Our wildlife gardening tasks guide you through the year with specific advice for each month. We also highlight different creatures that you can spot throughout the seasons.
What to do this month
The last signs of autumn are long gone as we enter the coldest month of the year. This is the heart of winter. Frost highlights the stark landscape after a clear night, and on occasion you may even find your garden buried by a blanket of snow, particularly in upland areas. Much of nature is fast asleep, but there is still plenty to be seen as the quest for food brings yet more wildlife into gardens.
Jobs for the month
- Hang bird feeders and put out food on the ground and bird table
- Make sure the bird bath is topped up and not frozen
- Regularly clean the bird bath and table
- Make sure the pond does not freeze over
- Coppice and/or pollard trees such as hazel and goat willow
- Plant berrying deciduous trees - a mixture of native and non-natives works well
Mammals, reptiles and amphibians
Hedgehogs can emerge from hibernation for a quick food foray during mild spells, before returning to their hiding place when temperatures drop back near freezing. 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.
Foxes are usually seen in the garden even more than usual at this time of year, foraging for slugs and beetles, or rummaging in rubbish bins. Muntjac deer will also venture more frequently into gardens in the depths of winter.
Many birds can be seen in the garden this month - common ones such as blackbirds, thrushes, tits and robins, but also redwings and siskins that stray into the suburbs for a bit of warmth and shelter, and migrant flocks of fieldfares.
Many of the berries, seeds and natural food sources that birds rely on have been exhausted by this stage in the winter. Feeding the birds in your garden therefore becomes even more important.
Hang bird feeders if you have not had them out already. They are particularly attractive to tits, sparrows and (less commonly) siskins. 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 fledglings, which can cause problems during the breeding season. Robins, starlings and many others will use this resource - fatty titbits like seeds, nuts, cheese, meat scraps and cooking fat will be appreciated. A smashed coconut would do. Stale bread or cake should be soaked in water before putting them out, to make them easier for birds to swallow.
Do not use salted or coated nuts, and use a quality wild bird food mix which includes ingredients such as flaked maize, sunflower hearts and seeds, and peanut granules. Cheaper mixes are likely to be less nutritious and more likely to be left uneaten.
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. Alternatively, you can make your own fat balls by mixing lard with nut, scraps, porridge oats and dried fruit in a ratio of one part fat to two parts dry food. The greater the variety of food that you supply in your garden, the greater variety of birds you will see.
Blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares will eat food from the ground - windfalls or rotten fruits from winter supplies are ideal.
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.
Urban gardens are often particularly attractive to birds during cold weather because of the warmth stored inside cities.
A bird bath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds during the winter. Keep yours topped up, and kept free of ice. Models are now available that attach to windows, walls and sills.
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.
Bee homes are now widely available. Initial reports suggest that nesting boxes for colony-forming bees (such as bumble and honey bees) are not always effective, but homes for solitary bees (such as mason bees), made from tubes and tunnels in boxes, are more successful. They are also attractive. Models with a backing are more successful than those open at both ends. This kind of bee house is easy to make at home. Even a tin can filled with straws will do the job. South-facing positions, hanging at chest height or above, are best. Bees usually colonise these homes in spring, hibernating overwinter to emerge the following spring. The boxes can be left out over winter, or taken down and stored in a safe place to avoid bees being eaten by predators.
Plants for wildlife
This month is your last opportunity to coppice trees in your garden. Coppicing is an ancient technique developed to produce regular supplies of wood. 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).
Pollarding is a similar technique, but maintains a single trunk, the cutting back being done to a higher baseline.
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.
Put out log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled trees. These provide valuable shelter for wildlife, and can be made into attractive features by planting 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 before the spring arrives, and the garden gets busier.
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. They will be ready for all the debris produced by the new growing season.
What to look out for this month
When there is snow around it becomes difficult for ground-foraging birds to find a meal. Laying out a bit of food may bring in species that wouldn't normally enter gardens. Flocks of fieldfare roam our countryside in the winter, and in harsh weather you may find these colourful birds eating berries from your trees or foraging on your lawn.
The most easily distinguishable of our tit species, long-tailed tits can be seen at any time of year. However the winter is a time when some small birds will become reliant on bird feeders, making special journeys to known food sources on a daily basis. Different tit species flock together in the winter, so you may find your garden enhanced by their bright colours this month.
There are dozens of ladybird species in the UK, the most common being the 2-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata) and the 7-spot ladybird (Cocinella septempunctata). You're unlikely to see them in the garden at this time of year, they probably won't emerge until April. However a winter survival strategy of ladybirds is to hibernate in large groups, clustered together. So you may find a colourful pile of these popular beetles in a quiet corner of a garden shed. Leave them undisturbed and hopefully they'll emerge healthy and hungry for aphids in the spring.
January is a time when the serious gardener, or those with a New Year's resolution to keep, may begin to prepare the garden for the year ahead. While of course this is encouraged, it's important to remember that there are still lots of animals out there even if not many of them are visible. Toads are one of many species that could be hibernating out there. Care should be taken if disturbing log piles, compost heaps or any other damp, dark environments.