As we heard last week, December is a very significant month in the wildlife calendar, as the end of the month marks the winter solstice when the daylight hours start to increase. This event always focuses my attention on spring which is actually not that far ahead. If you take a good look around the garden and you could already be seeing the leaves of bulbs starting to show through the soil and some birds, especially thrushes, may be starting to sing soon. And believe it or not, my local blue tits are already starting to squabble for nesting rights to a nest box outside my window.
One rather overlooked insect that I see a lot at this time of year is the lacewing. Lacewings are very interesting insects. I find them tucked away somewhere in the garden in the winter months and often they are inside the house as, like moths, they are attracted to light. Along with many other types of insect they need to hibernate through the cold weather and may choose a pile of logs or a tiny gap in a wooden fence to find some protection from the elements. More often than not at this time, they find their way, along with huge numbers of ladybirds, into the gaps in my window frames where they hibernate until spring. Lacewings are important in our gardens as like other beneficial insects such as ladybirds and hoverflies they are avid devourers of aphids – greenfly and blackfly – so they perform a really important role as natural biological pest control. A bug home to house these helpful insects in the winter months is a useful addition to a wildlife-friendly garden. The most common type of lacewing we see in our gardens has delicate green wings with a fine tracery of veins. If you find one of these have a closer look as this beautiful insect
My wildlife plant of the month has to be Holly. Holly and ivy are both special plants that really earn their place in the garden this month. Not only do they both make great roosting sites for birds in cold weather, but holly provides lots of berries for some bird species now and the blackbirds in my garden fight off all comers to keep the berries to themselves. Also holly and ivy are the two plants on which the little female holly blue butterfly lays her eggs. In late spring she seeks out the flower buds of holly and her caterpillars eat these as they develop. This is a mysterious butterfly in some ways as its numbers fluctuate dramatically from year to year, Growing both holly and ivy could mean that this lovely butterfly stays around in your garden.
Christmas preparations and celebrations take up much of our time this month, so it is good to know that we can get away with not doing too much in the wildlife garden just now. With so many creatures hibernating, it’s really only the birds we have to take account of this month, so I take special care to make sure that they are well fed, especially if I am going to be away from home. If I really need some fresh air and the weather is suitable I plant new trees and shrubs this month. This is best done if the weather is mild, the ground not frosty and the soil reasonably damp. Native trees and shrubs are best planted as ‘bare-rooted’ plants at this time – a cheap and very effective way of making a fantastic mixed hedge that is just brilliant for wildlife. There are plenty to choose from and hawthorn, sloe, dogwood and hazel will all provide winter food for birds and small mammals once the hedge is established. Hedges like this can be ‘laid’ in the traditional way if you are feeling really creative! This keeps them thick at the base and encourages strong new growth with lots of flowers and berries – ideal for your garden wildlife. With little to do outside I sit back, wait for the change in day length on the 21 st, and look forward to the first song thrush singing from the tree tops.
December always naturally makes me think of Christmas, and Christmas makes me think of robins and this colourful little bird seems to feature on almost every Christmas card I have received so far this month and no wonder - it is a bird we very much notice, and associate with, this time of year. There is no skulking in the undergrowth for the Robin and its bright red breast can be picked out from some distance as they sit on the tops of my hedges this month. Robins nest in the garden here, both in a purpose made Robin box but also at the base of our hedges and sometimes under dense clumps of vegetation in the borders, especially the plant Pendulous Sedge where Dunnocks also sometimes raise their young. Last year a pair of Robins nested on a small, well drained bank at the back of my house where I grow Lavender. This is an area I walk past several times a day and to avoid disturbing them I initially took a different route up to the vegetable garden, but soon forgot and found I was walking past the young birds with their gaping beaks on a regular basis. Neither young nor adults seemed to mind my presence - parents with food in their beaks simply waited in a nearby hawthorn until I had passed and then they carried on as usual. Five spotty young were successfully fledged in spite of my comings and goings. Perhaps it is in part because of the Robin's tolerance of humans that we love them so much - they take advantage of our generosity where food in our gardens is concerned and we in return think of them as our 'special' Robins because they are so friendly. Between themselves however, Robins, especially males, are very aggressive and as the New Year approaches I shall be watching out for males fighting quite violently over their territories around the garden here. With more young robins after last year's successful nests I suspect the competition for nest sites will be fierce but hopefully, with many undisturbed spaces that are available to them, there will be room for all. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing this lovely bird on a few more Christmas cards.