As the climate warms, heatwaves are likely to become more frequent. Help the wildlife in your garden to survive by providing water and food
in a heatwave
The recent heatwaves in the UK saw daytime temperatures rising to over 30C. Public health warnings were in place, with recommendations for people to avoid the hottest part of the day and to stay hydrated.
As the planet's climate warms, heatwaves are likely to be a more frequent occurrence. And as well as being potentially harmful to humans, prolonged spells of very hot, dry weather can also cause problems for wildlife.
Many creatures struggle during hot weather. Lack of access to water and food can cause dehydration, starvation and heat exhaustion.
But it's easy to help the wildlife that visits your garden – and the most obvious action is to provide water.
During droughts, animals can struggle to find sources of fresh water. Streams and ponds may dry up, and larger, fast-flowing bodies of water aren't always accessible for small animals.
Animals use water for drinking and for cooling off. Birds, especially, need to bathe regularly – it helps to remove dirt and grit, and keeps their feathers in good condition.
To help in hot weather, fill a shallow container with water – you could use a plant pot saucer, washing up bowl or upturned dustbin lid. Ideally, the container should have gently sloping sides – if yours doesn't, position some stones or large pebbles in the water to ensure animals have safe access and exit points.
Don't place water dishes too close to bushes and trees, to minimise attacks from cats and other predators, and remember to clean containers regularly to reduce the risks of spreading diseases.
Here are some more ideas for easy ways to help wildlife in summer.
Make a bee bowl
Still on the subject of water, let's not forget our struggling pollinators. Bees need to drink too, and many natural sources are too deep or fast-flowing for bees and other insects.
It's easy to make a bee bowl with a shallow container – a terracotta saucer from the garden centre works well. Fill it with small pebbles or marbles, then add water – making sure plenty of pebbles stand out of the water to give insects something to land on. In very hot weather you'll probably need to top up your bee bowl with fresh water every day.
Spotted a grounded, struggling bumblebee? It's possibly exhausted or hungry – especially if it's been in the same position for a long time. You can help by gently moving the bee onto a nectar-rich flower – a dandelion is a good choice. When no flowers are available, and as a last resort, offer a white sugar and water 50/50 mix as a one-off energy boost. Don't feed them honey as it can contain harmful pathogens.
Grow nectar-rich plants for butterflies and bees
Butterflies are in trouble: many UK species have declined in the last 50 years. Habitat loss is one contributing factor, so butterfly-friendly gardens are vital. And if you want a summer garden full of butterflies there are lots of plants that will attract them.
Bumblebees will benefit from nectar-rich planting too. They can only fly for about 40 minutes before they need to refuel – so when there aren't many bee-friendly flowers available, they can struggle to find the food they need.
Chose a sunny, sheltered spot for your bee and butterfly garden. Marjoram, lavender, verbena bonariensis, perennial wallflower (Bowles Mauve), hebe, scabious, alliums, native geraniums (cranesbill) and cosmos are all nectar-rich plants that should attract all sorts of pollinators.
Also include some plants that flower later in the year, such as sedums and Michaelmas daisies – this will give hibernating butterflies and bumblebees the energy boost they need to get them through the colder months.
Avoid frilly, double flowers, which contain little nectar and pollen and are hard for insects to get in and out of.
Top up garden ponds
If you have a garden pond, you're already providing a fantastic source of drinking and bathing water for birds, mammals and other creatures. Ponds also offer a habitat for many invertebrates, such as dragonflies and damselflies – not to mention frogs, toads and newts.
In hot, dry weather check the water level in your pond regularly. Shallow ponds in sunny positions can dry up, leaving pond creatures stranded. If you have access to rainwater from a water butt it's best to use this to top up the pond, as this maintains the correct ecological conditions. But tap water is better than nothing if that's all you have – just top up little and often to avoid altering the water quality too much.
If your pond is deep, make sure there's a gently sloping access and exit point for small animals. A few strategically placed stones can help, or make a ramp from a small plank of wood. Although hedgehogs can swim a little, they may drown if they become trapped in a steep-sided pond or trough.
Help for hedgehogs
Hedgehogs can become vulnerable during the summer, and like other animals may struggle to find food and water – and so become hungry and dehydrated.
As well as leaving bowls of water out, offering some food can help. When the ground is very hard and dry, it's hard for hedgehogs to find the worms, beetles, slugs and other invertebrates that make up the bulk of their diet.
You can buy hedgehog food from wildlife supply shops such as the . Or offer meat-based dog or cat biscuits – always ensuring there's a supply of fresh water available too.
Never give milk to hedgehogs – they are lactose intolerant, and dairy products can cause serious digestive problems or even kill them. Salty or sugary foods can also be harmful and should be avoided.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so should not normally be seen out in the daytime. Sometimes during summer you may see a hedgehog out searching for food – when the nights are short, females raising a brood may not have enough time during darkness to find all the food they need. But these hedgehogs will be moving around with purpose.
Hedgehogs never sunbathe, so if you see one lying in the sun in broad daylight it's probably in trouble. In this situation, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends using gardening gloves to place the animal in a deep-sided cardboard box. Give it something to hide under, such as an old towel or t-shirt, and offer a shallow bowl of water – but don't try to make it drink. Bring the box into a cool, safe place and immediately contact an animal rescue centre or the for further advice.
Little Green Space July 2021
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