Four ways to help wildlife over winter

Robin at Trelissick in Winter

For over fifty years now, our native landscapes and wildlife have been in decline. But this is about to change. With the help from our supporters and by joining forces with other conservation charities, we're taking it back to basics. Nature's getting some well-deserved TLC and it's beginning to make a comeback.

Sadly, much of Britian's wildlife is in danger. Climate change, intensive farming methods and damaging planning decisions has meant the UK has seen a startling sixty percent decline of species in the past fifty years or so.

We're all governed by nature and the landscapes that surround us. We rely on them to silently listen to our innermost thoughts, provide us with inspiration or just to have fun. So when it needs our help, it’s time to lend a helping hand. 

Many hands make light work

Winter may feel like the perfect time to snuggle up indoors, but it’s a busy season for our rangers and outdoors volunteers.

Here’s what we get up to over winter to keep the countryside healthy, beautiful and rich in wildlife.

1. Coppicing

Coppicing is an ancient woodland management technique dating back to the Stone Age, which involves repeatedly felling a tree at its base to allow the regrowth of fresh shoots, to create a sustainable supply of wood. 

A Ranger working in the woodlands at Penrose, Cornwall
A Ranger at Penrose working in the woodlands
A Ranger working in the woodlands at Penrose, Cornwall

The benefits:

  • Coppicing increases the lifespan of the tree itself by stimulating retrenching - the natural shedding of branches. 
  • It increases woodland biodiversity. With fewer branches, more sunlight can reach the ground, encouraging other species and wildflowers to grow.
  • Wildlife and insect populations benefit from coppicing. This in turn provides food for birds, bats and mammals.
  • Habitats are improved. We've seen an increase in nesting birds and the return of the endangered hazel dormouse in Combe Wood, East Devon.
Bluebells carpeting the woodland floor.
Bluebells in woodland
Bluebells carpeting the woodland floor.

In South Devon, we’ve teamed up with the Woodland Grant Scheme. Here, volunteers have been thinning out areas that have become too dense, so rejuvenating veteran trees and welcoming back a rich array of native species, such as the Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly.

2. Hedgelaying

Britain’s landscapes wouldn’t be the same without the patchwork created by hedgerows. They’ve been used to enclose animals since humans began to keep livestock centuries ago.

Despite their many ecological benefits, traditional hedgelaying is in decline. Our countryside volunteers have joined a decreasing number of people who are continuing this important skill. 

Children enjoying being part of the hedgelaying course
Hedgelaying is great way to enjoy the outdoors and help conserve the countryside
Children enjoying being part of the hedgelaying course

Why are hedgerows so important?

  • They create a safe home for wildlife. Mammals, birds, butterflies and a variety of insects all take advantage of this quintessentially British feature for food and shelter.
  • Hedges improve the habitat for nesting birds and invertibrates, as seen at Lower Halsdon in East Devon, on their Countryside Ranger days. Hedgelaying in the winter extends the life of the hedge as a whole and in the long term, creates a constant supply of new, bushy growth in spring and summer, which is excellent cover for wildlife.

3. Scrub cutting

Scrub is an important part of our natural habitats, but if left to its own devices, can quickly turn flower-rich grasslands into woodland. The aim of scrub clearance is not to completely eradicate it, but to keep it in check so it doesn’t dominate. In doing so, we maintain the habitat the local wildlife has become dependant on.

On Gammon Head in South Devon, rangers and volunteers have been working hard for the past five years to improve conditions and restore the grassland.

" As a Scheduled Ancient Monument, controlling scrub encroachment here is very important. It protects the walls from gorse and blackthorn root damage and means archaeologists can resurvey the wall and assess more about its historical significance."
- Emma Reece, South Devon Area Ranger

4. Conservation grazing

We have a variety of four-legged friends helping us over the winter.

Resident Dartmoor ponies on Wembury and Windbury Hillfort, Devon, graze these areas to minimise scrub regrowth, allowing grasses and wildflowers to flourish.

Ponies grazing Windbury Hillfort
Dartmoor Ponies Grazing Hillfort
Ponies grazing Windbury Hillfort

Pony volunteers on The Lizard in Cornwall tend to a small herd of National Trust Shetland ponies. They keep coarser grasses in check and provide space for smaller plants to thrive, including some of the Lizard’s botanical rarities, like the twin headed clover and dwarf rush. The chough also benefit from grazing, as they need short grass to be able to probe the ground with their beaks. The pony’s dung also provides a welcome source of grubs. 

" The ponies do an excellent job of maintaining these Sites of Special Scientific Interest."
- Rachel Holder, Area Ranger, Poltesco.

Sheep and Belted Galloway cattle in the Cotswolds provide a very unique habitat. The sheep offer a more uniform lawn, compared to the cattle, who break up the land to create a mosaic of micro-habitats, which encourage a huge diversity of species. As a result, we've seen the return of the incredibly rare Adonis Blue Butterfly.

Adonis Blue butterfly
Adonis Blue butterfly
Adonis Blue butterfly

Winter visitors

An array of wildlife also flock to the British Isles for a winter retreat, making it even more important to conserve our unique landscapes. Species from northern and eastern countries see our home turf as a toasty alternative to the Arctic Circle. Keep your eyes peeled for Fieldfares from Scandinavia visiting North Somerset. In Wiltshire, species such as the Red Kite become more obvious, as well as the Short Eared Owl and occasional Hen Harrier quartering over the summit and slopes of Win Green.

Short eared owls are ground-nesting
Short eared owl sat on grass mound
Short eared owls are ground-nesting