How to Give Wildlife a Helping Hand with Hibernation this Winter

help with winter hibernation

As hibernation season approaches, Hannah Stephenson looks at how gardeners can help creatures bed down for the colder months.

As the cool nights arrive, animals are getting ready to hibernate – and there’s plenty gardeners can do to make it easier for them.

While the only common creatures that hibernate in this country are hedgehogs, dormice and bats, other wildlife, including insects and amphibians, enter ‘torpor’ – a similar state of inactivity which doesn’t last as long as hibernation, according to leading conservation charity the Woodland Trust (woodlandtrust.org.uk).

So, which animals can we help and how?

help with winter hibernation

1. Hedgehogs

If you have a compost heap, you’re already half way there for helping hedgehogs, because these hibernating mammals love them. So make sure you do any compost-turning slowly and carefully during the winter months so you don’t disturb your prickly friends, advises Helen Bostock, RHS senior horticultural adviser and co-author of How Can I Help Hedgehogs? Also, don’t block off the crawl spaces under garden sheds and decking, because hedgehogs also hibernate happily under there.

If you accidentally disturb a hibernating hedgehog, cover it back up as quickly as possible, leave a saucer of moist cat food and a shallow saucer of water nearby in case it needs to replenish its supplies, and give its surroundings a wide berth.

It’s not unusual for hedgehogs to wake up and move hibernation sites once or twice during the winter, so don’t worry if it relocates, but try and leave natural shelter such as piles of leaves in the garden.

help with winter hibernation

2. Frogs

While they may do all their mating in water, most frogs will enter their winter dormancy on dry land, in heaps of leaf litter in soily depressions under a pile of dead wood or rocks; in fact anywhere sheltered that is cool and damp and where they are unlikely to be disturbed. Toads will create burrows in quiet corners.

To help these amphibians, make a hiding place by digging a hole in the ground, around 10cm deep, lining it with gravel, twigs and dry leaves. Then put a large flat stone over the top, such as a piece of paving slab, leaving them enough space to crawl in.

If you have a pond which is well oxygenated, some frogs may overwinter in the bottom of it, burying themselves in the silt layer and breathing through their skin. Stop the pond from icing over by placing a tennis ball on the surface, which will help oxygenation.

help with winter hibernation

3. Bats

Hibernating from November-April, bats can slow their breathing to as few as five breaths a minute, while some can last almost an hour without breathing, according to the Woodland Trust. They eat nocturnal insects, including mosquitoes, so the easiest way to encourage them to your garden is to plant night-scented flowers and introduce a pond.

They usually hibernate in groups in a quiet, cool roost which they seek out in late autumn. Around three-quarters of UK bats roost in trees, preferably old trees with cavities, while others use spaces under the eaves of buildings or wedge themselves into holes in brickwork or in old barns.

The most important thing is not to disturb them. Being aroused from hibernation costs the bats a lot of energy, which makes them lose body fat and can lead to starvation, according to the Bat Conservation Trust. To help their hibernation, you could erect a bat box, ideally above ground, around 4-5m high, in a sheltered spot that receives sun during the day.

help with winter hibernation

4. Bees

For most bumblebees species, winter is a time for hibernation. Queen bees will feast on pollen and nectar to store fat before burrowing deep into soil in early autumn and stay there for up to nine months.

But for the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and honeybees, winter can be just as busy a time as the rest of the year. In the warmer parts of the UK, fully active winter colonies of this species are regularly recorded.

Help them survive by choosing a sunny spot for plants which carry nectar-rich flowers through the shortest days of the year, such as Mahonia x media, stinking hellebore and winter-flowering heathers.

Ivy is also a brilliant plant for honey bees, who rely upon its flowers for the majority of the pollen and nectar they collect during the autumn months.

If you accidentally disturb a queen bee, which may have been sheltering in the soil or even in a pot of compost, cover it loosely with soil in the hope it will resume its hibernation. If this fails, mix together a sugar solution of half white sugar and half warm water as a one-off energy boost, placing it on a teaspoon or bottle lid near the bee’s head.

help with winter hibernation

5. Other insects

Log piles are a great place to house beneficial insects over winter. Just gather some large sticks and small logs and pile them in a sheltered spot. Some butterflies, including the brimstone, peacock, comma, small tortoiseshell and red admiral will go into winter dormancy as adults and are often found in cool outdoor structures such as sheds. If they find their way into the house, move them gently to somewhere dry, cool and dark, as they won’t survive the warm temperature in your home.

How Can I Help Hedgehogs? by Helen Bostock and Sophie Collins is published by Mitchell Beazley in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, priced £14. 99. Available now.

Kate Humble on Throwaway Culture, Polluting Plastics and What we can Learn from Rwanda

Luke Rix-Standing chats with Kate Humble about the challenges facing the environment, and finds her in polemical form...

With six years of Springwatch, three seasons of Lambing Live and a succession of BBC nature programmes under her belt, Kate Humble has become an ever-present face on the greener bits of British television.

She’s the perfect person with whom to sit and chat about the world, because over the course of her career, she’s seen most of it. She got her first taste of adventure aged 19 with a nine-month, solo trip across the African continent, and she’s barely paused for breath since.

Naturalist, naturist, and former president of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), Humble is under no illusions about the state of the planet. She is, to put it mildly, not best pleased about it.

What exactly is ‘throwaway culture’?

“We’ve got into a terrible habit of buying things and throwing away the packaging. Plastic pots, coffee cups – and almost everything we buy for our homes. Obviously some is necessary, but a lot isn’t.

“I’ve been very lucky and travelled to lots of different parts of the world – some countries which, some might say, are not as developed as the UK. But they certainly don’t generate the amount of waste and rubbish that we do

Do you think it’s a particularly British problem?

“No, I think it is a developed world problem. We’ve become a society that seems to value convenience over everything else, and with that comes a lot of waste.

“I went to Rwanda a couple of years ago – a country with an astonishingly brutal history – and there was something about it I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I realised that it’s the cleanest place I’ve ever been.

“The President has banned plastic bags – you can’t use them, you can’t bring them in, they’re just banned – and this in a country that suffered a genocide 25 years ago! It’s so sad that somewhere rubbish-free is so startlingly noticeable, but if they can do that, why can’t we?”

What is the impact? How do you quantify the damage?

“Well, there’s the terrible reality of landfill. There is only so much land and we’re filling it with rubbish. All the stuff that can’t be recycled sits in the Earth and gradually breaks down, and all the chemicals seep into the soil.

“Rubbish that gets dumped in the sea ends up on beaches, and we’ve all seen the effect that has on wildlife. The turtles that have died because they’ve got plastic bags stuck in their gullets, the heartbreaking shots of albatross chicks that are starving because they’ve got plastic beads in their stomachs.

“We need to have a whole cultural shift in the way that we behave. The thing that really makes me furious is that we know how damaging this is. If there are still human beings on this planet in 200 years time, which I slightly hope there aren’t, they’re going to look back at our generation and go, ‘What the f***?’

“It’s really bad for us – we’re poisoning the very environment we rely on. Shouldn’t that matter enough? Apparently not.”

So, how would you go about countering it, and creating this cultural shift?

“Just get rid of humans – my husband is terrified that the world will one day wake to find me as their dictator! Joking apart, we are making changes and I don’t want to get too gloomy, but we’re not doing things fast enough and we’ve all got to commit.

“Do I really need to buy something in a plastic pot? Can I buy coffee in my own recycled mug? Can I reuse this packaging? Do we need to buy endless new clothes every season? No, we don’t – there’s plenty in your wardrobe that’s still nice. I’m wearing a pair of knickers I don’t even want to tell you how old!

“You can be really happy without loads of stuff. Nature is remarkable at clawing its way back every time we do something catastrophic, but there will come a point where it won’t be able to fix things any more. We’ve got to take some responsibility.”

Some have argued that the focus on individuals takes the spotlight off companies and governments. Do you think there’s a problem there?

“I do, but a lot of these big businesses are dependent on us, as consumers, for their very existence. Without doubt, it’s consumers – ordinary people – who have pushed the plastic revolution onto the political agenda.

“Of course big companies should do more, but they will do more if we say, ‘Right, we’re not going to buy from that big company any more’. We do have power as individuals and we should absolutely exercise it.

“Some of us, myself included, have been banging on about plastic for 20 or 30 years, so it’s weird that it’s suddenly come into the public consciousness now. There’s been programmes and films and startling images before. I mean it’s brilliant – hooray – but strange.”

Any idea why that might be?

“I don’t know, but I do think that in times of political turmoil, life feels uncertain. Young people are getting to the end of their school days and thinking ‘what does the future hold for me?’

“We’re seeing a slow realisation that its in our hands, and climate change has begun affecting all of us, regardless of where we live. Maybe, just maybe, some consciousness is creeping in. Now we need to do something about it.”

Kate Humble has recently helped launch the Dettol Trigger Project, to inspire people to make small changes to reduce household waste and trigger a cleaner world.