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
Vivid colours are spreading amongst the trees, as leaves take on shades of gold, red and brown. Fungi are sprouting on lawns, trees, rotting wood and anywhere else they can. The weather is cooler and probably wetter, perhaps the occasional frost or hail shower announces that winter approaches. But for now there should still be warmer spells; brighter days when the autumnal hues glow in the sunshine. Most wildlife has little time to appreciate the changing of the leaves, for the majority of the UK's animals, a red leaf is a warning sign. As winter creeps closer our wildlife is preoccupied with preparing for the hardships ahead.
Jobs for the month
- Clean out birdbaths
- Keep the birdbath topped up
- Replenish birdfeeders (see below). All feeds, including peanuts, are safe, as the breeding season is now over.
- 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 can become a pest in urban areas as other food sources become scarce.
Other mammals start 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.
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 or 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.
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.
Summer migrant birds visiting the UK for the summer continue to set off on their journeys back home in October. Swifts and swallows may have left already, as may have the willow-warblers, blackcaps and pied flycatchers (depending on the weather and region). Housemartins often stay until mid-October in a warm year or in a mild area.
Winter migrants to the UK start to arrive from colder, northern regions. You may see geese and ducks arriving in droves, particularly if the weather is cold, and you may start to 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 birdbath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds, especially during the coming winter months when natural water sources can freeze over. Ensure that your birdbath is kept topped up. Models are available to attach to windows, walls and sills, if you are limited for space. Do be aware of hygiene: change the water regularly and scrub the bath out with a mild detergent (available from bird food suppliers) to help prevent the spread of disease.
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), mealworms and waxworms. Alternatively, you can buy fat balls from garden centres and bird food suppliers.
To maximise the numbers of different bird species that you attract to your garden, it is a good idea to cater to their different feeding habits. Hanging bird feeders attract species such as finches, tits and sparrows. There are many models available, designed to help keep out rats, cats, pigeons and squirrels, or to fit onto walls, windows, windowsills and balconies. 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.
Hanging bird feeders are best sited over a paved or decked area, which can be regularly swept clear of debris. This may reduce problems with squirrels and vermin, if they prove a nuisance.
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.
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.
Pond skaters and water boatmen are still seen skating on the pond surface in search of food.
Many butterflies, including the tortoiseshell, are still evident, as are hoverflies and ladybirds. These last are good ‘pest-catchers’ in the garden. Hoverflies do not sting even though they look similar to wasps - this is just the scary camouflage they use to deter predators. Gardeners have traditionally planted marigolds around the vegetable patch to attract hoverflies as pest control.
Holly blue butterfly larvae can be seen as little caterpillars feeding on ivy at this time of year.
Wasps, despite their reputation as fruit blemishing, stinging pests, are good controllers of many garden pests, including flies and grubs, as well as being useful pollinators. They are still evident in the last rays of autumn sunshine in all but the coldest areas.
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 tends to become shrub-like, developing larger leaves and a more 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. You may see adult tortoiseshells and caterpillars and pupae of the holly blue butterfly (which feeds exclusively on ivy at this time of year).
Hedges, including non-natives and conifers, are a good resource for wildlife, providing shelter, nesting sites and food.
As nuts ripen on the trees, jays begin to travel more than usual as they gather acorns, beech masts and hazelnuts to hide away for winter sustenance. This brings more into the garden, setting aside their usual wariness and frequently flying in the open to search for a suitable harvest. When one does emerge from cover its exotic appearance makes it easy to spot, the blue flashes of its wings contrasting with the increasingly rusty leaves.
Britain's national bird needs no introduction, with its red breast recognised by everyone. Robins are one of the few birds that can be heard singing during any season, being territorial all year round. At this time of year they will become more common in gardens, taking advantage of the abundant food on offer now that the plentiful supplies of summer are past. Robins are one of the few small birds that have shown a steady population increase in recent years; good news for Christmas card photographers everywhere.
More likely to be heard than seen, tawny owls are often reported in gardens at this time of year as they will be advertising their territories around now. Although the most common sound you will hear is the classic hooting sound, they do produce other calls which often confuses listeners into thinking there are other species present. They are nocturnal, so listen out for them after dark and watch for their silhouettes against the night sky.
With 8 spindly legs around a small round body, harvestmen are often mistaken for spiders but are in fact part of a separate but closely related group of arachnids. Unlike spiders their body has only one segment (as opposed to the separate head and body segments of spiders), and they produce neither silk nor venom. At this time of year they appear in greater numbers, so look out for them wandering the garden. If you watch them walk you will notice that their second pair of legs is constantly tapping the ground all around; these are sensory organs, used to help the harvestman feel its surroundings.