I don’t whether it’s my advancing years or the unrelenting gloomy news about climate change but I’m worried about the sheep.

A couple of years ago I moved to a semi-rural spot in Lancashire, buoyed by the prospect of rolling hills and a glut of wildlife outside my front door. My new home is everything I’d hoped for, including the neighbouring ewes, ducks, and wild birds. For much of the year, the sounds of sheep, geese and cows echo around the valley, and there’s nothing I like more than opening my curtains in the morning and seeing the various flocks just doing their thing.

But the bitingly bitter winter weather gives me cause for concern. Yes, I know that wild animals live outside, and I’m aware that I’m transferring my own fear of the cold onto species that wouldn’t know what to do with a thermostat if their life depended on it. I can’t help myself. If the bin lids are frozen shut, what does that mean for everything with a heartbeat in my garden and beyond?

And so I do my best for winter wildlife. During the summer, I began by creating shelters for hedgehogs, field mice, shrews and any other rodent in search of a place to live. I repurposed well-made wooden boxes bought from secondhand shops, tipped them upside down at the top of my garden, and left enough space for small animals to enter – but not enough for my cats to lay waste to the local population.

As autumn drew in, I allowed shrubs, grasses and hardy plants go unpruned, mindful of winter cover for small animals and birds. I also let leaves, bark and the occasional weed go untouched, hopeful they may provide vital habitats for insects and, as an added bonus, protect precious plant roots at the mercy of wet weather and freezing temperatures.

And, of course, I set plans in motion for feeding all manner of birds during the cold and grey months of winter. I had to buy in bulk, I decided. No more picking up a handful of fat balls and a smattering of bird seed in the local supermarket, it was time to get serious. Without any proper thought as to where I would store 50 suet balls and a giant vat of sunflower seeds, I entered my credit card details and pressed send.

Thank goodness I did. Every time I top up the feeders and roll those fat balls into wire cages, the local birds – among them robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons, jackdaws, magpies and wrens – jostle for the buffet laid out on the plum tree’s bare arms. I retreat and spy on them unnoticed from my bedroom window, binoculars at the ready. And, to avoid any potential carnage, I lock the cat flap while the birds enjoy their banquet.

Meanwhile, I’m hopeful that woodlice, beetles and snails have hunkered down in my various insect hotels, ready to emerge when the frosts wane in spring. Winter can be brutal, and it costs me very little to make it less bleak for God’s smallest creatures.

If you’re keen to do your bit for the life in your garden during the darkest, coldest months, why not construct a woodpile for overwintering insects, leave a shrub untrimmed for frost cover, or hang an extra bird feeder and stuff it with peanuts? The wildlife – and the world – will be grateful. 

Words and images by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul  


This article first appeared in Catena