How nature prepares for winter

Red squirrel eating a peanut
Spot squirrels caching food - including nuts from your garden bird feeders! (Photo: Northeastwildlife.co.uk)

The daylight hours are getting shorter, the leaves on the ground are drier and crunchier, and some trees are now almost bare. Time to get your woollies out as winter’s on the way! Nature needs to prepare for the cold months ahead too. Let’s see what’s happening outside, and what you can do to help.

Why do trees lose their leaves?

Boy and mum looking at autumnal oak leaves through a magnifying glass
Leaves change colour and fall in autumn (Photo: Michael Heffernan/WTML)

In summer, trees use chlorophyll (the green colour in leaves) to make food from sunshine. As light levels drop, they prepare for winter by shutting down production and shedding their leaves to save energy.

Also, bare trees are less likely to get blown over in stormy winter weather. Many other plants go into a dormant (sleeping) state too, and that’s why there’s not so much greenery around.

How wildlife prepares for winter

In autumn, many animals get fatter and furrier. They’re also busy preparing their winter nests. They need to put on some extra weight to get ready for hibernation, (although only hedgehogs, bats and dormice really hibernate – other creatures just get very sleepy and hide away a lot).

Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs make a hibernation nest somewhere sheltered, such as in a pile of leaves at the base of a hedge or fence, in a stack of logs, or in a compost heap. They’ll be going into hibernation around now so it's important not to disturb places where they might be snoozing. Even though they’re hibernating, they wake up once in a while for a snack so you could put out some dry food, such as meat-flavoured cat biscuits or chopped unsalted peanuts. Don’t forget they’ll need some water too. Read more about how to help hedgehogs in winter.

Birds

Dunnock
Dunnocks eat seeds in winter (Photo: Northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Some birds that eat insects (like dunnocks and starlings) switch to seeds and berries over the winter as there aren’t so many minibeasts around. And some that have been breeding in areas of high ground move to the lowlands where it’s not as cold – skylarks and meadow pipits often do this. Others, such as swallows, fly off to warmer climates for the winter. You may have spotted flocks of them lining up on telegraph wires ready for their long flight at the end of the summer. You can find out more about migration in our blog.

Birds have a hard time over winter and you can help by putting out some food. Why not make our brilliant bird feeder, or our simple birdseed feeder. You could rustle up some fat maggot bird food too. Our feathered friends will definitely thank you!

Badgers

Badgers don’t hibernate, but they do spend a lot of time in their underground homes, or setts, over the winter. In the autumn, they collect lots of dead leaves, bracken and dried grass to make a comfy bed.

Squirrels

As winter approaches, squirrels collect nuts and hide them in holes in the ground to eat later. They build a bigger and cosier winter drey (nest) of twigs lined with moss, bark and dry leaves, usually on a sturdy branch near the tree trunk so it doesn’t get blown away. They also grow a thicker coat and use their fluffy tail as a duvet when they go to sleep – cute!

Bees

Bees looking out from hollow stems
Solitary bees hunt out hollow stems (Photo: iStock.com/hsvrs)

Queen bumblebees are on the hunt for areas of long grass where they can go to sleep, and solitary bees are searching for hollow stems, or little holes in wood, where they can lay their eggs. Find out how to make a minibeast palace or build a bug hotel to help bees and other tiny creatures set up home for winter.

What winter preparations have you noticed when you’ve been out and about? Tell us about them using #NatureDetectives.

Which signs of winter have you spotted?

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