How to help wildlife

For many in the UK, feeding garden wildlife has become a regular habit with the nation spending an estimated £200 million every year caring for just the birds. But what should be on the menu?

While gardens can naturally provide an abundance of fruits, seeds and insects, offering tit-bits means nature lovers can provide a nutritional boost during stressful times as well as enjoy watching wildlife from their window.

Although it's important to remember that the food you provide is only a supplement - and there are consequences to attracting wildlife to your garden - a few snacks could make a big difference in extreme weather or help to feed demanding young.

Birds in summer and winter

Food preferred by UK summer garden birds In summer snacks can help out busy birds
Food preferred by UK winter garden birds In winter extra calories help birds cope with cold

Our gardens can attract a rich variety of birds and Tim Harrison, from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), advises a mixed menu to reflect different visitors' tastes.

As part of the team behind the charity's year-round Garden Birdwatch survey, Mr Harrison is very familiar with seasonal trends and says you should consider changing what you provide through the year.

"Basically, the thing you need to think about when providing different food for birds in your garden is that the reason why there are all these different species is because they all have slightly different requirements and they all have slightly different niches," explains Mr Harrison.

TIP - Don't forget the water!

  • Make sure there is fresh water available year-round for birds that need a bath and a beverage
  • Break the ice on a frozen bird bath - a light plastic ball can help to keep the surface from freezing by moving around in the wind
  • In hot weather you can also pour some water in a shady spot at dusk to encourage worms to the surface for blackbirds and badgers alike

"They all feed in slightly different ways and by doing that it means they're not in direct competition with each other."

So certain species prefer hanging feeders while others enjoy their feasts on the floor. Likewise, different sizes of food suit different beaks, with tiny finches preferring fine seed while the thrush family favour fat worms.

There are a few things to avoid, particularly cooked oats which can dry and solidify around beaks, sugary treats which can negatively effect diets, and loose whole peanuts that can potentially choke chicks if fed whole by unwitting parents.

You should also pay some attention to where you provide food so you don't make it too easy for predators to pick off your visitors - positioning your feeding station near trees or bushes allows the animals to seek cover once they have some food.

Badgers, hedgehogs, foxes and more

Food preferred by UK garden mammals

You may already have mammals visiting your garden but not know it - many species prefer to feed from dusk onwards to stay hidden from predators.

Tell tale signs of deer are damage to trees and plants, while badgers leave scrapes in lawns in their search for earthworms. Badgers and foxes often raid bins and smaller animals, such as mice, can even end up in your home in search of food.

"Summer can be a lean time for many garden mammals between spring and the autumn harvest of seeds and fruit, so supplementary feeding can be particularly beneficial for wildlife," says David Wembridge from the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), who co-ordinates the charity's mammal surveys.

Hedgehog eating cat food Hedgehogs feed on meat - not bread and milk

It is important to remember though that purposefully trying to attract mammals to your garden can do more harm than good. Before putting food out, consider what the animals might encounter on their way to your garden: busy roads, predatory pets and neighbours that are less fond of wildlife can all cause problems.

If you already have visitors, experts recommend you only provide natural foods now and then so that animals don't become dependent on your snacks - and you can take a holiday without worrying!

Mr Wembridge also cautions that it can be dangerous for wild animals to become habituated to humans so hand-feeding, or encouraging animals into your property, is not advised. Bear in mind too that one mammal drawn to every variety of food is the rat. To avoid attracting any unwanted attention clear away uneaten food and restrict how much you put on the ground.

TIP - Keep it clean

They might be wild, but your garden visitors benefit from good food hygiene as much as you do.

  • Clear away any uneaten food that accumulates and adjust the amount you provide accordingly
  • Regularly disinfect feeding stations to get rid of mouldy food and droppings
  • Avoid putting out fatty foods in hot weather as they can go rancid and clear away food if it becomes waterlogged

You may also have heard that badgers have a sweet tooth but, like us, the animals would struggle to survive on a diet of just peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Hedgehogs react badly to rich foods too and can suffer digestive problems if fed cows' milk due to the high lactose content so it's best to stick to water.

Overall, the advice for feeding wildlife in your garden is to mimic what nature provides and the best - and easiest - way to do this is to let part of your green space go a little wild. Gardening for wildlife can create a safe haven for birds and mammals and a few additional snacks at the right time of year will keep them coming back.

Do you have any animals visiting your garden or local green space? Tell us about what you've seen on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

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