December

Our wildlife gardening tasks guides you through year with specific advice for each month. We also highlight different creatures throughout the seasons.

The long hours of December darkness mean that foraging time is reduced, plants are less productive and the cold is really setting in. Food has become scarce. It's time to find out whether or not the winter preparations made by our native animals have been sufficient. Some species will be in hibernation by now, but for others December becomes as busy as any other month. Any available food source will be exploited as the struggle for survival sets in. Berries still provide a vital resource for many species, but as supplies dwindle animals will increasingly be attracted into gardens to take advantage of the food laid out for them by people. A well kept garden provides a vital haven for animals at this time of year, and a wonderful array of species will become visible to you.

Jobs for the month

  • Hang bird feeders
  • Fill the birdbath and keep it clean and free of ice
  • Leave some berries on plants such as holly - they are food for wildlife
  • Coppice hazels and coppice or pollard other suitable trees
  • Leave perennials un-cut for as long as possible - they provide food and shelter
  • Incorporate a few native trees and shrubs into new, more exotic plantings
  • Build a compost heap
  • Feed badgers and hedgehogs with proprietary feeds, or with tinned dog food (not bread and milk)
  • Create overwintering sites for a range of insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals
  • Dig a wildlife pond

Mammals, reptiles and amphibians

Hedgehog and badger food is now available for sale. It is not a good idea to feed hedgehogs with bread and milk, as this is not their natural diet. Dog food is an alternative. Many hedgehogs will already be in hibernation by now, but larger individuals may still be active, especially during a mild December.

Put out log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled trees. These provide valuable shelter for wildlife. They can be made into an attractive feature by planting them up with ferns, primroses, or other suitable plants. A site well away from the house should ensure that unwanted creepy crawlies do not stray into domestic rooms.

Piles of slabs or rockery stones will act as a suitable wildlife habitat, as will old bales of straw, hay or prunings.

Corrugated iron or plastic laid on the soil can provide ‘tunnel’ hiding places for small reptiles and mammals looking for shelter and warmth.

You may wish to identify a suitable part of the garden to leave untouched as a wildlife area. A small patch behind a shed is perfectly fine if you’re worried about it looking untidy.

You could plan and dig a wildlife pond over the winter.

Birds

Hang bird feeders if you have not had them out already through previous seasons. There are many models available, designed to help keep out rats, cats, pigeons and squirrels, or to fit onto walls, windows, windowsills and balconies.

Hanging the bird feeder over a paved or decked area, which can be swept clear of debris regularly, may help to reduce problems with rats, if they prove a nuisance.

It is fine to leave chunks of food out on a bird table at this time of year, as there is no risk of over-large pieces being fed to the birds’ young, which can cause problems during the breeding season.

Suitable foods include seeds, peanuts, kitchen scraps and crumbs, small pieces of cheese, and wind-fallen apples and pears. Specialist bird food suppliers often sell live mealworms and fat balls at this time of year. A budget option is to hang pieces of bacon from strings tied to tree branches. The greater the variety of food that you supply, the greater variety of birds you are likely to see in your garden.

Urban gardens are often particularly attractive to birds during cold weather because of the warmth stored inside cities.

Shrubs and trees that produce berries (such as Sorbus, Berberis and Pyracantha) will provide a valuable source of food for birds in your garden at this time of year. Red and orange berries are reportedly more popular with birds than are yellow berries.

Some woodpeckers (the greater and the lesser spotted woodpecker) will use a home-made hanging log feeder. A rotten log, with holes in it filled with suet, can be suspended from a tree branch, to mimic the natural feeding habitat of woodpeckers.

A birdbath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds during the winter, especially in cold areas liable to freezing. Ensure that your birdbath is topped up, and kept free of ice. Models are available to attach to windows, walls and sills, if you are limited for space.

Although risk is still deemed to be low outside of the poultry industry, anyone interested in birds in their garden will be concerned about bird flu’ (visit www.rspb.org.uk). Good hygiene is key to reducing risk. Changing the water in bird baths regularly, scrubbing them out with a special detergent (available from bird food suppliers), and making sure that wild bird droppings are not allowed to accumulate on lawns or surfaces, will help to prevent the disease spreading. Obviously, if you keep pet birds or chickens, you are advised to keep them completely separate from potential contact with wild birds, and to mind your own hygiene before and after handling them, wearing suitable protective clothing that is kept solely for the task.

Insects

Remember that insects are gardeners’ friends as well as foes! They are natural pest controllers, and will keep each other’s populations down to manageable levels once your garden has got back into a natural balance.

Plants

This is the traditional month for coppicing native trees and shrubs. This is an ancient technique developed to produce regular supplies of wood for fuel. It is useful today in small gardens because it limits the size of the tree, turning it into a multi-stemmed shrub. Coppicing provides shelter for wildlife near eye level, and lets more light through to the under-storey plants than would a mature tree. Bulbs and ground cover plants are therefore more likely to flourish under coppiced trees than under large specimens. The young leaves on coppiced trees provide valuable breeding grounds for butterflies (e.g. the pearl-bordered fritillary, which breeds in areas of coppiced hazel - visit www.butterfly-conservation.org for more information).

Pollarding is a similar technique, but maintains a single trunk, the cutting back being done to a higher baseline.

Leaving perennials uncut once they have finished flowering can provide food and shelter for wildlife in the winter. Many perennials (such as Agapanthus and Rudbeckia) have visually pleasing seed heads. They will not be depleted of energy by being allowed to set seed if you feed them during, and just after flowering. Deciduous ornamental grasses classically look very attractive with the bleached stems left uncut over the winter.

If you are planting new trees, shrubs and perennials, it is a good idea to mix in some native plants with the more exotic or cultivated specimens. Although many insects will happily feed and breed on a selection of plants (native or otherwise), others are fussier, and prefer natives, particularly when it comes to breeding. A wide diversity of plants will encourage a wide diversity of insects, and this is likely to be the best recipe for a rich mix of mammals, amphibians and birds in your garden.

Now could be a good time to build a compost heap or a leafmould pen, if you do not have these in your garden already.

  • European starling. Credit: Wildstock

    Starling

    Sturnus vulgaris

    Starlings are one of the most common birds to be found in British gardens, and during the winter their numbers increase with the arrival of birds escaping the harsh winters of northern Europe. Large flocks may congregate in gardens during the day to feed on grassland invertebrates, and as dusk approaches you may notice flocks becoming even bigger, as starlings gather at good feeding sites for one last meal of the day, before flying back in their thousands to communal roosting sites.

  • Fox. Credit: Wildstock

    Red fox

    Vulpes vulpes

    The increasing urbanisation of the red fox has been widely publicised. And as wild food resources become scarcer in the winter months, foxes are forced to roam wider areas in order to find sustenance, bringing yet more into contact with urban areas. The long December nights provide the perfect cover for foxes to explore new environments, such as your garden.

  • Peacock butterfly. Credit: Richard Burkmar

    Peacock butterfly

    Inachis io

    It may seem strange to be speaking of butterflies in winter, but your garden shed may currently be providing a haven for our resident butterflies, such as the peacock. Although many butterflies migrate to warmer climates, some stick around and hibernate here. An unheated building with little disturbance can provide the perfect winter home. If you do find a hibernating butterfly, leave it undisturbed. If it wakes too early it will probably die, but if it survives until spring you may be rewarded with a view of its first flight of the year as it floats away to seek a meal and a mate.

  • Waxwing. Credit: © GardenWorldImages.com

    Waxwing

    Bombycilla garrulus

    In most years these colourful birds are scarce visitors to our shores, with a small few migrating to the west coast for the winter. But occasionally a poor berry harvest in their northern European homes causes populations to disperse far more readily in search of new food sources, with much larger numbers reaching our shores. If you have berries such as rowan or hawthorn in your garden you could be lucky enough to play host to a flock of wandering waxwings in search of winter sustenance.