Many animals have a hard time during the colder months. Find out more about helping wildlife in winter, from planting specific plants to offering extra food and shelter.
Sub-zero temperatures, icy wind and little food − winter poses quite a challenge for our resident animals. This is why migratory birds retreat to the south, where conditions are better in winter. As for the animals that stay in the garden over winter, they go into hibernation or adapt to the harsher environmental conditions. Scarce food supplies and the lack of shelter in gardens make surviving the winter especially difficult for these animals. Fortunately, there are a few ways in which we humans can help. Read on to discover some of our simple tricks for helping wildlife in winter.
Our gardens often seem empty and uninhabited in winter. However, relatively few animals actually seek refuge in the south. Only migratory birds, such as swallows and warblers, and some butterfly species, such as admirals, make the arduous journey. Most other animals stay in our gardens and brave the winter here.
Animals that overwinter in the garden
Resident birds, such as sparrows, robins and magpies, are among some of the animals that do not go into hiding in winter, showing off their acrobatic flying skills even during the colder season. Squirrels and raccoons also make the occasional appearance on lawns when they awaken from their winter dormancy to fill their bellies. Hedgehogs and dormice are almost never seen in winter because they hibernate in well-hidden spots. That said, you may still spot them in your garden every now and then.
If you have an old barn or shed, you may also be able to house bats in winter. They, too, avoid snow and cold as much as possible. Even reptiles, amphibians and insects often hibernate quietly and secretly in our gardens. Toads and lizards seek shelter in holes in the ground, bumblebees hole up in their burrows and wild bees find winter shelter in dead wood. Surprisingly, ladybirds can be a slight nuisance. Attracted by the warmth, they often infiltrate our homes and lodge themselves in the cracks around windows.
Designing a wildlife-friendly garden for winter
As different as the various garden animals may be, many have the same winter requirements. Fortunately, there are a few things us gardeners can do to make several species happy at the same time. Growing plants that bear fruit in winter, such as rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and wild roses (Rosa), not only adds a bit of winter interest to your garden, but they also provide a source of food for birds and other herbivores.
Animals also prefer gardens that are not kept meticulously tidy. Natural gardens, with piles of leaves, dead wood and unpruned shrubs, make great hiding places for insects, birds and hedgehogs to spend the winter. Garden huts and tool sheds are also popular winter quarters. Insects, such as ladybirds and butterflies, and small mammals, such as dormice and bats, like to overwinter in these warm places that offer protection from the harsh winter weather.
Helping hedgehogs in winter
Hedgehogs are welcome guests in our gardens. On top of looking cute, they also love to eat pests such as slugs. In winter, however, hedgehogs often struggle to find a suitable place to hibernate. Leaving a few piles of leaves and brushwood in your garden is a great way to offer hedgehogs shelter in winter. Under the right conditions, dense hedges and warm garden sheds are also suitable winter hiding places for our prickly garden friends.
If you want to be on the safe side, you can also buy a hedgehog house or simply build one yourself. When it comes to materials, hedgehog houses made of brick or ceramic provide plenty of insulation and are ideal for protecting against the cold and weather. They are also an inconspicuous option for small gardens. It is important to avoid temptation and never check whether your hedgehog house is inhabited. Waking hedgehogs from their hibernation and inadvertently driving them out of their hiding places can be a death sentence for them.
If you find an unusually small hedgehog in late autumn, it can help to take a closer look. Hedgehogs weighing less than 500 grams are unlikely to survive the winter on their own. In such a case, contact a wildlife rescue service for advice on feeding the hedgehog before hibernation. Note that you should never give hedgehogs milk. Although it is often recommended, milk is not suitable for hedgehogs and can make them ill.
Helping birds in winter
Blue tits, robins and wrens − not all birds migrate to spend winter in the warmer southern regions. For those that do stick around, winter presents some problems. Even in bird-friendly gardens, food often becomes scarce. To support the birds that stay behind, consider placing a homemade bird feeder in your garden. Feeders provide birds with food and birdwatchers with a view. However, cats are also entertained by bird feeders, so make sure you put your birdhouse somewhere that is cat-proof, otherwise the feeder may become somewhat of a buffet table. Suet balls in nets can also be dangerous, as birds can get tangled up in them. To prevent this from happening, either hang feeding spirals in the trees in your garden instead or opt for some fat balls without plastic netting.
Tip: On top of a lack of food in winter, natural retreats such as caves and niches are also becoming rare. Nesting boxes are a simple solution. They are not only used by birds for breeding, but also as protection against the winter weather. So, if you want to provide your garden birds with a winter retreat, set up a nesting box for them in autumn.
Helping squirrels in winter
Squirrels are wonderful garden mates, especially in autumn. Squirrels are easy to observe as they flit from tree to tree in search of food. The reason for their elaborate search for food is the approaching winter. Since squirrels do not hibernate but enter a lighter stage of sleep known as torpor, they must stock up on energy-rich food to survive the colder months. A walnut tree (Juglans regia) or a common hazel (Corylus avellana) in the garden helps these little creatures fill up their food reserves. Another great option is a squirrel feeder. Stocked with nuts and seeds, squirrel feeders help these tiny acrobats overcome shortages in winter by offering them plenty of food.
Helping bees in winter
Bees are arguably the best-known and readily supported beneficial insects in our gardens. Many bees depend on the help of humans in winter. While honeybees can return to their hives, wild bees often lack natural shelter. You may want to consider skipping autumn pruning, as doing so provides refuge for the many wild bee species that hibernate in hollow stems of faded perennials or dead wood.
Insect hotels are also suitable for winter shelter in the garden. When putting an insect hotel in your garden, choose a place that is as protected from the wind as possible. To find out whether you have tenants, check for individual passages inside the insect hotel that are sealed up. The insects like to wall themselves into their dwellings. Growing ivy (Hedera helix) in your garden helps too. With its late flowering time, ivy is ideal for offering wild bees a last feast before the exhausting winter.
Tip: Find out more about what bees do in winter in our separate article.
Helping ladybirds and butterflies in winter
How butterflies overwinter depends on the species. They have varying tactics for surviving frosts and the cold. Some species, such as the painted lady, head south, whereas others overwinter as eggs or larvae and some even overwinter as adults. To help butterflies such as the swallowtail, which hangs close to the ground as a chrysalis, survive the winter, consider not cutting back a few plants to leave them as shelter.
Ladybirds and peacock butterflies, which hibernate as adult butterflies, seek out warm places for overwintering. Piles of brushwood and leaves provide shelter for these insects, but garden sheds also make popular winter quarters. To enable ladybirds and butterflies to find refuge inside, leave a window or skylight ajar in spring and autumn. Brimstone butterflies, on the other hand, needs no special help. Thanks to their natural frost protection, brimstone butterflies can survive temperatures as low as -20 °C. You can find more information on how butterflies overwinter in our special article.
Helping amphibians in winter
Although toads and frogs are not everyone’s favourite, they are helpful as they eat all kinds of pests. One way of helping these useful animals survive the winter is to offer them shelter. Frost-free piles of leaves and compost as well as burrows in the ground make ideal winter housing for amphibians. Providing such things in your garden increases these animals’ chances of survival considerably.
Unfortunately, the search for winter shelter can itself be incredibly dangerous for small animals. For instance, many toads die crossing roads when they migrate in search of a place to spend the winter months. Others manage to find their way into cellar shafts or other spots from which they cannot free themselves. Installing special fences that separate your garden from the street and blocking off cellar shafts can remedy these problems.
On the other hand, many frog species like to hibernate in water, such as at the bottom of a garden pond. A pond must be at least 1 metre deep for it to be a suitable hibernation spot, as this is the only way to guarantee that it will not freeze over completely. To ensure good oxygen levels in the water, plant reed grasses or underwater plants in your pond or install a pump. Once the water surface is frozen, do not break up the top layer of ice, as this can stress the hibernating animals and can lead to their death.