Clearing up for winter is a great opportunity to create some cosy habitats for your local invertebrates, amphibians and small mammals so that they can hibernate in safety and comfort. Turn your garden into a wildlife haven, and you’ll have fewer problems with pests – it’s a win-win situation for all concerned.
What kind of creatures can you encourage?
While you are very unlikely to want to create an overwintering haven for some critters – slugs and snails, for example – others need our help and in return will help our gardening efforts. Hedgehogs, amphibians of all kinds, bats, birds and reptiles all consume vast numbers of garden pests whether you encourage them to or not; but the breeding numbers of many UK creatures are in serious decline. It appears that despite the traditional idea of farmers being the ‘custodians of the countryside’, many of their activities are not helping. Chemical fertilisers, hedge removal and modern harvesting methods have all taken their toll.
These wonderfully bumbling little mammals are very keen on slugs, and having one in residence means far fewer of those pests will be around to attack your seedlings. Hedgehogs begin collecting hibernation material in autumn – grass, leaves, straw, bracken and the like – to create snug nests under hedges or piles of brush. If you have been setting brush aside in order to burn it later, do check first to make sure that there isn’t someone already in residence beneath. Better still, leave the pile undisturbed – maybe the bonfire could wait until next year. Hedgehogs can wake up several times during the winter months during mild periods, but aside from making food and water available to them it’s best to leave them alone.
You can also help by providing a ready-made hibernation nest: a small, upturned cardboard box in which you’ve cut a couple of holes for access is ideal. Fill it with shredded newspaper and/or leaves, cover it with a piece of plastic bag to keep out the rain and set the whole thing, covered with more brush and leaves, in a sheltered spot under a shed or hedge, or in a quiet corner of the garden where it won’t be disturbed.
Frogs, toads and newts also consume vast numbers of slugs and other creatures commonly found in our gardens. However, and once again mainly due to habitat loss (ponds filled in, hedges ripped out) amphibian numbers are in a steep decline all over the UK. If you can put in a garden pond, you should. Ponds are lovely things and will quickly become a focus for all kinds of creatures, including you! There’s usually no need to include an expensive air pump unless your pond is quite small. Even a medium-sized pond will ‘work’ perfectly well without additional air so long as the water has some shade (either from overhanging branches or water lilies) which help prevent it from becoming de-oxygenated and clogged with algae. Also remember Rule One for wildlife ponds: NO FISH.
Amphibians only hibernate in the coldest weather and become active quite early again in the spring when it’s time to spawn. They sit tight in the soft mud at the bottom of ponds, or in damp leaves under a hedge. Giving them a nearby pond is absolutely the best thing you can do for them, and you’ll probably find yourself sitting right next to it as well.
Bats get through millions of midges and mosquitos which they detect, on the wing, using a kind of natural sonar. When these are scarce during the winter months, bats hibernate hanging upside down in a sheltered, dark and cool environment such as an attic or shed roof. The less disturbance to the air around them the better, so they often stay hanging from the tunnel roofs at the end of old, abandoned mineshafts. However, as you’re unlikely to have many of these in your garden, the best things to offer them are either a ‘bat box’ or easy access to your attic space from the outside – but in a way that prevents rain from coming in.
Because they do not tend to cause problems for buildings, many of us live in the same house as bats without even knowing it. If you see them circling your home at dusk, the chances are they’re living not too far away – possibly in a distant corner of your own attic (in any case, bats are protected by law, so they should always be left undisturbed).