They can also leap 8ft forward and almost as high. Worth keeping an eye out for.

Places to visit: Woodlands are lovely places to visit at this time of year, especially if you want to see how many different species of fungi you can spot. We'd recommend Lower Woods Nature Reserve near Wickwar, Midger Woods Nature Reserve south of Leighterton or Collin Park Nature Reserve near Newent in the Forest of Dean. If you fancy doing a bit of hare spotting, try watching from one of the hides at Coombe Hill Nature Reserve in the Severn Vale.

My favourite place - the Cotswold escarpment near Coaley

Del Jones - Severn Vale Project Adviser

Many years have passed since I used to have my evening bath in the kitchen sink of a caravan in the heart of rural Gloucestershire. My parents fell in love with the area before I was born and consequently my annual holidays consisted of visiting the same caravan on the same farm year in, year out. One might think that this would become tedious but the hustle and bustle of the working farm meant there was always something to do and it was here that I developed my interest for both agriculture and the countryside.

My favourite place therefore mirrors my fondest memories of sitting on an old Fordson Dexter, turning hay, whilst overlooking the Severn Vale from the top of the Cotswold escarpment near Coaley. It was a glorious day and I remember drinking in the view of the river snaking its way to the estuary, with the backdrop of the forest, and the mountains of my native Wales shimmering in the distance. There is a sense of humility with the shear scale of such a landscape, which incorporates a multitude of different environments and habitats, intertwined with the patchwork quilt that man has tailored over the surface of the land.

Whilst slowly chugging along I would occasionally glance up and spy a couple of buzzards effortlessly ascending on the thermals produced from the warm air hitting the escarpment, far more so than their heavier, less attractive counterparts from the local gliding club!

Still to this day I love the contrast of landscape that Gloucestershire provides, and particularly the escarpment surrounding Coaley which merges from the lower arable and grasslands, to the steep unimproved pasture banks and on to the Ancient Woodland giving a sense of the once was 'wild wood' skyline.

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