Wildlife: helping through winter

By putting out additional food, gardeners can make a significant contribution to supporting wildlife over winter. It is also a great way to watch wildlife even in the smallest of gardens or balconies, often at very close quarters.

Robin in winter. Image: RHS Advisory
Robin in winter. Image: RHS Advisory

Quick facts

Suitable for: Encouraging wildlife
Timing: Late autumn until mid-spring
Difficulty: Easy

Suitable for...

These tasks will help turn your garden into a wildlife haven, increasing the diversity of creatures that can not only survive but thrive.

Garden birds, in particular, benefit from feeding year round, but winter is a time to provide foodstuffs with a high fat content to help keep them warm. Feed regularly so that birds will not waste vital energy visiting your garden when there is no food.

Aim to carry out these tasks from late autumn (or as soon as hard frosts arrive) until mid-spring.

Helping wildlife

It is surprisingly easy to do something to help garden wildlife in the lean and cold months of winter. Even if you carry out just a few of the following tasks, it can make a difference.

Helping birds

  • Help birds in winter by placing fat blocks in wire cages. Balls in plastic nets are not recommended as birds such as woodpeckers can get their tongues caught
  • Create your own fat blocks by melting suet into moulds such as coconut shells or logs with holes drilled in
  • Alternate different recipes to entice a range of birds; peanut cakes for starlings, insect cakes for tits and berry cakes for finches
  • Put out finely chopped bacon rind and grated cheese for small birds such as wrens
  • Although fat is important, do also provide a grain mix or nuts to maintain a balanced diet
  • Sparrows, finches and nuthatches will enjoy prising the seeds out of sunflower heads
  • No-mess mixes are more expensive but the inclusion of de-husked sunflower hearts means there is less waste. Inferior mixes are often padded out with lentils
  • Use wire mesh feeders for peanuts and seed feeders for other seed. Specially designed feeders are needed for the tiny niger seed, loved by goldfinches
  • Feed placed on a wire mesh held just off the ground will entice ground-feeding birds such as robins and dunnocks
  • Thrushes and blackbirds favour fruit. Scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them
  • Consider planting berrying and fruiting trees and shrubs such as Malus, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha to fill gaps

Looking after other creatures

  • Check bonfires before they are lit for sheltering and hibernating animals, such as hedgehogs, toads and frogs
  • Melt a hole in the ice on ponds to allow the wildlife to drink, and enter and exit the water. Fill a sauce pan with hot water and sit it on the ice until a hole has been melted. Do not hit or crack ice as this can send shockwaves through the water that harms wildlife
  • Be careful when you turn compost heaps. As these are often warm, they can be the winter resort of frogs, toads and other animals
  • Provide a shallow dish or container of water at ground level. This will benefit other garden wildlife that needs to drink, as well as birds
  • Make an insect or bug hotel and put up in a sheltered position. Overwintering ladybirds and lacewings will find this useful
  • In late winter, clean out bird boxes so they are ready for new nests in spring
  • Leave healthy herbaceous and hollow-stemmed plants unpruned until early spring. These can provide homes for overwintering insects


It is difficult to exclude bigger visitors such as pigeons and grey squirrels from a traditional bird table. Feeders give more control over what you attract and most designs can be fitted with squirrel guards.

Rats can also be a problem, attracted to fallen food. Regularly move feeding stations around the garden to reduce a build up of spilt food and only put out enough food that is likely to be eaten within a few days.

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