Wildlife in Winter: What happens our common Irish species

The cold season is officially upon us. While we can wrap up and light the fire, what about our wildlife? This article will tell you about the changes that happen in the winter season for some of our common wildlife and gives you tips on how to help.

Pond life
Sometimes newts and frogs choose to spend winter at the bottom of their pond. They bury themselves in the mud and take oxygen in through their skin. They may come out of the pond and into your garden during milder weather. If you have amphibian inhabitants you can float a ball in your pond to stop it from freezing over. If your pond does freeze over you can melt the ice by placing a saucepan of hot water on to the surface of the ice. You should not pour boiling water directly into the pond or smash the ice. Frogs may also hibernate in compost or leaf piles and so it is important to be conscious of this if you are working in your garden.

Other wildlife in your pond will not hibernate. There will still be invertebrates active in your pond, such as snails. If you have to clean out your pond the time with the least wildlife activity is between late October and early January. Bear in mind that there is still wildlife using the pond, along with possible hibernating frogs in the mud at the bottom. If you are removing vegetation make sure you check that there is no wildlife caught up in it.

Native trees
Your native deciduous trees will have lost their leaves by now. A tree will be in a state of dormancy, whereby most of its processes will have slowed down. There are no leaves to convert sunlight into energy. The tree will not use up its energy by growing as it does over the summer. While your garden might look leafless and bare, this is actually the time of year to plant trees! Planting native trees in Ireland is best carried out between November and March. Native is key here. Native trees tend to support a greater variety of species and so are better for biodiversity. Before you head to your local garden centre, think about a few technicalities such as the size of your garden and the kind of wildlife you would like to attract. Ask in the garden centre and they should be able to advise you. Blackthorn trees can be a nice addition as they come into flower early (they produce flowers before leaves). This provides wildlife with a source of nectar in Spring. Crab apple is another tree that flowers early and provides a good source of nectar. This tree also produces fruit that is popular with species of birds (e.g. blackbird) and mammals (e.g. badgers). By planting trees in winter you are providing food and shelter for future visitors to your garden.

Glendaough, Co. Wicklow in Winter (Photo by Rebecca Doyle)
Glendaough, Co. Wicklow in Winter (Photo by Rebecca Doyle)

Hibernating mammals
The only mammals in Ireland that undergo true hibernation are bats and hedgehogs. Hibernation sites are known as hibernacula. During their active period before hibernation hedgehogs build up fat to sustain them for the winter. As with frogs, hedgehogs often hibernate under leaf or log piles in gardens so again it’s important to be conscious of this. For bats, hibernation means greatly reducing energy use and lowering body temperature.

Foxes and badgers
Badgers do not undergo true hibernation. Instead, they go through a process known as dormancy. Their activity is greatly reduced however. They will slow down their natural breathing and heart rates. In the months leading up to winter badgers will eat heavily so as to develop a thick layer of fatty deposits. This will be used to provide energy to the animal to help it survive the winter.

In autumn foxes produce a heavier coat that will help them in the cold winter weather. They do not undergo hibernation. These adaptable animals are found in many different habitats and are able to find food, although some may have a more difficult time.

Seals
Grey seal pups are born in autumn and early winter. If you see a seal pup on the beach do not disturb it unless you are absolutely certain it is injured or sick. It is probably resting and waiting for its mother. The pups are born with a snow white coat and for the first few weeks of their lives they remain on land. The milk of female grey seals is very rich and so is great for fattening up the young pups.

Seal pup with white coat (Photo courtesy of the Irish Seal Sanctuary)
Grey seal pup with white coat (Photo courtesy of the Irish Seal Sanctuary)

Butterflies and bugs
These wildlife also need shelter over the winter. Butterflies in particular like to find sheltered places to hibernate. You might come across a peacock butterfly in your garden shed or there may be tortoiseshells tucked away behind some ivy. Other insects will seek out shelters areas in your garden (or house!). Many childrens’ groups in particular make bug hotels. These can be constructed out of whatever material you have in your garden. They are a great way to get children involved in nature.

Ivy
If possible, leave your ivy in place over winter. It not only provides a hibernation spot for some species of butterfly but the berries also provide food for wildlife over the winter season.

Birds
Winter sees some changes in the birds found in Ireland. The swallows you watched chasing insects in the skies above your garden will be a distant memory. While some of our summer visitors leave, we also embrace the arrival of winter migrating species, such as redwings and Brent geese.

If you want to help your garden birds this winter, the most obvious thing you can do is to feed them. If you are interested in seeing different species in your garden then food variety is key. Niger seed is great for attracting strikingly coloured goldfinches to your garden. Sunflower seeds are popular with finches and tits. You can also buy “fat balls” which are very nutritious for birds. Once you start feeding your garden birds, aim to do it regularly. Remember to hang your bird feeders in areas that leave the birds less vulnerable to cats! If you want to help our wetland visitors, one key thing is to keep your dog on a lead when walking in areas with these birds. Far too often you see irresponsible dog owners allowing their pets to chase these winter visitors.

A goldfinch resting between trips to the bird feeder (Photo by Rebecca Doyle)
A goldfinch resting between trips to the bird feeder (Photo by Rebecca Doyle)

The tips given above are by no means exhaustive. If you have any to add we would love to see them in the comment section below!

Rebecca Doyle
About Rebecca Doyle 13 Articles
Rebecca has a B.Sc. zoology and M.Sc. wildlife conservation and management. Experience includes working with the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, Native Woodland Trust, Marine Dimensions and SeaLife. Passionate about wildlife conservation and community involvement.
Contact: Website

11 Comments on Wildlife in Winter: What happens our common Irish species

  1. Great list – another one is not to overdo it with the autumn cleanup of died-back perennials. Leaving some of the died-back leaves in place protects roots from the harsher frosts – and of course provides cover for all sorts of small creatures.

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