Join us at Cashel Forest and Native Forest Centre for a Pond Doctor event where we can answer all your questions on pond creation, management and restoration! Our expert staff will have information on hand so you can create your own perfect pond for wildlife or learn more about Scotland’s amphibians and reptiles.
What are our animals up to in January?
It is a pretty quiet month for our reptiles and amphibians with the odd frisky frog exception that may start spawning early. That said, the ever-increasingly erratic temperatures that come with climate change may influence how active they are as they do not hibernate as such, but ‘brumate’. Brumation is a period of dormancy like hibernation, but our wonderful species will take trips out of their hideaways to bask in the sun or have a quick snack in warmer weather.
This is an ideal time to think about how you can help these charismatic animals in the coming months and plan some habitat features in your garden. That area at the back of your garden with the extra garden waste you couldn’t fit in your compost heap could be added to or transformed into a log pile or Hibernaculum. That area you think that looks a mess with the long grass could be a winter home for some critters that need to be left alone for a little longer. Doing things like this saves you gardening in the cold, and you can always say it was an intentional creation of habitat for our deserving amphibians and reptiles.
So, on a warm day you may have a rare wintery glimpse of a common lizard basking or common frog topping up on their energy reserves. Happy spotting!
Winter is traditionally a quieter time in the garden, but this is in fact the busiest time of year for habitat management for reptiles and amphibians. As the temperature drops, these animals become dormant, making it safer to clear out ponds and build shelters causing as little disturbance as possible.
For our winter campaign #WinterWildGardening, we have put together some tips and tricks on how you can make our species lives a little bit easier in your gardens and green spaces.
How to tackle icy ponds:
If you have a garden pond, the colder weather can cause it to freeze. The best thing to do is to periodically sweep away any snow so that sunlight can reach your pond plants and produce oxygen. This will help to prevent ‘Winterkill’ which is caused by toxic gases released in the pond (through natural decomposition of dead leaves) and not being able to escape, causing the water to become deoxygenated.
Melting a hole in the ice won’t necessarily affect the amount of oxygen diffusing into the water, but there is no harm in playing it safe! You can gently melt any ice with a cup or pan full of hot water to allow more active animals like newts to move to the surface to breathe.
You can also try floating a small object, e.g., a tennis ball, in the water or keep your fountain going (if you have one) to prevent ice formation.
If you have frog spawn, the upper portions may freeze, but the spawn which is underwater should survive. However, if you have a very small pond and/or it is shallow and prone to freezing throughout, you can temporarily place your frog spawn into a bucket of pond water and place in a garage, or similar place, out of the freezing conditions.
Remember that moving spawn to other ponds risks spreading disease, so once the cold weather has passed, ensure that you return the spawn to the same pond to allow it to continue to develop.
Creating overwintering sites:
Something as simple as a pile of leaves or areas of dense vegetation and scrub close to your garden pond will provide areas for amphibians to take refuge during periods of cold weather.
Log piles and rockeries are another simple idea to provide our species with somewhere to see out the winter months. As well as providing cover from adverse weather, dead wood attracts insects on which reptiles and amphibians will feed.
If you want to go further, you can build a hibernaculum. You can find instructions on how to do this here.
If you don’t have space to create a hibernaculum, you could consider a toad home. These can be made simply by upturning a plant pot and knocking a hole in the side for a door. Place old leaves or grass inside your toad home for extra protection. You can find instructions on how to build one here.
What to do if you disturb a reptile or amphibian during winter:
Reptiles and amphibians lie dormant during the coldest months but will take advantage of milder patches of weather to come out and forage. For this reason, if you do disturb an animal in winter, it should be unharmed if covered up and left undisturbed.
If you are unable to put the animal back where you found it, place it somewhere that offers protection from frost and predators like cats and birds, for example, log piles, under a shed or within your compost heap. It should not be somewhere ‘warm’, just a place that is frost free.
If you spot any of our species out and about, please remember to record them on our free Dragon Finder App. Data from the Dragon Finder App is crucial going forward to monitor the relationship between temperature changes and the behaviours of reptiles and amphibians in the UK.
If you spot any sick or injured reptiles or amphibians, please report them to our partners on the Garden Wildlife Health project.
For more information on how you can help reptiles and amphibians during winter, check out….
- Wildlife Gardening
- Pond Maintenance
- How-to guides (hibernaculum, toad homes etc.)
- Frequently Asked Questions
Back in 2020, our Come Forth for Wildlife team were working in Falkirk creating Neighbourhood Wildlife Corridors which are small features for wildlife that connect gardens to country parks and nature reserves (these are key in keeping our amphibian and reptile populations safe).
One particular household asked our team if it was possible to have a wildlife pond built, but to have some kind of prevention to discourage their dog from taking a swim. Staff member Chris leapt into action and started thinking up some ideas. Eventually, Chris settled on a small fence surrounding the pond which wasn’t accessible for the family dog, but left enough space for wildlife to get through.
I think we can all agree that this pond was definitely a success. You don’t even need to use commercial fencing, you can use alternatives such as willow fencing or thick hedges to keep your canine friends out of your wildlife pond.
Don’t have the space or money for fencing? There are even more ideas that you can use to protect your pond:
- Build a raised or ‘tub pond’
- Strong mesh (5cm squared or more) dug into the ground
- Netting (more 5cm squared or more) pulled tight and staked to prevent wildlife becoming tangled.
- You can even get fancy with some pond covers from your local garden centre
For more information on building a wildlife pond, read our Just Add Water guide.
You can also find out more information on our #pawsagainstponds campaign here.
As the days begin to shorten and night time temperatures fall, amphibians and reptiles will start to look for places to spend the winter. Amphibians, such as common toads, frogs and newts will seek out secluded places to spend the colder months. They will often enter gardens and find their way into piles of leaves, loose soil, areas of long grass and other dense scrub or vegetation. Amphibians will commonly enter gardens in the autumn even if there is not a pond nearby. Most species will move several hundred metres from their breeding ponds in search of suitable terrestrial habitats. Therefore, if you come across an amphibian whilst tidying up your garden in the autumn, do not be concerned.
Loose soil is ideal for common toads, frogs and newts which will bury themselves up to a depth of 30 cm beneath the surface.
By early October most of our reptile species will have entered their winter hibernation. The majority of the UKs reptile species will have favoured hibernating sites but some, particularly slow-worms, common lizards and grass snakes, will make use of piles of dead logs, leaves or compost for the winter. It is important that reptiles are not disturbed during their hibernation period since it takes them longer to recover if they have to become active.
Long grass and dense scrub is ideal for hibernating common lizards.
Here are some actions you can take this autumn to help amphibians and reptiles in your garden:
- Leave piles of leaves in a secluded area of your garden for amphibians, grass snakes and slow-worms to seek refuge and hibernate.
- Avoid burning and disturbing piles of dead leaves and other vegetation – these are ideal habitat for amphibians and reptiles to spend the winter months.
- Provide areas of loose soil which amphibians will bury into and spend the winter. Being able to bury beneath the frost zone is important for their winter survival.
- Leave some dense long grass or shrubs in your garden for amphibians and common lizards to seek refuge.
- Loose paving slabs and wooden boards are ideal for amphibians – leave these on top of loose soil to provide the best habitat.
- Avoid too much tidying up of your garden – some wilder areas will provide very suitable habitats for amphibians and reptiles.
- Try building a hibernacula: pile up logs and stones, then add soil to fill in the gaps (see below). You can even bury these into the ground and plant flowers in the soil on top. Click here to find our activity sheet on how to do this.
This hibernacula will be very suitable for a range of amphibian and reptile species including common frogs, toads, newts and grass snakes.
Over the past few years RAVON have been developing their conservation programme for the native grass snake (Natrix helvetica). This programme has included specific habitat management for grass snakes, to enhance their breeding success and thereby increase the sustainability of populations. One of the most successful interventions has been the creation of egg-laying heaps, which have proven to be a simple, yet effective way of boosting juvenile recruitment. The key to the success of these is the composition and structure of the egg-laying heap, such that it maintains an even temperature, perfect for incubating grass snake eggs, but is not too compact, so that the animals can move around within it.
Download and take a look at their advice leaflet below: