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Give wildlife a boost this autumn and winter

How to maximise biodiversity in your garden over the colder months

As summer winds down and the colder months approach, you may see less wildlife around – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t here! Many insects and animals hibernate in the winter, but a lot are still active. You can provide safe places for them to hibernate, or food and shelter for those who are still out and about in winter.

You can help local wildlife thrive in the autumn and winter – just follow these easy tips to create a biodiverse haven for all insects and animals.

Create nesting areas for animals and insects

It’s easy to make nesting areas in your garden. You can build or buy an elaborate and handsome bug hotel, stack up some plant pots, or simply place a pile of wood or twigs in a quiet corner of your garden where it won’t be disturbed. This provides essential shelter for all kinds of insects and animals, such as hedgehogs, frogs, toads, dormice, and even butterflies and bees. A lot of insects go into hibernation, or diapause, some entering a state called torpor. This is almost like suspended animation, in which their metabolism slows dramatically. Some insects even produce a form of antifreeze within their bodies to resist the winter frost. A safe environment under leaf litter or logs in a safe place for them to enter diapause. Tree stumps, logs and other old wood are the perfect environment for fungi and microorganisms to thrive, which are important food sources for the wildlife that are awake during winter. 

Don’t rake up your leaves

You can clear pathways and drives, but try to leave most of the leaves on the ground. Decaying plant matter is a hugely important part of the ecosystem and has so many benefits! A leaf layer is its own ecosystem that allows thousands of species to thrive in autumn. Many insects rely on fallen leaves to use as shelter for winter. Some species of butterfly and moth make their chrysalises in dead leaves as a form of camouflage from predators. Earthworms eat decaying leaf matter and are incredibly beneficial for soil health. Animals like toads, hedgehogs and shrews use leaf litter as bedding and shelter over winter when they hibernate, and enjoy the many bugs hidden within to keep their body weight up, helping them to survive the cold weather. The leaves won’t be there for more than a few weeks, as they decompose quickly and enrich your soil with important nutrients. You can rake the leaves into a pile, where they will still provide good shelter for animals. If you compost, you can add leaves to your compost pile or bin to enrich it with nutrients like potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. The worst thing you can do with fallen leaves is throw them in the bin, where they will be sent to landfill. Not only does this affect the local wildlife and biodiversity of your garden, but when leaves rot in an anaerobic environment, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is a huge contributor to climate change. So this autumn, don’t worry about raking the leaves – just put your feet up and let nature do its work.

Tidy your pond

If you have a garden pond, it is a haven for wildlife all year round as a water source and habitat for so many insects as well as frogs, toads and newts. Male frogs will hibernate in the bottom of ponds, submerged in mud. They will be fine as long as the pond isn’t allowed to completely freeze over, as this can cause decaying plant matter to produce toxic gases that can’t escape through a layer of ice. Keep them safe by floating a tennis ball or two so that the pond can’t completely freeze over, and clear any excess plant matter or fallen leaves out of the pond.

Provide water

It can be difficult for wildlife to find drinking water sources during the winter. Especially when the temperatures drop below freezing. Many hedgehogs that get taken into rescue centres are often dehydrated. You can leave out a shallow dish of water in your garden for animals, birds and insects to drink from. Keep it clean and free of ice, and replace the water frequently to avoid harbouring bacteria.

Feed the birds

While some birds leave the country and travel south for the winter, a lot do stay. Some birds actually visit the UK from even colder places such as Russia. Birds don’t hibernate, so they need plenty of food sources over winter to keep their energy levels up and stay warm during cold nights. You can help your local birds by providing fat-rich foods like fat balls, peanuts, mealworms and suet. You may be tempted to share leftover cooking fat with birds, but this is not good for them. It can stick to their feathers, making it hard to fly, or become spoiled too quickly. If you use a bird feeder, wash it well every two weeks to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease. Use regular washing-up liquid, heavily diluted bleach (be sure to rinse well) or vinegar to clean your bird feeders and bird bath. 

Plant late-flowering plants and sow wildflower seeds for next spring

You might think of wildflowers as something that only blooms in spring and summer. But there are lots of late-flowering plants that continue to flower well into autumn, providing food for insects and birds. Michaelmas daisies, sedums, harebell and hawkbit all flower well into October and November. Other plants can provide food sources in autumn, such as blackberries, teasel, ivy and clematis. You can also plant wildflower seeds now ready to grow in the spring. Check out our guide to sowing your own wildflower seeds here.

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