It’s here finally – the cold snap. Even though temperatures look set to rise later this week in the South these frosty mornings, flurries of snow and chilly days are a reminder of what the season still has to come.
Outside nature is in chaos. Summer flowering plants such as roses and passion flower were still blooming here well into December. The first snow drops bloomed in the garden several weeks ago, primroses are out on the wild bank and all the bulbs are well on their way. I’ve even seen daffodils out nearby.
The plants aren’t the only things affected either. Until this week I’ve seen far fewer birds in the garden than normal for this time of year. It’s been so mild they have been able to find food and water out in the unfrozen fields and woods, only returning in droves to the bird feeders this week when the temperatures finally plummeted. It’s been a busy week topping up feeders, putting out extra supplies of cheese and suet and de-icing the bird bath so they have access to fresh water every morning.
Nor are the birds the only ones caught off guard. Last week saw the second ever Baby Routes hedgehog rescue when I came across a little one out foraging at night. Given how small it looked I scooped it up and popped it on the scales to double check its weight before letting it carry on about its business.
At well under 500g it was too small to be left to fend for itself, especially with the cold weather approaching. Hedgehogs won’t hibernate unless food becomes too scarce, so many have been staying out late into the winter this year. That’s not a problem in itself, but should the cold weather hit and the food sources disappear then you have a hungry hog forced into late hibernation. If they weigh much below 600g (weight guidance varies) then it’s going to be tough for them to survive both hibernation and the period after emerging from it in spring when they need to use the last scraps of energy for getting out foraging again at a time when food may still be tricky to come by.
Luckily for our hog, after a night spent in a crate in our spare bathroom she was off to the hedgehog rescue centre. It turned out she had lungworm as well as being underweight. At least she is in good hands now and being treated for the lungworm. I hope to have her back to release here when she is healthy again, a good weight and the worst of winter is past. I’ll keep you posted.
We’ve also had a large dopey bumblebee in the house, probably a queen looking for new territory to nest. Normally I’d expect to see them a bit later than early January! I let her outside and put out some sugar water on the wild bank – this can be helpful to pollinators who are out before there are plentiful flowers out to find food from.
It all goes to show just what trouble our topsy-turvy winter is causing our wildlife year. We will have to wait until later in 2016 to see what affect this all has on the rest of our wildlife and pollinators. In the meantime, here are some ideas to help out the wildlife near you over the winter.
- Keep the bird feeders topped up, particularly ahead of any cold snaps. High fat foods such as suet, cheese, fat balls etc. are all great options when the temperatures really drop whilst seed, fruit and peanuts (in a feeder) provide something for all species. You can even make some with the kids!
- Provide some fresh water for birds and wildlife in the garden and make sure it is accessible when there is ice about. Be careful not to break ice on a pond by smashing it though – the shock waves can harm wildlife sheltering on the bottom.
- Take part in the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch and help the nation track trends in our birds and wildlife.
- If you have hedgehogs in your area, put out a small bowl of meaty cat biscuits and some water in a covered box with a hedgey sized hole in it. Any late wandering winter hogs will be grateful for an easy food source and by using a cover you’ll stop over larger foragers pinching it all!
- Keep an eye out for winter hedgehogs. If you spot very small ones (a good sign of being too small is that they don’t roll up into a nice spherical ball & seem longer than fat) then it’s worth using some gardening gloves to pick it up and quickly weight it. If it’s much below 600g and definitely if it’s below 500g, then get it in to your nearest wildlife rescue centre.
- Check compost heaps, log piles and vegetation before disturbing or turning over. These are favourite places for wildlife sheltering from the winter.
- It’s never too late to make shelters for wild animals. Bird boxes put up now will provide some winter protection as well as being familiar to the garden birds before they look for a nest site in spring. Stone and log piles are both useful for insects, frogs, newts and other little creatures to tuck away for the winter. Hedgehog boxes put out now are unlikely to be used for hibernation but they will be there ready and waiting for when mating season kicks off.
- Now is also the perfect time to build a small pond – one of the best ways you can help wildlife in your garden.
- Take a trip to the garden centre and make sure you have plenty of pollinator friendly plants and flowers in the garden to take you through winter into spring. The warmer temperatures mean there are some insects about that wouldn’t normally be out at this time of year but the plants they rely on aren’t necessarily out yet. Conversely, there are some flowers out now early that are important food sources for insects that will emerge later in winter and early spring – they will need some extra help! Make sure to get wildlife friendly plants. Often the most showy flowers have little value to pollinators. Most garden centers now include labels advising on wildlife friendly plants, can advise you or you can find a list from the RHS here.
- Put out some sugar water on a small plate or on some kitchen roll soaked in the solution and place in a sunny spot. This will provide an alternative food source for early pollinators.