Caring for winter wildlife
Wild animal charity Aspas explains how to attract animals to your garden to help them through this harsh period
YOU can help birds and other small animals in your garden in a variety of ways this winter: by putting out food, drink, or bathing water, installing shelters or making sure the vegetation is attractive to different species.
Water dishes: The easiest thing you can do to help is to put out a water dish or bath: small animals need water, as much to drink as to wash themselves in. You can put out a small, shallow dish full of lukewarm water on a wall or a window ledge, which will be much appreciated. Check regularly that it has not frozen.
Feeders: Install different kinds of feeders for squirrels or birds. They should be placed at least 1.5m above ground so as not to tempt predators. However, if you decide to feed the animals, you should do it regularly and not stop in the middle of winter, which could be fatal (a bird in difficulty might use up its last energy reserves flying to your feeder). Blackbirds and thrushes love ripe fruit, whereas insectivores, which need animal-based food, will appreciate meat fat or ham. Even cooked rice or noodles will find takers. So as to avoid any risk of disease through the possible build-up of bird droppings near to your feeding points, clean your installations and the surrounding area regularly and change the water you put out.
Shelters: Birds appreciate the comfort of a wooden nesting box, which you can fix on to a tree or the side of your house, at least 2.5m up.
Bats: While many people think about putting up bird boxes, you may not realise that bats appreciate special boxes just as much. This is owing to the increasing scarcity of other cavities they can use: bell-towers are often sealed off with grills, and roofspace filled with insulation etc. You can watch their comings and goings, and they will get rid of flies and mosquitoes for you. If you like DIY, you can make such a shelter yourself, or they are available from Aspas or certain garden centres (contact Aspas by phone or email for their catalogue: see www.aspas-nature.org). Wooden bat shelters can be fixed to a house wall, a tree or a pole, ideally at least 2-3m up. If fixing it to a tree, you should not use nails, but rather use wire, with some wedges between the tree and the wire. A typical bat shelter would be about 44cm high by 10cm deep and 33cm wide, and the bats access them via a slit underneath. You can place a tray below them to collect bat guano, which is a rich fertiliser. Attract bats to the garden with trees such as weeping willows, limes and fruit trees, whose blossoms attract insects which the bats can eat. They also appreciate a compost heap, which will contain insects. It is also best not to get rid of old or dead trees, which contain useful cavities. Avoid using chemicals in your garden and your bats will then act like a natural insecticide.
Vegetation: Planting shrubs will attract birdlife. Some birds will gain food, others, twigs to make nests or a refuge from predators.
Birds will particularly appreciate the following: holly, mountain ash, hazelnut, oak, apple, cherry (if you do not mind sharing the fruit), ivy, alder, spruce, hawthorn, elder and any trees or bushes that produce berries. Hedges will attract insects on sunny days, which will attract insectivores, and give shelter to hedgehogs and slow worms. It is a good idea to have a wild garden in one corner: the idea is just to leave it alone. Attractive plants will grow in it spontaneously.
Imitation: Imitating birdsong and animal cries is almost like talking to them. They will think one of their own kind is calling to them and will come closer to you.
Observation: Most mammals can be observed at dawn or dusk. So as not to disturb them, put a red filter on the end of an electric torch.