Take a walk on the wild side this winter as Graham Keal shows you how to bring more wildlife to your garden and selects a Lincolnshire spotter’s Top 10 for you to capture on camera.
There’s a lot you can do to encourage wildlife into your garden and aid survival over winter – and some measures can be taken in minutes that could make a life and death difference to visiting birds and mammals.
A tea-light, for example, lit underneath a metal or ceramic container of fresh, clean water, will sustain birds and more, even when all their other water sources are frozen.
Putting food out for birds is an obvious way to encourage visits, which should brighten your day as well as helping them, but there are some things to bear in mind if you want to make sure you help rather than harm.
One golden rule is that if you start feeding birds in winter, don’t stop suddenly. Some naturalists say you shouldn’t stop even when winter is over, because by supplementing the diet of visiting birds you are effectively maintaining a higher local population than nature alone can support; others feel that you can gradually decrease feeding once insects and other natural foods are more available.
There’s ample information on line on the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust website (lincstrust.org.uk/factsheets/feeding-wild-birds.php) and alternatives to specialist bird food include fruit cake crumbs or broken biscuits from the bottom of the tin, grated cheese, pastry, roast potatoes, over-ripe fruit and cut-up dried food.
If you have old trees in the garden, a novel way to give birds an energy-rich treat is to smear fats and fix nuts into crevices in the trunk. Tree-creepers, nuthatches and woodpeckers love this.
There are foods to avoid too. Never put out anything spicy or salty such as bacon, chips or salted peanuts, or anything mouldy or alcoholic. And do clean feeders and bird tables regularly to prevent the build-up of old food which could spread disease. Only put out enough food for one day, or you could attract rats or mice.
Apart from feeding, you can easily make your garden more attractive to all kinds of creatures looking for winter quarters, and even if you are too late to attract residents this year, you’ll have an asset ready for future occupation.
Got a spare paving stone? Dig a chamber 3-4 cm deep underneath, ideally in a grassy area such as the lawn (consult parents if applicable, especially if dad is lawn-proud…) and you have a potential winter home for frogs, newts and other amphibians.
A pile of old logs (preferably with bark on) piled higgledy-piggledy in a quiet shady corner may also attract frogs and news as well as common lizards, hedgehogs, beetles, butterflies and slow worms.
I once found a grass snake happily coiled under the old rug covering my compost heap, but if you’d rather encourage smaller creatures, a block of wood or a log can house beetles, ladybirds, solitary bees, mason bees and more if you drill holes into the wood, about 90 mm deep.
l Try The Wildlife Trust’s website www.wildlifetrusts.org for more ideas on providing simple winter habitats. For a fact sheet with helpful diagrams and lists of materials needed go to www.wildlifetrusts.org/node/4061 and click on ‘Creature Features’.
l Try also Wild About Gardens – a website packed with wildlife gardening tips and projects.
Lincolnshire’s winter wildlife Top 10
Rachel Shaw, press officer for the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, has a good tip for spotting anything four-legged and furry in wintry weather: “If the weather is really snowy, look for footprints, because that can tell you what mammals are around,” says Rachel.
Generally speaking though, winter is a great time to see birds rather than mammals: “Woodlands can be quite good in winter because when the trees have no leaves they are easier to see – species such as blue tits and great tits tend to form group flocks which are more visible once the leaves are gone.”
The magnificent fallow deer herd at Grantham’s Belton House isn’t too hard to spot, and although they are not entirely wild, being in effect farmed for their award-winning venison, they are free to roam the estate and feed themselves on whatever they find.
Badgers and foxes are good at being elusive but they are still up and about, as are otters – but they are nocturnal too, as well as being quite rare.
Grey squirrels may be an easier option for spotters: “They don’t hibernate in the same way some other mammals do. If the weather is really cold they will snuggle up in their drays but they don’t do a proper full sleep, so they can still be seen in winter,” says Rachel.
“With mammals, whether you see them or not is a lot to do with chance, good luck and persistence.
“People can head for any of our nature reserves – look on our website (http://www.lincstrust.org.uk/) or the national Wildlife Trust’s site (www.wildlifetrusts.org/) for locations. Or they can just get out in the countryside and go for a walk in their local area. They don’t necessarily have to travel any particular distance.
“But a place like Whisby Nature Park, just south of Lincoln, has a lot of lakes, so it’s really good for water birds.”
A species count there last January spotted 233 coots, 81 gadwall, 10 great crested grebe, 33 lapwing, 11 cormorant and three grey heron, to name but a few.
Top 10 wild creatures to spot in a Lincolnshire winter
1) Tawny Owl and Short-eared Owl. The latter is normally scarce and hard to see, but North Lincs is a winter hotspot for them – look around coastal marshes, estuaries and rough grassland. Hunts in daylight, late afternoon when it’s cold.
2) Fox. Britain has an estimated 225,000 rural foxes and 33,000 urban foxes, so spotting one should not be too difficult.
3) Grey seal. Pupping season is drawing to as close but Donna Nook (a Lincs Wildlife Trust reserve) is a great place to see any remaining.
4) Waxwing. Spot them in supermarket car parks as they strip ornamental rowan trees.
5) Brown hare. Keep an eye on Lincolnshire’s vast low fields early in the new year as hares begin to gather in small groups.
6) Badger. Find a set in daytime then wait patiently at dusk. Stay upwind or they may stay home.
7) Otter. Numbers are growing again, but still an elusive sight.
8) Brent goose. Thousand-strong flocks of these small, dark geese winter on Lincolnshire’s coastal wetlands.
9) Knot. Huge flocks of wading birds along the shore (particularly around The Wash).
10) Lapwing. Also known as ‘peewits’ due to their distinctive call. Lincolnshire is a stronghold – spot them gathering to feed in farmers’ fields.
l Can you spot all 10? If you photograph species spotted we’d love you to send us your pics. Email your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org