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Warning Over Winter’s Effect On Local Wildlife

John Freeman
A blue tit. Image courtesy Lancashire Environment Record Network.With the return of another cold snap so soon after snow and ice covered our region, local wildlife may be struggling to cope, warns the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside.

Our wildlife is amazingly hardy and adaptable and can put up with a pounding from the weather. But prolonged periods of cold, continuing for weeks or months at a time, or severe and sudden changes in the weather, can cause it major problems.

Last winter was a bleak one up here in our area. Snowfall before Christmas was unusual enough, but early January saw temperatures falling even more dramatically than the heavy snow that blanketed our landscape for what felt like months. It was very nice to look at, of course, but highlighted how important it is that we all make a special effort to look after our region’s wildlife again this time around.

Grazing animals, whether domestic sheep or wild hares, may not be able to get to the plants to feed because the ice. And the frozen ground prevents rabbits and hares from nibbling grass, making these plant-lovers stay at home, so predators like stoats and owls find it harder to spot and catch them.

There is also less food around in hedgerows and woodlands for foragers - leaves have gone, plants withered or covered with snow, hedges stripped of berries, and insects dead from the cold or stuck in frozen soil or ponds.

Not many of our mammals actually hibernate for long periods during winter, they simply prefer to sleep when it gets cold, occasionally emerging to see what food might be available. But when severe weather hits, it's much harder for mammals like badgers, hares, stoats and foxes to graze, forage or hunt for food: already we're seeing foxes being more bold and more active in broad daylight.

Putting out fruit, vegetables and meat (like dog food) in your garden will help them when other food is either covered in snow or the ground is too hard to dig into. Don’t leave out bread or milk for hedgehogs, but a shallow bowl of water will certainly help in times when ponds are frozen. If you come across buried food, make sure you leave it so that whatever buried it can find it again.

It can cause problems for some insects too. Those which are active in the winter, such as winter-gnats and minotaur beetles, can cope with periods of cold weather, but deep snow may prevent them feeding for weeks at a time.

Perhaps surprisingly, insects and other animals which hibernate usually do better in cold winters: they use less energy while hibernating, and are less likely to be disturbed and come out to look for food which isn't there. So, butterflies like the brimstone, peacock and comma, which hibernate as adults, and indeed, the other resident butterflies which spend the winter as eggs, caterpillars or crysalids, could benefit from this cold winter.

Likewise the mammals which do go into real hibernation, the dormouse and the bats, may appreciate the cold. Perhaps the most difficult circumstance for most wildlife is bouts of severe cold and snow, interspersed with warmer-than-normal conditions, which wake them up, only for the next cold spell to drive them back (or, in the case of plants, harsh frost might even damage the premature tender shoots).

If you'd like to help our wildlife cope this winter and in future winters, try the following steps:

- Put out nuts, seeds, fat and water for garden birds.
- Grow patches of tall grass in your garden to shelter butterflies.
- Don't cut back your herbabeous plants till the spring, so their hollow stems can provide snug hibernation sites for ladybirds and other beneficial insects.
- Provide insect homes for over-wintering lacewings and other invertebrates.

The easiest way to make a snug insect home is to take a bundle of bamboo canes or twigs, tie them together and hang somewhere in your garden. Alternatively, you can stuff dead leaves into a plastic bottle (with the bottom cut off and holes cut in the sides) or a plant pot and place or hang them somewhere damp. Either of these methods will give bugs in your garden a great place to hide from the harsh weather.

- Buy or make a hedgehog home for hibernating hogs.

A sturdy crate or box will provide a hedgehog with a great place to hibernate and stay warm and safe from predators. Kids will need help and supervision from a grown-up to remove partitions from crates, or to make a new box from plywood. Make sure you build a front door for the hedgehog to get in and out! You don’t need to line the box with leaves, they like to decorate their new homes themselves. When it’s ready, place the hedgehog home somewhere damp and secluded in your garden.

- Grow climbers like ivy to provide shelter for birds and insects.

- If you’re lucky enough to have red squirrels in your area, like birds, their main problem in snowy conditions can be finding food, so leaving out nuts will help them get the food they need when it’s in short supply elsewhere.

Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside web site