Winter at the League Wildlife Sanctuaries

Exmoor can be a bleak place to live in winter; it rains, and then it rains some more, and then it snows for a while, and then it rains again. The sun is a rare visitor and the light levels barely get above the twilight that is known as ‘dimpsy’ in the west country. I am certain that the dreary weather reflects on the mood of the local human population, so what does it do to the wildlife? 

The red deer just sit it out; sporting their thick, dark, winter coats they find shelter from the weather behind a hedge or in woodland, trying to conserve as much energy as possible. Badgers spend more time underground, living partly off the fat reserves that they built up during the autumn, while foxes are forced out by the necessity to find a mate and breed. Birds and most small mammals also have to keep going, whatever the weather; the energy needs of their busy lives, combined with their small body size, means they need to refuel regularly to survive. 

Some animals chose to opt out of winter altogether by hibernating. This is a high-risk strategy that leaves them vulnerable to predation and changes in their environment. Imagine going to sleep in a quiet woodland and waking up to find you are in the middle of a construction site, for instance. Despite the obvious dangers, there can be positive benefits for the survivors, such as the tendency to live much longer than similar creatures that are constantly on the go. A lesson for us all, perhaps? 

Hazel dormice are well known for their sleepy behaviour, thanks largely to the way they are portrayed in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. During the summer months these furry little rodents are arboreal, making their nests in the undergrowth and feeding at night on an array of fruit, nuts, flower pollen and insects. Whereas, in the winter they make nests on the ground, beneath the leaf litter, and they go into a deep sleep until spring revives them again.  

Hedgehogs also hibernate through the worst of the winter weather, making a nest of dry leaves under a pile of sticks or maybe under a garden shed. The former makes them vulnerable to the over-tidy gardener, who insists on burning garden waste and accidentally incinerates the hedgehog with it. In mild weather hedgehogs might wake up and go in search of food, but this is perilous as suitable food can be in short supply. 

You could find bats hibernating in all sorts of places, from caves and tunnels, to roof spaces and holes in trees. Bats will also wake up from time to time during the winter to carry out necessary bodily functions, which is a particularly good idea if you are hanging upside down. Bats are very vulnerable to disturbance and they are protected in law, so if you find one please leave it alone. 

It isn’t just mammals that hibernate in the winter. Cold-blooded animals, like snakes and lizards, newts and toads, find a sheltered place under rocks or fallen trees where they remain until the warmer weather returns. Some insects also overwinter as adults and go into a state of torpor to survive the cold weather. Butterflies, such as the peacock and small tortoiseshell, can often be found hanging motionless in garden sheds, where the anti-freeze in their blood protects them from freezing. Ladybirds and some species of flies and hoverflies cluster together, tucked away in nooks and crannies, while bumblebee queens overwinter underground in disused mouse holes, hoping to retain enough reserves until warmer days return. 

Climate change is already starting to test the resilience of our hibernating wildlife, so any help we can give them could provide a lifeline. From planting spring flowers in a window-box for insects to feed on, to making a home for a hibernating hedgehog, or just reducing our use of pesticides, everyone can do their bit for wildlife. 

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