Banner Image: Robin at the Millennium Country Park, Martin Rogers

Winter brings many challenges for UK wildlife. Falling temperatures mean that more energy is needed to keep warm, but during the colder months, food supplies are thin on the ground. As a result, many creatures have developed survival strategies that help keep them alive until warmer days return.

Many birds, and even some insects, travel hundreds of miles to escape to warmer climes. Around 50 species of bird head south in autumn and follow the sun to places such as southern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The olive brown chiffchaff for example, which is commonly seen flitting through woodlands during spring and summer searching for insects to feast upon, leaves Britain in autumn and spends winter in the Mediterranean, or North or West Africa, where insects are much more plentiful. It’s amazing to think that such a tiny bird (chiffchaffs are about the same size as a bluetit) can undertake such an extensive journey!

Image: Chiffchaff pictured in UK woodlands in winter

Perhaps even more astonishing though is the migration of the painted lady butterfly. Their migration route can span up to 7,500 miles, from sub Saharan Africa to the UK and back again. The whole journey is undertaken by multiple generations – the butterflies reproduce en route. So the painted lady fluttering around your garden in August probably had grandparents who visited blooms on the desert fringes of Africa. To enable them to cover large distances, the lightweight travellers have been found to take advantage of weather conditions and can reach speeds of up to 30mph by hitching a ride on the prevailing wind.

But leaving the country is not an option for many creatures, so a range of other tactics are employed to make it through to spring.

In the UK, hedgehogs, bats and hazel dormice go into hibernation. Hibernation is commonly thought of as going into a deep sleep – but it is more extreme than that. When an animal enters hibernation, it massively reduces its body temperature, metabolism, breathing, and heart rate in order to expend as little energy as possible.

Hedgehogs will begin searching for suitable hibernation sites around October. Popular spots are at the bottom of hedges, in compost heaps, under sheds, in leaf piles and specially-made hedgehog homes (Read our guide to hedgehogs here). Nests are created from dry leaves, twigs and other vegetation, and sometimes extra insulation will be added if the hedgehog wakes during a milder period. If you do spot a hedgehog that has emerged from hibernation during a mild spell, leaving a bowl of meat-based cat or dog food out during the evening can give them a vital energy-boost before they hunker down again.

Dormice hibernate for at least six months of the year – sometimes longer! They are a nocturnal species and when not hibernating rarely come down to the ground, spending their time high up in the woodland canopy feasting on fruits, nuts, seeds, flower pollen, and insects. During autumn they will build up their bodyweight to lay down fat stores for the winter months, and around November, they descend to ground level and build a tightly woven nest of grass and leaves among the leaf litter on the woodland floor. It is thought that they hibernate on the ground, rather than up in the trees, because the temperature is more stable there.

Frogs, toads and newts also seek out shelter and enter into a phase of low activity to conserve energy during the colder months. They often bury themselves under loose soil, beneath pond liners or in compost heaps to buffer themselves from the cold. If you accidentally disturb one while turning your compost heap or tidying your garden, don’t worry – simply cover it back up again. Amphibians become more active again as the weather starts to warm up. Upon emerging, frogs will head straight to a pond to find potential mates, with frogspawn starting to appear from February onwards – a true sign that spring is on its way!

Image: Noctule bat in UK woodlands

Although winter is a time that many wild creatures hunker down away from sight – or flee the country – there is still much to be seen during the cooler months. Bird-watching can be particularly fruitful, with many species visiting our shores from far flung places. Resident woodland birds are also much easier to spot amongst the bare branches, and mammals such as foxes, badgers and deer are still active. Remember to let us know what you’ve spotted – we’d love to hear about it!

Help us plant and protect more woodland and habitats in the Forest

We're working hard to create habitat that benefits wildlife for now and in the future. To help us plant and maintain more woodlands in the Forest please consider joining with a small monthly donation:

Become a Friend of the Forest