The pretty autumnal changes outside your window – the fiery colouring of leaves, the gentle decline of herbaceous plants – are all about survival. With the mean months ahead of them, garden plants are shedding everything soft and vulnerable, withdrawing their energies below the earth to a bundle of roots, or dropping soft leaves so that only tough craggy bark faces the elements. They will spend the next few months in a state of suspended animation, and they are not the only ones: garden wildlife is undergoing the same process, with each creature finding its own way of minimising effort and sustaining life through the gloom. But there are lots of things gardeners can do – and refrain from doing – to help them out.
Some mammals (hedgehogs, dormice and bats) hibernate, drastically dropping their heartbeat and body temperature to reduce the need for food while it is scarce. Others (mice, badgers, foxes and the rest) put on weight in autumn, then hunker down and minimise activity when the weather is bad. Both groups need plenty of food in autumn, and both are appreciators of debris.
There is a tendency to tidy the year away in autumn, to sweep leaves and clear the slate, but fallen leaves can be fashioned into shelters, and piles of rotting logs and stems will house insects and grubs to eat. You have full licence to ignore untidiness. The most useful mess is that in nooks and crannies, particularly at the base of hedges, which are naturally dry and relatively warm.
Hedgehogs, in particular, will appreciate regular fresh water and food put out now: dog or cat food (not fish-based), cat biscuits, sunflower seeds, nuts. Don’t give them milk and bread, though, because they can cause diarrhoea and dehydration.If you don’t think your garden has the requisite hidey-holes, you’ll can buy custom built hedgehog houses 🦔
No such hibernating luck for birds, which need to find sources of food and water all through winter. They need the most help of all wildlife, and a dependably stocked bird table can save many lives. Provide high-fat foods that will keep birds warm through the long, cold nights: black sunflower seeds, grated suet (in cold weather only, otherwise it melts), peanuts in feeders, and niger seed for finches and siskins.
Blackbirds and thrushes love fruit. There is plenty around now, but freeze windfalls and you will have a source of fruit to throw out on the lawn in late winter. Water is particularly hard to come by when temperatures drop, and if birds can’t clean their feathers they become less waterproof and less able to keep warm. Provide a bird bath and refresh water regularly. Clean out nesting boxes now to get them ready for spring and so they can be used for roosting on cold nights.
The main hazard for winter pond life is a full freeze of the surface, which dramatically reduces oxygen levels in the water beneath. Float a ball in your pond, which will keep the water around it moving and help prevent freezing in all but the lowest temperatures. If the entire surface does freeze over, boil a saucepan of water and hold it on the ice to melt a hole. Make log piles and stack clay tiles in sunny spots near your pond, for overwintering frogs and toads.
Most insects ensure survival by overwintering pupae or by hibernating. Mess and flowers are what they require. The few insects that do fly in winter need a source of pollen, and ivy is one of the best because it flowers in those cold months, so don’t cut it back at this time of year. Bumblebee nests die out for winter but the queens hibernate in holes in banks or below long grass, so beware when cultivating or mulching.
Butterflies and moths overwinter as pupae or caterpillars just below the soil, at the base of food plants or in long, tussocky grass, while other insects overwinter in hollow stems of herbaceous perennials, so hold off on the chopping until spring.
Young hedgehogs born late in the year may not have enough fat supplies to see them through winter, so if you find one, it will need help. Those under 300g are very young indeed and should be kept warm with hot-water bottles wrapped in towels, then taken to an experienced wildlife rehabilitator. Those between 300g and 500g should be housed indoors and given water and two heaped tablespoons of food per day until they have put on enough weight, when they can be released to hibernate if the weather is mild. Provide them with food, shelter and nesting materials.