WITH the unseasonably warm weather this autumn, many animals haven’t yet gone into hibernation. We ask if this matters and find out how gardeners can help vulnerable wildlife through the winter.
IF YOU see a hedgehog foraging in your garden at this time of year, chances are that it’s been fooled by the weather.
In fact, the hibernating period of many creatures, including frogs, toads and newts, bumblebees and ladybirds, is likely to be delayed thanks to the unseasonably warm temperatures - but does it matter?
“Just because hibernation has been delayed doesn’t mean it’s all bad,” says Helen Bostock, senior horticultural adviser at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
“The warmer weather has meant that all food sources for hibernating creatures, including berries, insects, slugs and snails, have also been available later on in the year and have given hibernating animals such as hedgehogs a few more weeks to build up their energy reserves for their big sleep period.”
Problems generally occur if hibernation has already started in a cold snap and then the weather becomes warmer again. That causes the creatures to come out of a deep sleep and start looking for food, using up precious energy set aside for their sleep period, she explains.
The lack of a real cold snap has also given gardeners the chance to prepare to help hibernating wildlife once the cooler weather kicks in, to ensure the survival of vulnerable creatures over the winter.
The RHS has now joined forces with The Wildlife Trusts to launch the Big Wildlife Garden competition, looking for the best wildlife gardens in the UK and will take into account measures taken to help wildlife through the winter.
So, how can we help our more vulnerable creatures through the winter?
Kate Bradbury, wildlife expert at Gardeners’ World magazine, which offers a guide to help wildlife during winter in its December issue, says: “Hedgehogs hibernate in leaf or log piles, thickets of grass, compost heaps and hedgehog boxes. They are at risk from lack of food and freezing temperatures.
“If you see a hedgehog, leave out water and cat or dog food every day until it no longer takes the food.”
If you disturb a hibernating hedgehog, carefully put back its nesting material and leave it a dish of food. If you see a hedgehog during the day, call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, she advises.
Frogs occasionally hibernate in mud at the bottom of a pond, but more usually, along with toads and newts, hide themselves away under piles of damp leaves and rotting logs or in ditches, but may rouse on warm days and look for food.
“If you uncover a frog while gardening, cover it back up, preferably with a thick layer of dry leaves,” Bradbury advises.
Some frogs - particularly males - spend winter at the bottom of ponds, breathing through their skin. In severe winters, thick ice on ponds can trap noxious gases in the water, poisoning the frogs below. So if your pond freezes over, melt a hole in the ice using a pan of boiled water to allow the gases to escape.
Toads and newts spend winter under stones or logs, or buried in mud. If you dig one up, don’t try to re-bury it or return it to a pond. Instead, place it gently on a compost heap to find shelter of its own accord.
Some buff-tailed bumblebees in the south of the UK don’t hibernate, but establish new colonies in the cooler months, so you may see workers foraging in your garden in winter among the mahonia and honeysuckle. All other bumblebees hibernate.
If you uncover a queen, cover her up again or move to a very similar spot and leave a sugar solution made of equal parts sugar and water nearby to give her strength to find another hibernating spot.
Most ladybirds spend winter in leaf litter or dense vegetation, but in an unheated room they will go into full hibernation.
“If you come across ladybirds outdoors, or bring any in on Christmas greenery, place them under dry leaf litter. In wet weather, pop them in a shed or greenhouse,” Bradbury advises.
If you spot a hedgehog or other hibernating creature before the onset of the colder weather, just leave it alone, says Bostock. They have their own triggers for hibernating.
What we should worry about more is if a cold spell doesn’t come at all.
“If we don’t have a cold spell, it will have an impact which is hard to assess,” she says. “Hibernators are physiologically adapted to having a resting period. Their condition could be poorer if they don’t have a winter sleep.
“But if they have a shorter period of hibernation - at least four weeks - they should be fine.”
Best of the bunch — winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
Brighten up your winter garden with this hardy, deciduous, scrambling shrub which bears masses of bright yellow flowers on bare branches in early spring.
The dark green leaves which emerge after the flowers last for most of the year and it will grow in any fertile garden soil in partial or dappled shade.
It spans 3m (10ft) x 3m (10ft) and should be cut back after flowering, pruning back the flowered shoots to strong buds. It’s lax and arching habit makes it perfect for training on a low wall or trellis but it will need tying in as it is not self-clinging.
Good enough to eat - Forcing rhubarb
Rhubarb is not only delicious in crumbles and fools, it can also be a great accompaniment to savoury dishes, made into chutney to go with gammon or as a sauce to complement roast duck.
If you want an early crop, lift rhubarb for forcing indoors now if you didn’t do it last month. Crowns lifted last month can now be packed in a strong wooden box and fill up the spaces with peat substitute, keeping it moist but not wet.
Cover the box with black plastic sheeting, then place in a room where the temperature is about 7C (45F), such as a spare room or heated greenhouse. The first sticks should be ready to pull in January.
Three ways to... Bare-root buying
1. Remember only a few types of plant, such as fruit trees, hedging plants and roses, are available in this form. They must be bought when the plants are dormant, from late autumn to late winter.
2. Make sure the roots are well developed and even, as plants with lopsided roots are more likely to fail.
3. Prepare your planting hole well before purchasing as they need planting as soon as possible. If you can’t plant straight away, heel in the plant by digging a hole and covering the roots and the base of the stem with soil. Plant the tree or shrub at the depth it was when in the nursery field. You should be able to see the original soil mark at the base of the trunk.
What to do this week
Protect architectural conifers, where the shape is all important, by tying thin wire or string around them to stop branches opening out if you have a flurry of snow.
Prune ornamental vines, thinning out overcrowded shoots and pruning sideshoots to two buds from the main stems.
Continue to cut down dead growth on herbaceous perennials.
Weed and tidy borders.
Check bulbs, corms and tubers in store for signs of rotting and remove any diseased ones.
Take hardwood cuttings of dogwood (cornus), willow and rubus.
Add extra colour to your border by planting Cyclamen coum, which will give you a mass of pink or white flowers set against silvery, dark green leaves.
Remove any plants suffering from pansy sickness, a fungal disease which makes the plant turn yellow and die.
Bring forced bulbs such as hyacinths into a warm room for flowering during the festive season.
Take bay trees which have been grown in pots indoors or at least in a sheltered spot next to the house to protect them from cold winds and frost.
Continue to harvest winter crops including brassicas, root veg and beetroot.
In cold areas give French tarragon, myrtle and rosemary a protective layer of leafmould or straw.