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
Now the leaves are brown, and by the end of the month will mostly have fallen from the trees, leaving the bare outlines of branches. Autumn will reach its peak then turn to winter this month. Winter preparations made, some species will be retreating into hibernation if they haven't done so already. Those that will stick it out are still trying to add to their winter stashes, hoping that they have done enough to keep themselves alive. Frosts are no longer a surprise, and the weather can be ruthless at this time of year; it's cold and food is scarce, but it will become colder and food will become scarcer. From now until spring survival is the name of the game, and a wildlife-friendly garden can be the key factor in keeping many animals alive for this time.
Jobs for the month
- Clean out the birdbath
- Keep the birdbath topped up
- Replenish birdfeeders, or hang one if you have not done so in previous seasons (see below). All feeds, including peanuts, are safe, as the breeding season is now over
- Clean out nesting boxes so that birds can shelter inside them during the winter
- Leave some seedheads standing, rather than cutting them back, to provide food and shelter for wildlife
- Leave mature ivy uncut if possible, as it is an excellent late source of nectar for insects
- Make a leaf pile for hibernating mammals and ground-feeding birds overwintering in the UK
- Try building a hedgehog hibernation box
Mammals, reptiles and amphibians
Foxes continue their nightly foraging, and are often pests in both urban and country areas as wild food sources become scarcer.
Mammals are going into hibernation this month. You may see squirrels building up their nut stores, or discover a hedgehog making its winter home under a pile of old leaves or debris.
If you are making a Guy Fawkes’ night bonfire, then do check that your pile of material for burning has not been colonised by hibernating toads or hedgehogs. Traditional festivals excepted, it is best to compost waste rather than burn it. Woody matter can be shredded before composting, and diseased matter can simply be placed in the rubbish.
You could try constructing a hedgehog hibernation box to encourage this. Some wildlife enthusiasts have reported success with a constructed wooden box buried under a pile of old leaves. A small entrance hole (10-12sq cm/4-5sq in), and a covered tunnel leading to the entrance, will help to prevent foxes and other predators from raiding the nest. A tunnel can easily be constructed using old bricks with a wooden plank as a cover. You can then watch the hedgehogs come and go from a known location.
Hedgehog and badger food is 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 can be another alternative.
Corrugated iron or plastic laid on the soil can provide warm tunnels for small reptiles, amphibians and mammals to hibernate in. Once it becomes covered with moss , algae, weeds and earth, even metal retains heat through the winter, providing a warm and secure hiding place.
Bat nesting boxes are increasingly available, but it is best to research different models, as some are much more effective than others. Woodcrete is again a good choice of material, and the best comparative designs are still being tested. Positioning of the boxes is key - groups of boxes work best, and they may only be effective in areas where there are few other suitable roosting places. The Bat Conservation Trust.
Winter migrants to the UK are now arriving from colder, northern regions. You may see geese and ducks arriving in droves, and you may spot redwings, bramblings and fieldfares in your own garden.
You may spot jays carrying off acorns to bury in underground winter stores. They can relocate these stores even late in the winter, when germinating shoots become a memory aid for marking buried stashes.
A bird bath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds during the winter. Ensure that yours is topped up, and kept free of ice. Models are available to attach to windows, walls and sills, if you are limited for space. Be aware of hygiene in the bird bath, especially with the current concern about Asian bird flu. Changing the water regularly, and scrubbing the bath out with a mild detergent (available from bird food suppliers) can help to prevent the spread of disease.
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. Hang the bird feeder over a paved or decked area, which can be swept clear of debris regularly, in order to reduce potential problems with rats scavenging for morsels dropped or scattered by the birds.
There is a huge range of birdfoods available on the market, but household scraps and fallen fruit from the garden will do just as well. Choices include wildbird seed mixes, black sunflower seeds (the birds will remove the outside casing, and the inner seed is soft), mild grated cheese, sultanas, raisins and currants (best soaked overnight), pinhead oatmeal, apples, pears and other fresh fruits from the garden (blemished ones are fine). Alternatively, you can buy fat balls or live mealworms and waxworms from garden centres and specialist bird food suppliers. 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.
Hanging feeders attract species such as finches, tits and sparrows. Bird tables attract robins, house and tree sparrows, doves, pigeons, bullfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and bramblings. Food scattered on the ground, and leaf piles full of sheltering insects attract blackbirds, thrushes, dunnocks and wrens.
Bird tables are best sited a few feet clear of cover or high vegetation, so that cats and other predators cannot launch themselves onto unsuspecting feeding birds. Tables can be quite close to windows or patios, as many birds get used to human activity, and are not put off by us.
Urban gardens are often particularly attractive to birds during cold weather because of the warmth stored inside cities.
Shrubs and trees that still have berries at this time of year (such as Sorbus, Berberis and Pyracantha) will provide a valuable natural 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, which they tend to leave until last.
Clear out bird nesting boxes as early in the month as is possible - birds will soon be looking for winter roosts in which to keep warm. Old nesting material can harbour parasites, which will be of harm to new residents.
When choosing new nesting boxes, consider their design before buying. Woodcrete (a mixture of concrete and sawdust) can be a better material than wood, as it is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Different designs may be more or less suitable for particular species, and it is worth doing a little research. Bird food catalogues often have very helpful information about the products available, as do the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org.uk), the British Trust for Ornithology (www.bto.org.uk) and The Wildlife Trusts (www.wildlifetrusts.org).
Make sure to site nesting boxes appropriately; north-, north east- or north west-facing positions are often best, as south- or west-facing positions can get too hot unless they are well shaded.
Bug life should be encouraged. Without insects and other invertebrates, there would be no birds and mammals, and many flowers would fail to pollinate, set seed or produce fruit. Bugs help to keep each other in check. It is often when one pest in the food chain is killed with chemicals that others are suddenly free to multiply unchecked, so creating further problems for the gardener.
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. Homes for solitary bees (such as mason bees), usually made from tubes and tunnels in boxes, or cut out of blocks of wood, are more successful. Models with a backing are more successful than those open at both ends. This kind of bee house is easy to make yourself at home - even an old tin can filled with drinking straws will do the job. South facing positions, hanging at chest height or above, are best. The boxes can be left out over winter, or they can be taken down to avoid bees being eaten by predators such as birds.
Gardens with nooks and crannies, and a few areas where debris is allowed to accumulate (perhaps a woodland area or a meadow within a more formal design), are often more insect-friendly than gardens composed entirely of paving, pots, lawn and bedding.
Put out log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled tree branches. 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 unwanted creepy crawlies do not stray into domestic areas.
Piles of slabs or rockery stones act as a suitable wildlife habitat, as do old bales of straw or hay.
Mature ivy becomes shrub-like, developing larger leaves and a shrub-like, rather than climbing, habit. It flowers late in the season, so is an excellent source of nectar for butterflies, hoverflies and other insects.
Hedges, including non-natives and conifers, are a good resource for wildlife, providing shelter, nesting sites and food.
Deciduous trees and hedges, particularly natives like oak or coppiced hazel, are excellent wildlife choices, providing many insect breeding sites in addition to food and shelter for a range of wildlife. Deciduous trees, also support more plant life underneath them than do evergreens, and the bulbs, annuals and perennials underneath them provide knock-on benefits for wildlife.
Don’t deadhead roses that produce hips, and delay their pruning as long as is possible without exposing the plants to risk of root-rock. The colourful hips are a useful source of food for wildlife, as well as being decorative.
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, and will not be significantly depleted by being allowed to set seed - if you have thin soil, then feed them during, and just after flowering, to prevent any weakening. Deciduous ornamental grasses are usually best left uncut until late winter or early spring, as their died-back but still fountain-like stems both look good and provide shelter for wildlife 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 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 encourages 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. Bear in mind, though, that a single insect-attracting plant is less likely to attract wildlife than is a whole bank of them, whether you choose a mixture of different insect-attracting species or make a block planting of a single insect-friendly species.
Consider, before hacking back ivy that has got out of control, that it might be best to wait until it has finished flowering (usually towards the end of the month). The flowers are a valuable source of food for bees and other insects at this time of year.
Adopt a similarly cautious approach when pruning hedges: waiting an extra couple of weeks before pruning informal, berrying, hedges such as Viburnum opulus or Crataegus (hawthorn), can mean food being available to wildlife for that extra period.
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.
Established meadows can be cut as normal grass over the winter, but keep them higher than you would a lawn. In mild areas, a final cut in November may be necessary, as grasses and perennials can keep growing during mild spells. Remember, though, that long grass is a place of shelter for wildlife.
It is too late to sow seed or plant plugs for a new meadow. But you may wish to plan an annual cornfield display for next spring.
Recently planted or sown meadows will not need mowing until six weeks after the start of the spring growing season.
You could plan and dig a wildlife pond over the winter.
Now could be a good time to build a compost heap or a pen for collecting autumn leaves to turn into leafmould, if you do not have these already.
What to look out for this month
One of the most common birds of prey to visit our gardens, often attracted by the ready source of food flitting around the bird table, particularly at this time of year when birds are flocking to feeders to make up for the scarcity of wild foods. Declines in small bird populations have led many to turn against sparrowhawks, considering them one of the causes. However the predator-prey relationship of sparrowhawks and small birds is a natural, self-regulating system that is extremely unlikely to cause long term decline under normal circumstances. As is too often the case, the bulk of the evidence points ultimately to human responsibility. Not everyone will enjoy it, but watching a sparrowhawk hunting in your own garden can be an exhilarating experience, and is a fine example of nature in action.
Opportunistic birds will take full advantage of bird feeders at this time of year, now that food has become harder to find in the wild than in the summer months. Feeders provide valuable sources of sustenance for many small birds, particularly with changes in farming practices reducing the availability of seeds in the wider countryside. Greenfinches are one of the most commonly seen garden birds, and there will often be several present, squabbling at the feeder with each other and with birds of other species.
Easily recognised with its colourful plumage, the nuthatch is nonetheless hard to see due to secretive behaviour. Most gardens are unlikely to be visited by a nuthatch, as these birds thrive on mature woodland and rarely travel far. However a cold winter will often bring them into gardens , particularly those with mature trees present. At this time of year, with foliage rapidly disappearing, it may also be easier to spot these little birds as they creep along tree trunks in search of food.
One of the most exciting events of any year is bonfire night. But amid the colourful fireworks and roaring fires, it's important to remember the dangers that this can pose to some species of wildlife. One particularly important point is to take care with your bonfire to make sure that no enterprising animals have moved in and made themselves a home for hibernation. One species that suffers from this every year is the hedgehog, for which a good pile of logs is an irresistible winter home. Unfortunately many are killed in bonfires every year. To avoid this all you need to do is leave building your bonfire as late as possible, ideally until the day on which you intend to light it.