How the wildlife in Cheshire survives the winter months

Blue tits (c) Mark Hamblin

Blue tits (c) Mark Hamblin - Credit: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Adam Linnet explores some of the amazing ways our animals, birds and insects make it through the cold dark months.

Hibernating dormouse (c) Danny Green

Hibernating dormouse (c) Danny Green - Credit: Danny Green

Long gone is the dawn chorus. The warm summer breeze seems a distant memory and the butterflies that once drifted upon it have now drifted away. It’s easy to see winter as bleak, maybe even lifeless. But wildlife finds some pretty wild ways to make it through the colder months.

Winter is a time of little food and cold temperatures. For most species this is an environment they want to avoid. Many do exactly that, heading south for the winter to warmer climes. But more sedentary species have to find ways to survive these lean months.

As you might expect, many creatures will tuck away for the winter. We often think of this as hibernation but it’s less widespread than you may think. Hedgehogs, bats and dormice are among the few species that truly hibernate.

Most of the animals that spend the winter resting are actually in a state of torpor. Like hibernation, torpor is a slowing down of the main functions of the body. Heart rates drop, calorie use all but stops and they wait for warmer days to venture out, when feeding is likely to be worth the effort. Unlike hibernation, torpor is involuntary and is brought on by low temperatures and lack of food. It also lasts for shorter periods than hibernation, meaning the animals can wake up on a more regular basis to feed again.

Blue tits flock to garden bird feeders (c) Gillian Day

Blue tits flock to garden bird feeders (c) Gillian Day - Credit: Gillian Day

Hibernation is driven by day length, with shorter days being the signal that it’s time for some animals to snuggle down for their long sleep. Both hibernation and torpor tend to be the domain of mammals but some invertebrates also take part in these activities. The best example is the butterflies you’ll undoubtedly find in your shed or loft, such as commas, peacocks and red admirals. They will wait there until the temperatures rise once again then head out into the world in search of the two most important things for most wildlife: food and a mate. If you do find one of these butterflies in the house (usually in the corner of a window) and you can’t bring yourself to share your home with the harmless critter, just pop it into the shed or an outbuilding. It’ll be fine there until it emerges again in the spring.

Some animals just get on with it, braving whatever the winter can throw at them. Moths are an unlikely group to do that, but many species can still be seen around your security light despite temperatures dropping. December moth and winter moth are appropriately named – they emerge at the start of the winter, will breed and then lay their eggs before they die. All of this is done without feeding; apparently it’s just not worth the effort to try to find flowers at this time of year. The eggs will then hatch into caterpillars in spring and the sequence will start again.

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If we continue our trend of milder winters, look out for clouds of male winter moths caught in the beam of your car headlights as you drive down country lanes, they are all in search of a partner. The females are flightless, attracting the males with pheromones so it’s difficult to find one – unless you’re a male winter moth!

Garden birds such as blue tits and great tits form larger flocks that rove from garden to garden. Despite being so territorial in the summer, they group together at this time of year because there is safety in numbers. Many eyes are the key to looking out for predators, as well as looking out for a meal of their own.

Goldcrests seek out insects in conifers (c) Andy Morffew

Goldcrests seek out insects in conifers (c) Andy Morffew - Credit: Andy Morffew

These flocks can also include a few less familiar birds. Overwintering chiffchaffs are becoming more common in the UK again due to our milder winters and they will often join mixed flocks during cold spells, as will goldcrests. These gorgeous little birds are our smallest breeding species. At just two inches long they are even smaller than a wren and their thin beak is perfect for picking insects and spiders from their hiding places in conifer trees.

The final way to wait out winter is not to! Some species will be coming to the end of their adult lives well before the winter sets in, leaving their young to face the harsh weather alone. Invertebrates are the prime example.

The butterflies that aren’t hiding out in your shed will have come to the end of their flight season back in the summer, any time from June to September depending on the species. If they got everything right, they will have mated and laid their eggs before meeting their maker.

Some species like pearl-bordered fritillaries will stay as caterpillars from June until May the following year. Once they emerge, they’ll feed for a short period before pupating and hatching into adults, starting the whole cycle again. The brown hairstreak butterfly adopts a different strategy, overwintering as an egg, tucked on the underside of young blackthorn twigs from September until the following May.

Just as there are many ways to get through the winter, there are many ways you can help wildlife to survive at this time of year; from helping butterflies to find somewhere to hibernate, to providing food for your garden birds.

One of the best ways to help wildlife over winter is to make your garden into a mini nature reserve:

• A log pile tucked down a hidden corner can give frogs and toads somewhere to burrow under and stay warm.

• A hedgerow full of berries can be a welcome feast for passing birds and small mammals.

• A variety of early flowering plants can help queen bees get a flying start to building their hives in early spring. Comfrey is perfect if grown in a pot to stop it spreading to the rest of your garden.

• Lend a helping hand by having a wide variety of food as well as water on offer. Fallen apples, a pond free from ice, peanuts and seeds at the feeding station and a patch of lawn clear of snow so blackbirds can find worms are just a few ways to help.

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