Everyone associates spring as the busiest season for wildlife but autumn and winter can be just as important for many species. Here are a few key things to look out for and how you can help your local wildlife over the coming months:
The long sleep
It’s not just bears that spend the winter hunkered down underground, many UK species also hibernate over the winter. The way animals hibernate varies between species but they all follow the same general rules – breathing and heart rate slows down dramatically sometimes to as few as one or two beats per minute, body temperature cools to just a few degrees above the external temperature and metabolic rate is reduced. To prepare for this extreme sleep animals must build up their fat reserves, and small species such as the hazel dormouse can almost double in size in the run up to winter! Hibernating species include the famous hedgehog, all UK bat species, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates such as bumble bees. A common misconception is that squirrels are caching all those nuts ready for hibernating but in fact squirrels, along with badgers, otters, rabbits, hares and moles do not hibernate!
There’s many things you can do to help your local hibernating wildlife survive the winter:
• During the autumn months leave out extra food such a good meat based dog or cat food.
• Provide good places in your garden for wildlife to endure the cold weather, such as piles of dry leaves for hedgehogs or warm compost heaps for reptiles and toads.
• Please remember to check any bonfires for hedgehogs before setting them alight! Preferably store the materials elsewhere and move them to the bonfire location the day you are planning to light it.
Those that flock together
Birds that overwinter in the UK fall into two groups: residents who breed in the UK and live here year round and migrants who move here to avoid the colder temperatures of their northern breeding grounds such as Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Our winters may not be as harsh as those further north but they are still a trying time for our feathered friends. Birds must spend the majority of their time searching for food to maintain their fat reserves. For some small species such as blue tits this means consuming as much as 30% of their body weight per day to get them through the winter. You can help birds by providing a steady source of food in your garden such as:
• High fat content food such as fat balls, fresh unsalted peanuts, seeds and uncooked bacon rinds.
• Fresh fruit such as whole or halved apples, pears or other soft fruits.
• Filling foods such as cooked rice or uncooked porridge oats.
• Nutritious meal worms.
Water often freezes during cold snaps leaving many animals without a fresh source of drinking water. You can keep animals hydrated during the winter frosts by:
• Providing a shallow bowl or dish of fresh water every day.
• Melting a hole in ponds by resting a hot saucepan on the ice (Refrain from pouring boiling water or smashing ice as this can cause stress to fish and other species).
• Place a floating ball in your pond. This will prevent the water freezing and allow hibernating toads to surface for oxygen.