Help Your Local Wildlife To Survive This Winter

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly, U.K.

Less work equals more wildlife in your autumn garden. Beth Markey, spokesperson for the RSPB, offers some top tips on how to help the wildlife that calls our autumn gardens home.

Beth Markey

Beth Markey

Welcome to Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Autumn’s early morning nip is upon us, evident in nature’s seasonal perfume of mulching vegetation and fattening conkers, and the occasional crunchy leaf underfoot. In light of the changing conditions, there’s some key prep you can do in your gardens this autumn to help your local wildlife survive the ensuing winter.

1 Don’t tidy your autumn garden

Baby Hedgehog Surrounded by Autumn Leaves

Pic: iStockphoto

At this time of year it’s really important to avoid the urge to cut back and tidy too much. It’s more beneficial for nature to leave any decaying plants in tact, as they create a cosy layer for garden mammals and insects to snuggle down in when winter hits. Hollowed stems and seedheads also provide a safe insect hidey-hole from frosts.
If you have any dead wood in your autumn garden, or if you’re already sweeping up rust coloured leaves, gather them into a pile in a corner of your greenspace – again insects and small mammals, including our struggling hedgehogs, will thank you for creating a snug home for them.

2 Ivy wears the crown this autumn

English Ivy

Ivy is one of the most beneficial plants for your garden wildlife. This is true at any point in the year, but especially during autumn and winter. Whilst most nectar rich plants are starting to die off, ivy’s flowers are now beginning to blossom, providing a vital late source of food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

Ivy is an all-round winner for nature because its evergreen leaves offer crucial shelter for birds and insects even throughout the colder months, when other natural cover is thinning out.

And let’s not forget ivy’s ripe, winter jewels – its berries. These are a crucial, calorie-rich source of food for your feathered garden friends, just when they need that extra energy hit to enable them to maintain their body temperatures.

If you do one thing this autumn, nurture and pay homage to your garden ivy – and if you don’t have one, plant one! 

3 The garden bird vanishing act

great tit hanging on peanut bird feeder on a winter day ( Parus major )

Pic: iStockphoto

During September we’re often contacted by concerned members of the public who have noticed that their much loved garden birds, who once flocked to well-stocked feeders, have suddenly vanished. But this is a totally natural occurrence at the end of the summer/beginning of autumn.

Nature’s hedgerows are now studded with blackberries and other fruit – a veritable paradise to garden birds. Birds will always favour feeding directly from nature’s pantry, so whilst her stocks are bountiful you will naturally see a drop in garden feeder visitations. However, do keep their food and water sources topped up, because as soon as temperatures drop and the berry crop dwindles, your favourite garden birds will be back to your feeders in abundance. They rely on your high-energy, high-fat winter food to fuel them through the colder months. 

4 New house guest

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly, U.K.

Pic: iStockphoto

In the lead up to winter, you may spot a small, unmoving tortoiseshell butterfly or a peacock butterfly perched on the wall in a corner of a room – they have entered their winter dormant stage. Butterfly Conservation explains that only these two species like to over winter in our homes and will often enter in late summer/ early autumn, when our houses offer cool, dry shelter. But as temperatures continue to drop outside and our central heating rises inside, these butterflies can be woken up too early by the increased indoor temperatures, which fool them into thinking spring has sprung early. This isn’t a good thing for a butterfly as their outside environment is too cold and offers little nectar for them to eat.

If you spot an early rising butterfly in your home between now and spring, follow Butterfly Conservation’s guidance:

• Catch the butterfly carefully and place it into a cardboard box or similar, in a cool place for half an hour or so to see if it will calm down.

• Once calmed down you might be able to gently encourage the sleepy butterfly out onto the wall or ceiling of an unheated room or building such as a shed, porch, garage or outhouse.

• Just remember that the butterfly will need to be able to escape when it awakens in early spring.

This autumn, before you poetically lament, “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?” follow Keats’ advice and “Think not of them, thou [autumn] hast thy music too” and you can best enhance this season’s symphony, by stepping back and letting nature do her thing.

To make your garden bee friendly . . .

Moira Chisholm

I'm the Health Editor on My Weekly and am always interested to hear what's new in this fascinating field. I also deal with the gardening, shopping pages, general features, our website content and the Ask Helen problem page. I have a special interest in Christmas content because I'm on the team for Your Best Ever Christmas Magazine, too!