Rewild your garden this winter

Song thrush on snowy ivy (c) Jim Ashton

Our guest blogger, Wild Horizons rewilder Jim Ashton, takes us through some of the ways we can make our gardens wild this winter, creating new habitats and helping wildlife in the colder months as well as getting your patch ready for spring.

As the last leaves fall from the trees, the final wildflowers set their seeds and temperatures fall further day by day, autumn finally loses its grip to winter.

Many of us see winter as a quiet time in nature, a time to stay warm indoors and reflect on the year passed, and dream of the coming spring. However, outside the window there’s still a lot going on in the natural world, and there’s an awful lot we can do in our gardens and outdoor spaces to help wildlife at this time of year.

Song thrush in snow

Song thrush on snowy ivy (c) Jim Ashton

Winter is a great time to plant trees, and with such a wonderful array of native species to choose from in the UK we are spoiled for choice! For smaller spaces, you could consider a crab apple for its wonderful spring blossom, and dense, thorny habitat if grown in a confined space, doubling up as a great nesting site for blackbirds. Elder is another excellent small tree, often overlooked. Not only is elder brilliant for its spring flowers, but it is an important food source for birds when the berries ripen in late summer.

For larger gardens, where space isn’t an issue, you could consider planting a stand‐alone silver birch or alder. A shrubby hedge, or copse, of hawthorn, guelder rose, field maple and wayfaring tree would be another great idea. Combine all of the above to create ‘Woodland Edge’ habitat, which will provide cover for birds to shelter and nest, food for invertebrates with myriad leaves, flowers and fruits, and woodland floor habitat for small mammals and amphibians.

Planting Woodland Edge

Planting a woodland edge (c) Jim Ashton

Try to include holly and ivy in your winter planting. The berries of both these species are a superb food source for birds, particularly thrushes such as redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds. The flowers of holly and ivy are also important ‐ holly blue butterflies lay their eggs on them, ideally when the plants grow in sheltered hotspots.

Holly berries

Holly berries (c) Jim Ashton

Winter is a good time to create what we call ‘micro habitats’ – the small projects that make the big difference in gardens. Creating stone piles and log piles, laying pieces of bark around the garden, takes minimal time and effort, can be slotted into a window of better winter weather, and will have a very positive impact on the species of wildlife visiting your garden.

The trick with creating deadwood in your own garden is to mimic this amazing habitat as it is (all too rarely these days) found in the wild. By creating both deadwood on the ground and standing up, you cater for a staggering array of species which otherwise simply wouldn’t set up home in your garden, like ruby‐tailed wasps, lesser stag beetles and slow worms.

log pile

Log pile (c) Jim Ashton

A good way of building a log pile is to select random sized logs, some older, some heavier, some hardwood and some softwood, and dig a shallow depression in your chosen spot. Place the largest log in the hole first, then lay the next logs at random angles over the top of the last, backfilling with the excavated earth as you go. The finished project should resemble a collapsed teepee in essence! This will create a log pile that not only looks natural, but has excellent contact with the soil, speeding up the process of decay, and providing a much more stable, humid and cool micro‐climate within.

You can also dig larger logs into the ground in a sheltered sunny spot, so they stand upright like tree trunks, and drill as many holes in the south facing side as possible, ranging from 2mm to 8mm in diameter. This will attract solitary insects such as leaf‐cutter bees, red mason bees and resin bees.

To add a natural finishing touch to your deadwood micro habitat, collect all the leaves that gather around your home ‐ against fences, walls, along pathways and in awkward corners ‐ and lay them around as a thick layer. When we spread oak leaves through our Woodland Border the wood mice and bank voles had a field day, running between the log piles out of sight of the female kestrel that perches on our standing deadwood most days on the lookout.

Kestrel on dead wood

Kestrel on dead wood (c) Jim Ashton

Feeding the birds is one of the most obvious things we can do to help wildlife during the colder months of the year. Sunflower hearts and peanuts provide excellent nourishment for a range of species when natural food becomes more difficult to find in the wider countryside. Siting the feeders close to cover makes slow flying species like blue and great tits feel safer - in open spots they become a fairly easy target for sparrowhawks. Remember, it’s important not to suddenly stop feeding the birds, particularly in cold weather, as birds (and other mammal species) that have become dependent on the readily available food source can struggle if they are burning precious calories travelling to visit empty feeders.

Long-tailed Tit on peanut feeder

Long-tailed Tit on peanut feeder (c) Jim Ashton

It is equally as important to provide a constant source of fresh water for birds, more so in icy conditions, when the majority of freshwater in the immediate area has frozen over. A simple birdbath kept free from ice can soon become a well visited feature in the garden during these times.

Blue tit on hawthorn

Blue tit on hawthorn (C) Jim Ashton

Finally, December, January and February are great months to put up boxes for birds and bats. There are many good UK suppliers, however, it is surprisingly straightforward and great fun to build one yourself. Where we live, we have many types of home‐made bird boxes up including great and blue tit boxes, starling, robin, tawny owl and kestrel boxes. In the first season at least 42 young birds (mostly tits) fledged from them, and it took only a couple of days to build and put them up.

Installing a nest box

Putting up a nest box (C) Jim Ashton

When you have completed all of the above projects and are still wondering what else to do for wildlife in your garden, start digging a pond! You can do it a wheelbarrow at a time if needs be, and relax knowing there’s plenty of time until the warmer days of spring return...

Wood Mouse in stone pile

Wood Mouse in stone pile (C) Jim Ashton

About the author

Jim Ashton has been creating habitats for wildlife for as long as he can remember. What started as a childhood love of the natural world and strong wish to help wildlife, progressed into a career in conservation and rewilding. Today, he travels nationally designing, creating and looking after wildlife habitats like woodlands, wildlife ponds and meadows. His company, Wild Horizons, undertakes rewilding works for private landowners, community groups and NGOs. The projects range in size from private gardens to sites several hectares in size. He lives in Buckinghamshire. 

You can get in touch with Jim and find out more about his work by visiting the Wild Horizons website or following him on Twitter @WildHorizons_