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Winter wildlife to spot in Surrey

PUBLISHED: 12:05 13 December 2015 | UPDATED: 08:05 14 December 2015

A hardy fox out and about in the depths of winter

A hardy fox out and about in the depths of winter

Matt Binstead

It’s a common misconception that most British animals hibernate during the winter, when in fact the majority can still be seen out and about. To stand the best chance of spotting them though, pay a visit to the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield, which is home to some 40 native species. Information officer Liza Lipscombe tells us more

A tawny owl flying in the snow at the British Wildlife CentreA tawny owl flying in the snow at the British Wildlife Centre

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2015

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Share your Surrey wildlife photography @ www.surreylife.co.uk/photos

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Picture the scene. It’s a cold and dark winter morning, the alarm has given you a rude awakening, but all you want to do is sleep. The thought of snuggling under the duvet and hibernating until spring is a very tempting one, perhaps an age-old and quite natural response to the short days of winter. And why not? After all, most wild species hunker down for the winter, don’t they? Well, actually they don’t.

Here in Britain, only a handful of native species use hibernation to survive the cold temperatures and scarce food supplies of winter. In fact, hedgehogs, bats and dormice are the only mammals that opt for the big sleep-in!

After fattening up in the autumn, they will retreat to a sheltered location and fall into a deep torpor. During this time, their body temperature lowers to match their surroundings and their heart and breathing rates are reduced. Using just enough energy to stay alive, they rely on stored body fat to see them through to the spring.

Reptiles, amphibians and some insects, such as bees, will also lie dormant until spring arrives.

Fight for survival

But, for the majority of our wild animals who remain active through the winter, it’s a fight for survival.

Like us, they don’t enjoy being cold and damp, and during the winter months many limit themselves to shorter bursts of activity before retreating to a cosy den or nest. Though less active, most native animals can still be seen out and about, usually in the middle and warmest part of the day, foraging for food.

However, the harsh winters that Britain has experienced in recent years cover much of the country with snow and ice, making the job of finding food and water so much tougher.

So, at this chilly time of year, when our homes are still bursting with left-over seasonal treats, spare a thought for the struggling winter wildlife in your garden and beyond. It’s easy to help simply by leaving out a few spare apples or nuts, and, most importantly, some fresh drinking water. For a few handy ideas, check out our list of suggestions on the right.

Wildlife up close

Here at the British Wildlife Centre, all the animals are native, and being hardy British stock they are well equipped to cope with the occasional bad winter. The fact that they receive five-star treatment from our team of keepers also helps!

The keepers ensure all our residents are well-fed and have areas of shelter. In fact, when the temperatures drop below freezing, the keepers have their work cut out keeping the animals regularly topped up with fresh drinking water as it freezes so quickly.

However, the playful otters actively enjoy these conditions, happily running on top of their frozen ponds, then plunging into the icy water at the edges where the ice is thin. Sometimes they play chase, with one otter swimming under the ice while another runs across the top!

Plus, our half-hourly Keeper Talks provide the opportunity to see a whole variety of native species up close, including foxes, otters, red squirrels, Scottish wildcats and badgers, to name but a few of them.

So, here at the British Wildlife Centre, you know you’ll see Britain’s wonderful wildlife whatever the weather!

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Need to know:

The British Wildlife Centre is located on Eastbourne Road (A22) at Newchapel, near Lingfield RH7 6LF, just 10 minutes from the M25, junction 6. The centre opens every weekend and public holiday (excluding December 25/26) and daily during state school holidays (10am to 4pm). For ticket prices, see online. Tel: 01342 834658.Web: britishwildlifecentre.co.uk.

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10 top tips for helping our winter wildlife

Extend some seasonal generosity by way of food and shelter when our wildlife needs it most. Here’s a few handy hints on what we can do to help


Water for life: Providing fresh water daily is vital, especially when frozen temperatures make it difficult to come by. Place it at both bird table level and at ground level for other species.

Very berry: Plants with berries, such as hawthorn and honeysuckle, provide food for the birds. Holly berries attract blackbirds, thrushes and redwings, and robins enjoy hedgerow fruits.

Bird treats: Supplement wild bird food with energy-rich foods: seeds are loved by blue tits and great tits; mealworms will attract robins and sparrows; and 
fat blocks or bread soaked in hard fat are enjoyed by thrushes, tits and more.

An apple a day: If the apples in your fruit bowl are a bit past their best, halve them and put them out for ground feeding birds such as blackbirds and thrushes; they love them!

Meat feast: Only feed foxes and badgers at the times of greatest need, and to supplement, but not replace, natural foods. They should never come to rely on you. Wet dog or meat-based cat food, unsalted peanuts and fruit are best.

Running wild: Set aside a corner of your garden and let it run a little wild. Long grass, nettles and ivy will provide food and shelter from the cold for small mammals and insects.

Wood piles: A stable pile of logs and old branches in a sheltered corner of your garden will also provide a hibernation spot for insects and amphibians.

Compost colony: A compost heap allows you to recycle garden and kitchen waste (avoid meat and fish) and also attracts many species seeking food and shelter. Amphibians and reptiles are drawn to the warmth created by the decomposition.

Leave the leaves: Don’t compost all your dead leaves though; leave a pile in the corner of your garden. A grateful creature is bound to take up residence. Also, the decomposing mulch is a magnet for gardeners’ friends such as worms, which in turn provide food for birds.

Breaking the ice: Finally, when it freezes, melt a hole in the ice on ponds to allow wildlife to drink, and enter and exit the water. Fill a saucepan with hot water and sit it on the ice until a hole appears.

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MORE FOR ANIMAL LOVERS

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• British Wildlife Centre, near Lingfield - a wild day out in Surrey

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• The new WWF headquarters in Woking: one of the UK’s greenest buildings and a new Surrey attraction

• Actress Virginia McKenna on Born Free, life in Coldharbour and her memoirs, The Life in My Years

• Nicholas Owen meets Wildlife Aid’s Simon Cowell

• Discover how the Shalford-based David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation is helping to protect the world’s endangered species

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