Most of us loved winter as children – think of all those happy times you spent making snowmen, lying in the snow creating snow angels and all those lovely, crisp, winter walks breaking the ice and throwing snowballs.
Whilst we as humans can return to a cosy, warm house after enjoying the outdoors, our British wildlife is not so fortunate and winter can often mean a life-and-death struggle many; food supplies become scarce and there can often be little respite from the biting-cold weather.
However, this can be a perfect time to help other creatures and also teach any children you have or care for about seasons, ecosystems and the part humans can play in helping conserve our wildlife. So here are a few fun and practical things you can do as an individual or a family to help our insect, furry and feathered friends survive the winter months.
1. Feed the birds
In “Mary Poppins”, feeding the birds costs ‘tuppence-a-bag’. Nowadays, it can cost a great deal more than that if you visit your local garden centre! However, you can still feed the birds quite inexpensively using nuts, dried fruit, breadcrumbs, scraps and leftovers.
- Why not make some homemade fat balls and hang them from trees or put them on a bird table. You’ll find a great free recipe here or create your own. The RSPB also has a lot of information about feeding and making feeders. You can also buy these things in their shop.
- Whilst you can buy commercial bird feeders to help our feathered friends, it’s also a lot of family fun to make your own, and you can recycle your old plastic bottles at the same time too. Using a plastic bottle with a screw top, cut a small hole in one side of the bottle so that the birds can reach the seeds. Tie some string round the neck of the bottle so that you can hang them up. Use an old pencil or skewer to piece through the bottle so that the birds can perch either side of the hole. Make sure you keep the bottle clean by cleaning it at least once a fortnight using a mixture of 2:1 hot water and distilled white vinegar. Rinse and dry it thoroughly before refilling with a suitable seed mix and watch the birds return to your garden.
- It’s also important to remember the ground feeding birds too. Blackbirds, chaffinches and thrushes cannot cling onto feeders as easily as blue tits or other tit species and they prefer to feed on the ground. You can buy ground feeding trays or simply scatter some seed around on an old tray or plate.
- My own children love to watch the birds feeding and we often extend this activity by doing a bird-count. A good idea is to keep a diary, or even create a wall-chart and keep a tally of the birds you have seen on your feeders.
2. Create a bug hotel
Insects need places to stay in the cold winter nights and many insects such as bees hibernate for the winter so it’s important to make space in your garden for them too. A perfect way to introduce this to children (or anyone for that matter) is to make a bug hotel in a corner of your garden. You can use whatever material you have to hand such as corrugated cardboard, old bricks, decaying leaves, twigs, sticks, rotting wood and fallen branches to create some first-class, ideal accommodation for insects, mini-beasts, spiders, and bees. You don’t need to build ‘The Savoy’ unless you want to, but just make something as small or large as your garden or resources allow. Try to position it in a sheltered area of your garden or hang a ready-made small house on a smaller patio, roof terrace or balcony. You’ll be helping the insects and creating a space for wildlife too.
3. Help a hedgehog!
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love hedgehogs but sadly, in the last 10 years in the UK, the hedgehog population has declined by a third. Estimated numbers are now less than one million in the UK and worldwide, the picture is similar of declining habitats and suitable hedgerows and roads threaten their existence.
People often think that if an animal hibernates then it sleeps for months without needing anything, but despite hibernating, hedgehogs still need access to shelter, and regular food and water to survive the winter. It’s also important to raise awareness of the plight of these little creatures so if you have children, you could consider some of these activities to help:
- Read your children stories about hedgehogs and talk about them. There are some wonderful stories out their such as, “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” by Beatrix Potter, and “The Hodgeheg” by Dick King Smith. There are also some free, online, educational stories about “Harry the Hedgehog” you can access here.
- Little hands can look just like a hedgehog, so why not create some hand-print artwork to stick on the fridge or your display boards. You can add a cute nose, eyes and a smile too!
- Hedgehogs need to eat too and you can buy hedgehog food at local garden centres but it’s also fun to make your own home-made ‘hedgehog-food-cakes’. Mix together some meat-based cat or dog food with some crushed up cat biscuits and dried mealworms (they love these). To encourage your nightly visitors, leave the food outside making sure you only leave enough for one day. This is to prevent attracting other unwanted pests such as rats. If you have a lot of local cats who would also love your generosity, use a strong cardboard box or old plastic storage box and cut a small hole in the side, only big enough for the hedgehogs and not the cats!
- Place a hedgehog home in your garden. You can buy commercial ones at various outlets, but you can make you own using an old, upturned plastic box with a hole cut in the side as above. Cover it with twigs, leaves or fallen branches to camouflage it and remember to site it in a sheltered area too. If you want a free fact sheet about how to make one, see the wildlife trust for more information on easy-to-build hedgehog homes.
4. Become a water monitor!
Finally, in winter, all wildlife needs to access clean, unfrozen water. But whilst there is often increased rainfall in the winter, the water often quickly turns to ice as temperatures plummet, making it unavailable for wildlife. Try to provide a source of clean water every day for the wildlife that visits your garden, and as with the birds,
- Use shallow bowls or old food containers as water stations and remember to refresh the water a couple of times a day to make sure it doesn’t freeze. You could create a water-monitoring wall-chart if your have children and get them to add stickers each time you/they check the water-availability or refill it. (It’s a good reminder for you too!)
- If you have a pond, these can freeze over in winter which reduces the oxygen in the water affecting fish or other pond creatures. To combat this, melt a small section of the ice every day to help maintain the oxygen levels. But do this carefully, especially if you have fish – fish will be scared by loud bangs on the top of the ice, so avoid using a stick or hammer to bash the ice. Instead, pour on a small amount of boiling water from a kettle to create the hole. And if you do have children, then they usually love watching the ice melt and it’s a great opportunity to introduce them to the notion of the changing state of water too. Any openings you create in your pone will be valued by other garden visitors too, such as birds and small mammals, but ensure there is always a way for animals to climb out of a pond by positioning a plank or large branch at an angle from the water onto the bank so they can safely get out.
Whatever you can do to help wildlife this year, be sure that they will appreciate your efforts. The animals were here long before us humans, so let’s not forget them this winter.