Most of us probably don't realise that weather conditions in the UK this year have meant many species of wildlife have suffered a decline. A drought during spring meant that frogs, toads and other pond-dwelling species mourned the loss of their habitat as prolonged warm weather dried up ponds, leaving them nowhere to go. The heat was followed by a long period of intense rain that had a significant impact on the feeding and breeding practices of many different species.
Newborn birds were unable to feed on aphids and caterpillars as these were flushed from plants in the heavy rainfall, and insect populations diminished as the wet weather meant they couldn’t breed. With insects providing a staple food supply for a variety of wildlife, their loss meant a loss of many other dependent species.
To try and make sure our birds, butterflies, owls and hedgehogs make it through the winter, there are a range of things we can do to encourage them to breed, feed and hibernate, better ensuring their survival through the cold season. Simply being aware of the vulnerability of wildlife at this time of year is a good starting point. Investing time and energy in providing suitable areas for animals to hibernate, as well as offering nourishment (in the form of bird seed/meal worms/fruit etc) will mean that more animals outlast the year.
Across parts of the country, populations of bats have declined. They may not be the most popular creature on the planet but they are an integral part of the food cycle. This year their species fared very badly as their primary food supply (consisting of moths and midges) couldn’t fly in the rain. Because of this bats had to go without, meaning they didn’t have the strength for breeding.
Many people will be uninterested in preserving bat numbers because of age-old negative associations with blood-sucking and death. In truth, of the 1,200 different species of bat in existence, only 3 are known to feed on blood. Bats are actually very important when it comes to agriculture and the environment, feeding on many insects that are damaging to crops. They also pollinate plants, spread seeds and have a beneficial substance in their saliva that has been used medically to aid stroke victims.
- To help protect bats this winter, attract insects to you garden at night by growing nectar-rich plants. This could mean that fewer bats starve to death.
According to the RSPB, the wet weather also had a detrimental effect on populations of garden birds, in particular thrushes, robins and blackbirds. Sightings of thrushes were down by 27% according to The 2012 Make Your Nature Count Survey.
Cold, wet weather during spring made it next to impossible for these birds to survive in their open nests. Many baby birds would have frozen to death or been washed from safety.
- To help garden birds this winter, leaving out meal worms and chopped fruits such as apples, as well as planting hawthorn bushes or other berry-bearing shrubs will keep birds fit and healthy for the breeding season. Bird houses will also offer a dark and protected space for hibernation.
Although much smaller, butterflies and bumblebees are popular wildlife species that have also been threatened this year, being unable to fly in wet weather. Warmth is crucial when it comes to feeding and breeding, and both species have suffered through heavy rain and a lack of sunshine, meaning there have been significantly fewer flowers from which to take nectar and pollen.
Many bumblebees choose to nest in the ground which has proved fatal this year (just as it has for hedgehogs), with intense rain and flooding washing bumblebees away.
- To help protect butterflies and bumblebees this year, establish a food supply in your garden - this will have a positive impact on species populations. Nettles, ivy and various other plants will provide a lifeline for hungry wildlife that has no other means of feeding.
From small to large, all our flying friends need considering this winter. Barn owls are another species that is particularly vulnerable this year, as wet weather (and thus, wet wings) has made them unable to fly silently to catch prey.
Populations saw an increase in late-summer when the weather was dry and warm, although a significant decline was seen beforehand, with many baby barn owls being found dead in their nests.
- To help prevent any more owls dying through starvation, encourage voles and mice to shelter and feed in your garden. This will bring owls calling, looking for their next meal. There is nothing we can do to counter wet wings but we can help by bringing a ready food supply through the winter months.
There are many much simpler ways to encourage wildlife to your garden through winter, as well as to provide adequate shelter and provisions for the wildlife that is already there. It is usually around late autumn and early winter that we start thinking about raking together leaves and removing dead plants from flower beds, but this is the time of year when wildlife needs them most.
Instead of gathering fallen leaves and dispensing with them somewhere, form them into a pile on the lawn or in a sheltered area where small animals can crawl inside and nest. If you are going to use a rake or a strimmer, be careful not to injure any wildlife that may be hibernating. Also, if you are planning a bonfire this year, ensure that no hedgehogs are hidden amongst the branches and debris as they will quickly perish in the smoke and flames once the bonfire is lit. Building a hedgehog house is a good idea as it offers a safe haven for over-wintering hedgehogs to nest without being in danger.
Adapting your garden for wildlife in winter can be a fun exercise for you and your family. Simple habitats and bird tables can be knocked up easily with materials taken from the garden, so don’t feel you have to spend a fortune buying an elaborate equivalent.
If you have any tips or suggestions on how to go about providing for wildlife through the cold season, please share them with us! Likewise, if you have any interesting stories about animals you have protected in winters past, we would love to hear about them.
Written by: Hannah Dyball