Simple measures to help our disappearing Winter wildlife

Many wildlife species are in decline but some simple measures can help a lot, writes Rita de Brún

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we humans can’t survive without flying insects. That’s why it’s no good thing that their numbers are dive-bombing — down 75% since 1989.

The sobering finding from a Radoud University study, indicates that planet Earth is on course for a scary ride into the unknown; an ecological nightmare out of which it needs to urgently and speedily reverse.

Add to that the multitudinous species of wildlife that have or are being eradicated because of human action and inaction and redemption might seem out of reach. But it’s not. Anyone with a windowsill, terrace or garden can decide now that over the coming winter months, we’ll do what we can to protect and shelter the wild creatures that pass through, pass by or fly over our garden gates.

As for how best to do that, wildlife expert Éanna Ní Lamhna says: “The best thing we can do in our gardens is to have trees with berries for birds to eat in winter and lots of flowering plants and shrubs for bees in spring and summer.”

Urging us to garden organically, the biologist says: “We can do this by using no poisons, sprays, or slug pellets. That way, we avoid putting toxins into food chains which harm creatures such as the thrushes, hedgehogs and birds of prey that feed higher up on the food chain.”

The use of bird-feeders and bird-tables is particularly important for small birds during short, cold winter days when they’ve high energy demands and little daylight to find food, but we need to be careful where we place them. Bird-tables should never be positioned in the centre of a lawn, ecologist Tom O’Byrne warns.

“Birds would never naturally choose to feed in an exposed, unprotected open space where sparrow hawks and other predators could swoop and grab them,” he says. “Bird-tables are best placed no more than one foot away from a thorny or prickly bush or tree, into which feeding birds can dive and hide from predators.”

Given the capacity of cats to jump four feet into the air and their penchant for catching our feathered friends, O’Byrne says bird-tables should be at least five feet off the ground. “The higher the better,” he says.

Another with sage advice as to how we can help pollinators and other forms of wildlife is Kieran Flood, conservation officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust.

Kieran Flood

“People living in cities may think the only wild creatures nearby are birds, but this is not the case,” he says.

Urging us to think of our gardens as a potential habitat for wildlife, he says refuge is badly needed, given the decline in natural habitats brought about by the development and intensification of agriculture.

Asked how we should go about creating habitats, he replies: “Don’t cut down trees if you can help it. Mature trees provide a place in which a myriad of insects will live and bats may roost. They’re great for squirrels, especially trees that bear fruit: Oak and hazel are good as are pine, with red squirrels being particularly partial to pine nuts.”

Both Flood and O’Byrne wax lyrical on the benefits to wildlife of a garden pond. “They’re great for frogs and newts,” says Flood.

Now the notion of nurturing newts in Irish gardens is news to me. I thought newts were Shakespearean thingies, creatures that lived in perpetual peril of finding their ocular body parts strewn into a cauldron of horrors by a triumvirate of evil Macbethian witches.

Having never glimpsed a newt, I struggle to imagine one doing backflips into a city or suburban garden pond.

Is it a case of if we build it — as in a pond — they will come?

“It is,” laughs O’Byrne. “If you set the scene they’ll find their way there.

“A little pool will do, fenced off to keep kids safe. Shallow-edged, with vegetation growing along the side. Make it a couple of feet deep, tapering gently to the edge. Add a waterlily if you wish but don’t add goldfish. Keep it strictly for amphibians.”

Frogs are in trouble as so many hawthorn boundaries have been dug up, he explains: “Very few of the water-filled ditches that were once 8ft-wide habitats for frogs and newts have been filled in. Fences have replaced the hedgerows and the associated puddles and drains are no more.”

As for why we’re destroying habitats willy-nilly and wiping out wildlife in the process, he opines: “Very many who live in the countryside nowadays are not informed on matters of nature and habitat. Many who live in the country are not of the country. They wouldn’t know one plant from another and have little understanding of these things.”

Reminding us to always provide fresh water for wildlife, Flood adds: “It helps to have rocks, rockeries and even stone walls in or around the garden, so mosses, lichens and ferns may grow and there’s shelter for viviparous lizards and small mammals such as shrews and bank voles.”

Suggesting we allow different habitats to develop in our gardens throughout the year, he says: “In winter, a wildlife corner can be created by allowing a section of land to become overgrown. Wildlife appreciate long grass, heaps of leaves, fallen branches, and piles of logs. They also appreciate earth banks and exposed earth as both provide places in which queen bees and other important pollinating insects can hibernate in little holes in the ground or in old vacant mouse-holes.”

As for how to help hedgehogs shelter in cold, stormy weather, he says: “All they need are piles of leaves and branches,” and when he does, it feels good to know that something so simple can matter so much to these delightful little hoggies.

Maybe it’s because it is a feelgood thing that more and more of us are helping Irish wildlife. Whatever the reason, it’s a growing trend at least where birds are concerned, according to Niall Hatch, development officer at Birdwatch Ireland: “Increasing sales at our shop indicates growth in the numbers feeding and providing shelter for garden birds.”

Niall Hatch

Emphasising the importance of putting out water, he says: “In winter, puddles, ponds, and streams freeze over, but birds always need to drink lots of water to keep hydrated. They also need to bathe frequently, at least once a day to keep their feathers in pristine condition so their insulating properties aren’t compromised.”

He says white bread is not ideal feed for birds, brown is better and sunflower seeds are much liked by birds in the finch family.

“Blackbirds, song thrushes, and blackcaps like apples, even those that are a bit past their best. When halved and speared on branches, they attract redwing and fieldfare, migrants that are also part of the thrush family; birds that won’t feed from bird-tables.

“Peanuts are great for tits. Blue tits appreciate them as they contain a similar protein to those found in the caterpillars they so like to eat. Peanuts need to be left out in wire mesh feeders, so birds can take a beak-full at a time without risking choking.”

What about ground feeders like robins? “They love grated cheese. Female birds need calcium in winter for the formation of eggshells in spring. To birds, grated cheese looks like maggots so it appeals to them. Cooked rice is great as well, provided there’s no salt added. Salt’s toxic for birds.”

Hatch always has a mind for the welfare of birds. Even at Christmas time, he has their backs: “I leave out crumbs of Christmas cake and pudding. They love that.”


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