Helping hibernators

Photo: Tom Marshall

During winter it’s easy to understand why some of the UK’s wildlife decides to hibernate. It’s cold, dark and resources aren’t as plentiful, so sometimes it’s better to hunker down and give the colder months a miss all together; especially when it comes to survival.

For some animals, the best way to survive the winter is to hibernate. This remarkable phenomenon is where an animal enters an extended period of inactivity where their heart rate, breathing and metabolism slows and their body temperature drops in order to conserve as much energy as possible. This may sound drastic but maintaining body heat when it’s cold expends a lot of energy and when resources are limited, animals run the risk of burning more calories than they can consume. So, for some of the wildlife in the UK, it is best to stock up on food, build substantial fat reserves and bid the winter farewell. 

Hedgehogs, bats and dormice are the only UK mammals that truly hibernate during winter. Other animals may enter a state of ‘torpor’, which is also a state of inactivity but is more short-lived. For example, badgers will conserve their energy by spending more days underground and also sleeping for longer periods during winter. Although hibernating, animals can be woken up due to mild temperatures, disturbances or freezing cold conditions. This can be extremely costly on their energy preserves and can lead to starvation if they haven’t fed. Other species such as toads, frogs, newts, lizards and most insects also enter a state of torpor during winter, where they remain in a safe sheltered spot to tough it out until the return of warmer temperatures.

Here’s how you can help hibernating animals in your garden: 

•    Don’t clean up your garden in winter; leave log piles, compost heaps and dead leaves for animals like hedgehogs and grass snakes to take shelter in.
•    Provide or make your own hedgehog home and leave food in an accessible place. (link below to hyperlink)
•    Collaborate with your neighbours and create a hedgehog highway between your gardens; cutting a small hole in your fence allows the free movement of a hedgehog to search for food without encountering the dangers of roads and cars.
•    Provide or make your own bug mansion with lots of cracks and crevices to safely tuck away in during winter. (link below to hyperlink)
•    Build a hibernaculum for amphibians and reptiles. (link below to hyperlink)
•    Provide fresh water and remove any ice that forms.
•    If you spot any wildlife that shouldn’t be around during winter, contact your local wildlife hospital for advice, especially if it looks unwell.
•    If you accidentally disturb a hibernating animal, please don’t move it. Please cover it back up how you found it and let it go back to sleep.