Autumn has finally arrived, and a number of species may soon disappear from your garden. Don’t be alarmed if you start to notice a lack of activity because it is at this time of year that some species go into hibernation. Through the winter many animals eat more as a means to survive the cold weather, but for some small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates, especially those that eat insects (insectivores), food becomes very scarce. For many this group the solution is to conserve energy by remaining inactive through the winter. In short, they hibernate.
Helping these hibernating animals is relatively easy and now is a good time to consider what you and your garden can offer in the way of shelter.
Hedgehogs will make their nest under dense shrubs or within piles of sticks and leaves. So when raking the dead leaves from your lawn or patio, consider making a leaf pile in a quiet corner or under shrubs, just in case your hedgehogs are still seeking somewhere to curl up.
Hedgehogs will also be looking to increase their fat reserves before hibernation, so try leaving some tinned cat or dog food out overnight, accompanied by a dish of fresh water. Contrary to popular opinion, you should avoid leaving bread and milk for hedgehogs. Further information on what to feed hedgehogs can be found on the British Hedgehog Preservation Society at www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk
Slowworms benefit from area of your garden where they can create burrows to overwinter in. These sites need to be well-drained and remain frost free. Possible places include under rocks in a rockery, below a stone or brick edging, or within log piles or compost heaps. My compost heap is made from recycled pallets and includes numerous spaces for animals to crawl or burrow in. This type of open access heap is much preferable to the enclosed plastic compost bins which exclude many animals.
Ladybirds and lacewings can be catered for in your garden by providing an insect house. These can be purchased from a range of suppliers or made at home. Cut the top off a plastic drinks bottle, fill the bottom half with leaves and sticks, and then insert either bamboo canes or lengths of rolled up cardboard. Once filled, place or hang your insect home in a sunny spot, on the ground, on a wall or on the branch of a tree. Further guidance can be found at the BBC’s breathing places web site: www.bbc.co.uk/breathingplaces/bug_home/.
By providing a winter home for your garden’s hibernators you will gain the satisfaction of seeing all these species appearing again in spring. You should also benefit from some extra natural pest control. Hedgehogs and slowworms are particularly good at keeping slug populations in check, while ladybirds and lacewings will make short work of any aphid outbreaks.