The first sightings of our red-breasted feathered friend usually fills us with a crisp picture of the inevitable frosts and snows, as we brave ourselves for the oncoming hardships. This busy little bird always creates a fine figure, puffing his majestic chest amid the white winter backdrop, and we often feel sorry for our lonely little neighbour. What will he eat now? Poor thing.
We sometimes forget that the robin, blue tits and blackbirds keep naturally feasting throughout winter and they are highly skilled predators at keeping the bugs at bay. They are all natural born aphid eaters so having a resident population pays dividends for any garden or allotment, completing all year round pest control. The busy Robin can eat a third of his body weight each day, so think of all those insects taken directly from your cabbages and caulies.
Put out some kitchen scraps and ground peanuts for a winter treat and your feathered pest controllers will stay through the worst of the big freeze. Don’t forget to put out some water if the thermometer is being kind one day, as winter birds like to drink and bathe. They need to keep their feathers dirt free for sufficient heat retention. A bird bath can be more attractive than the kitchen titbits and you’ll be amazed just how quickly it will become a local leisure centre!
The robin and other wintering species will also look for winter fruits when the ground is too frosty for mealworms, so why not keep a small corner for winter berries such as the bittersweet. They also make an attractive table decoration for Christmas lunch and can be used as condiments. Did you know wintergreens were the medieval version of toothpaste? Small sprigs and twigs made adequate tooth brushes for young and old alike. Just look at the long list of winter plants that are still cherished today by essential oil enthusiasts.
To the Bat Cave!
Your bug eating assistants are going to need a bit of help before they can call your plot home. Setting up a friendly environment for other wild life will reap dividends in the end. Boxes, bird baths and safe havens for bats and hedgehogs are going to put your garden firmly on the bug eater’s menu and they will come back time and time again to gorge themselves if feeling welcomed.
Giving up some corners of your valuable patch may sound unproductive at first, but once your furry friends take up their dining duties they will thrive if finding a small safe corner. Hedgehogs can cover up to five miles a night foraging for tasty grubs, so encouraging them with secluded little entrance and exit points will have them calling regularly. They’re not afraid of humans if you’re quiet and non-threatening so just by leaving some fresh water and pet food scraps will put your patch on their regular nightly route.
Bat boxes are an ideal way to encourage some resident bats so planning ahead for summer months of feeding frenzies is the way to go. These can be bought or built and should have mini ladders for the bat to climb up into. Bats will hibernate for only the worst two or three months of winter but will take time to trust your garden is a friendly place to habitat.
Perhaps a bat box could be a good idea to install during the less busy weeks of late autumn while out tree lopping. Getting rid of dead and redundant branches means the main trunks are accessible during winter and bats will use larger trees for rapid navigation when emerging.
Winter birds and other predatory pest controllers such as frogs, bats and hedgehogs are more at risk from pesticides than the bugs, so it is far better for your produce and garden to maintain a natural environment for our bug-eating friends. Preferably an organic garden should be kept in order to bring in a whole host of inset eating friends and, with Mother Nature being so clever, your animal army knows exactly how many bugs to eat to keep infestations at bay. They will leave some behind to maintain the natural balance of life.