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Our Sleepy Friends

Feel like hibernating? So do many of Britain’s wild creatures. Why not make them feel at home in your garden? Michaela Strachan shows you how

Oh no, is it time to put the heating on, get out the jumpers, bring in the garden furniture and start drinking cocoa? Sadly me thinks it is!! But as the days get cooler and the nights get longer we’re not the only ones thinking of hibernating indoors, plenty of animals are doing it too. Just think of all those bears around the world that are searching out a warm and cosy den to hide in for the winter. I was in Canada last month and saw my first wild grizzly bears. We saw a mother and 2 cubs and a huge male fishing. It was fantastic. “But what has all this to do with British gardening?” I hear you cry. Well, nothing as it happens, I just thought seeing wild grizzly bears was worth mentioning!! Anyway, we do of course have our own British hibernating creatures who are also worth a mention.

Hedgehogs, bats, dormice, frogs, toads, newts, slow worms, snakes, ladybirds and lacewings are all creatures that take it easy over the winter months. And why not, I say! Some simply minimize their activity and only feed when necessary, others just switch off altogether until the warmth of the spring gives them a reason to wake up (the idea does sound a touch appealing). So, how can we gardeners help our sleepy friends?

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Well, let’s start with the most charismatic garden visitor, the hedgehog. Hedgehogs look for a nice comfy pile of logs, sticks and leaves to snuggle up in. Obviously a bonfire can make a 5-star luxury pad for these prickly creatures so please spare a thought before you get the matches out. Have a good root around first or move the bonfire. They also like to be under brush or brambles. So, if you’re a bit of a lazy gardener you’ll like this: don’t be too tidy during the winter months. Leave the big clean up till the spring. I don’t know about you, but I need no more persuasion than that! If you just can’t resist the temptation of the garden broom, collect the leaves and other debris and put it in a pile out of the way.

If you want to get into a bit of hedgehog real estate you can buy or build a hedgehog box. To encourage house hunting, entice the hogs in with a bit of bacon rind or dog food. And leave some dry, clean hay nearby for bedding. How could any sane hedgehog resist your offer? If you do get any takers be careful not to disturb them during their slumber. Try not to be too curious.

Hedgehogs need to get their body weight up to survive the winter and you can very easily help with that, too. Leave out dog food, chopped peanuts, crunchy peanut butter, raw or cooked meat leftovers, muesli and a small amount of vegetables. Don’t leave bread and milk since it gives them diarrhoea.

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Moving on to our amphibious friends. Frogs and toads really do sleep off the winter. They simply bed down in the mud at the bottom of ponds. If you have a garden pond you can really help your hibernators by floating a tennis ball in the water to prevent it from freezing over. Other amphibians hibernate in piles of leaves, long grass or logs along with their insect prey, so once again, for the sake of the wildlife, don’t be too tidy.

Now, if you’re lucky enough to have bats in your garden they too will be looking for a cosy spot. Bats in Britain eat insects, which are scarce during the winter months so bats hibernate only venturing out occasionally to drink or feed. They roost in cool, humid places such as caves (not that too many of us have caves in our back gardens), hollows of trees, garden sheds, outhouses and even garages. Remember that bats are protected, so don’t disturb them even if they roost in your attic. If you need any advice or help contact your local Wildlife Trust.

The compost heap that I hope you all have up and running by now, is also a very attractive bit of hibernating real estate. Slow worms, possibly even snakes (but don’t panic, most gardens won’t have lots of snakes slithering around), and even hedgehogs might snuggle down in your compost. So again, if the urge to do a spot of gardening is too much and you need to use your compost, take care not to disturb the heap too much.

Insects such as ladybirds and lacewings are known to be gardeners’ friends. They’re really helpful for keeping garden pests under control and save you having to resort to pesticides. If they’ve helped you out over the summer why not give them a hand over the winter? A length of drainpipe filled with bamboo canes or a nice pile of dead stems can encourage them to stick around till the spring when you’ll be grateful of their company.

A lot of insects like to shelter in the gaps between walls and plants, so yet another excuse for not trimming back those creepers till the spring! Also, leave fallen fruit where it lands. It’ll give birds, especially winter thrushes, a much-needed tasty treat.

One creature that will be prevalent at this time of year, with no intention of hibernating, is the slug. Don’t use pellets to kill them: they’re not only unnecessary, they also kill frogs, birds and hedgehogs, all of which prey on slugs.

If you fancy yourself as a bit of a wildlife estate agent you can actually build or buy nest boxes for all sorts of creatures. Insect boxes can provide winter shelter for lacewings, bat boxes for bats and bumble boxes for bees, although to be honest I haven’t seen a bee anywhere near ours for two years!!

Remember that winter is a harsh time for all your garden visitors so keep putting out nuts, seeds and fat balls for the birds. It’s also important to leave out some water.

In the last 50 years many of our hibernating creatures, which were once common, have dramatically declined mainly due to loss of habitat, over-intensive farming, road building and development. These days they really do need our help. Every garden, no matter how big or small, has the potential to be a mini nature reserve. Keep that in mind as you put up your gardening tools for the winter months, put on the knitted cardie and hibernate indoors yourself.

Stay gardening wild.

See also the Helping Hands workshops:
How to make compost
How to make leaf mould

Photographs: Common toad: David Wrigglesworth, Oxford Scientific Films; Hedgehog: Michael Leach, Oxford Scientific Films

Articles reprinted with permission from Greenfingers.com



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