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Hisssss and shhhh.disturbance-free winter required

by Juliet Hawkins

Don't disturb the log pile!It's that time of year when I dread turning over a flower-pot in case I disturb a pile of dormant, sealed-up snails or a hibernating newt. A desperate forage in the log pile to feed the wood-burner can wreck a grass snake's winter and even an innocent trip to the cellar for a bottle of wine may prove fatal to a hibernating bat.

Think twice about which log pile you disturb this winter!

The garage or outside shed can get quite crowded with tortoiseshell butterflies hanging up - along with a gaggle of wrens on cold nights. And the bottom of our ponds play host to frogs which have sunk into the mud and see winter out breathing through their skin. Disturbance for many of these creatures that hibernate or go into a cold-induced torpor can be fatal. I sort of know how they feel!

Whilst I get closer to the fire, some creatures respond to winter cold by simply shutting down. After a good autumn feed-up, snails, bats, butterflies, snakes, ladybirds, dormice and others find somewhere they hope will remain undisturbed and usually dry. Heartbeats drop and body temperatures plummet - and they settle down for four or five months' sleep. Unless, that is, somebody or something disturbs them. Waking up mid-winter on a cold day can result in waste of valuable energy and disturbance to their sleep pattern that is enough to kill them. And on a farm or in a garden, avoiding disturbance is not always easy.

I've never seen so many grass snakes on the farm as this hot summer - big and small basking in the sun by a barn brick wall. We need our well-seasoned logs from the log pile but we've decided to sacrifice a few smaller piles made from last year's hedge coppice work near to the pond where we've seen the snakes swimming and hope they choose these ones for their winter sleep. Of course, if they don't use them, perhaps their prey - the newts - will get in there underneath the deepest log and overwinter - and a cluster of ladybirds under some bark.

The pipistrelles and brown long-eared bats who've been very active this summer have settled in their winter roosts - our cellar, old barn eaves and rot-holes in trees. They do wake up on warmer winter nights, have a quick fly around and a drink but disturbance and waking them up when it's cold could be lethal. So we'll avoid working in the barns with roosting bats, certainly won't be felling any rotten old trees and I guess I'll only be able to get a bottle of wine on a warm night when they've woken up for a quick bite!

Juliet Hawkins is a farm conservation consultant involved in conservation projects on her family-owned farm.

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