Kate Bradbury is an award-winning author and journalist, who lives and breathes wildlife gardening. Her memoir The Bumblebee Flies Anyway was described by Chris Packham as ‘wonderfully intense and honest – a poignant manual of how to grow hope against the odds’. Below she shares her top tips to help you encourage more wildlife into your garden this autumn and winter time.
Autumn is the perfect time to create wildlife habitats, be they in the garden, allotment, or your balcony or doorstep. It’s a time when we’re typically doing less gardening, and when plants have started to die down, so you can access the back of the border. It’s the best time of year to dig a pond, to make log and leaf piles, to plant spring-flowering bulbs and bare-root shrubs and trees. All of these habitats make life easier for wildlife, many of which – such as hedgehogs – desperately need our help.
If you have space for a great big log pile then great. Maybe you or one of your neighbours cut down or pollarded a tree that you could use. If not, your local tree surgeon might be able to help – native trees such as oak and ash are better than non-natives, as they attract more insects (and therefore more species further up the food chain). It’s best to dig into the ground and partially bury the first layer of logs, as this provides nesting habitat for beetles such as stag beetles.
I’ve just created a new log/stick pile. It’s largely made up of thick, gnarled elder logs and twiggy fruit tree prunings. I drove a couple of stakes into the ground to keep everything in place, and then piled it all up – easy. It’s a large, open heap, with plenty of nooks and crannies, into some of which I’ve stuffed handfuls of dry autumn leaves. It will make a fine hibernaculum for a hedgehog now, but over the years, as the leaves and logs break down and start to rot into the earth, it will make a complex habitat for a variety of wildlife, including centipedes, woodlice, beetles, frogs, toads and newts, small mammals and even birds, which will hop among the pile looking for grubs. As a habitat, it mimics that of the woodland floor, onto which branches and twigs fall in high winds, and are covered in a thick layer of leaves every autumn. It makes a fantastic wildlife habitat, providing essential shelter to hibernate over winter, but also nesting habitat in spring.
If you don’t have room for a log pile then you might want to create a leaf pile, where countless insects and small amphibians and mammals will seek refuge over winter, but may also use in spring and summer – hedgehogs, for example, may nest here. Again, this mimics the woodland floor. Make a cage of chicken wire or pallets – cut a hole in the bottom, if necessary, so wildlife can access the heap – and simply fill with deciduous leaves. As they break down you’ll need to add more, so eventually you’ll have layers of leaves at different stages of decomposition, from different years. After three years you could harvest the ‘leafmould’ at the bottom of the heap to use as a mulch or in home-made compost recipes, or simply leave it for the wildlife.
If you have a small garden you could tuck handfuls of autumn leaves behind pot displays, or beneath a hedge or your shed. Again, all sorts of wildlife, from tiny centipedes to small mammals and amphibians will take advantage of the shelter, which will not only improve their chances of surviving winter but will also ensure they’re on hand to eat pests such as slugs and snails in spring.
Elsewhere in the garden, as temperatures fall, it’s important to ensure wildlife has enough shelter to get through winter. Leave seedheads standing, where ladybirds might gather inside to hide form the elements. Let areas of long grass die back naturally, which will form a cosy winter duvet for anything sheltering among it. If you can, plant native shrubs and trees – a mixed native hedge, comprising hawthorn, hazel and guelder rose is ideal if you have the space – as this will provide leaves for the caterpillars of moths and butterflies, which will provide food for small mammals, birds and amphibians. Spring flowers will feed bees and autumn berries will feed birds. As the shrubs grow they’ll provide nesting habitat for birds and small mammals, and as their leaves fall in autumn, they’ll help generate a new layer of leaves, under which wildlife can shelter until spring. Your very own woodland floor.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is available now
Wildlife Gardening is available to pre-order now