How to help your garden wildlife in a heatwave

As temperatures soar and we revel in the summer sunshine, our local wildlife could be struggling to cope! Find out how you can help them through the heatwave.

House sparrow bathing in water - garden birds need fresh water in the heatwave. © Ray Kennedy/RSPB

Charities are asking the public to think about putting out a supply of fresh water in their gardens or outdoor space, to help their local wildlife cope with the scorching heat.

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“While we sit back and relax in the outside with an ice-cold drink, generally revelling in an unusually sunny weather, our garden birds might not be having such a good time,” says Chris Calow, a wildlife advisor for the RSPB.

“Turning your outside space into a home for nature by doing simple things like topping up your birdbath, creating a make-shift pond from a washing-up bowl or putting down a saucer filled with water could offer a vital lifeline to some of our much-loved garden birds that are already fighting against declines.”

Alongside drinking water, birds need water to bathe in order to keep their feathers in good condition. However, as natural water sources dry up, they may struggle to find this vital resource.

If you have hedgehogs in your garden, put out a shallow dish of water for them. © Michael Partridge
If you have hedgehogs in your garden, put out a shallow dish of water for them. © Michael Partridge

Water will also be needed by mammalian garden visitors – the British Hedgehog Preservation Society says that offering fresh water (and meaty pet food) can be a lifesaver for hedgehogs.

It is advised that water bowls should be shallow, and that garden ponds have ways for hedgehogs (and other small mammals) to climb out if they fall in.

Additional advice from the RSPCA also includes:

  • Cleaning water containers daily and dry them before refilling, in order to reduce the risk of spreading disease
  • Don’t place water dishes too close to bushes and trees, to minimise predation from cats and other predators
  • Keep water away from the bird table and other feeding areas to avoid fouling
  • Do not give milk to hedgehogs, only plain, fresh water
  • Top up water levels of ponds, and provide shaded areas for fish
  • Search bonfires before burning garden rubbish
  • Take care when using a lawn-more or strimmer – hedgehogs in long grass may curl up if they feel threatened, and toads tend to squat down instead of running away

If you find an animal in distress (advice from the RSPCA): 

  • If the animal is a wild bird or mammal smaller than the size of a rabbit, the quickest way to get help is to contact a local vet or rehabilitation centre as they will not usually charge for treating wildlife.
  • If the animal is larger than a rabbit, call the RSCPA on 0300 1234 999.
Make sure to clean out and dry water supplies to prevent fouling. © Chris Gomersall/RSPB
Make sure to clean out and dry water supplies to prevent fouling. © Chris Gomersall/RSPB

How British mammals cope with hot weather

Hot weather can be a problem for mammals, especially those that feed on invertebrates that are active in wet conditions.

Foxes

  • Unlike badgers, adult foxes do not suffer in hot, dry summers, since their normal  prey – rabbits and small rodents – is still readily available and abundant.
  • Fox cubs, however, lack their parents’ hunting skills, and in July, when they have to start foraging for themselves, they rely heavily on easy-to-catch food items such as earthworms and invertebrates.
  • So, in hot, dry summers, fox cubs are unable to forage successfully. Unlike badger cubs, they rarely starve, but their growth is greatly reduced and they don’t make this up later in the year. They therefore develop into smaller adults.

Deer

  • In hot weather, fly irritation can be so severe that red deer in hilly areas seek higher ground, often with a breeze, for relief.
  • Similarly, lowland deer usually spend more time in woodland and denser cover, where fly infestations are reduced.
  • Red deer also spend more time lying down, since this appears to decrease harassment from flies.
  • Magpies pick off the deer’s ectoparasites and catch annoying flies, particularly when the herd is lying down.

Badgers

  • In summer, badger setts become hot and stuffy. If you approach a sett quietly, you may see its occupants lying just outside the entrance.
  • Summer nights are short, and if it’s hot and dry, badgers are often hard-pressed to find enough food, so they emerge from their setts earlier.
  • During prolonged periods of dry weather, they may also look for food during the day.
  • Cubs are particularly affected by dry summers and many die. Starving youngsters may be seen foraging in daylight hours in cattle yards and gardens.

Insectivores

  • In winter, the diet of moles is almost entirely comprised of earthworms. In summer, however, they also feed on insects, since earthworms move much deeper into the soil and are less frequently encountered in tunnels.
  • Moles seen above ground in summer (often during the day) are dispersing juveniles.
  • Hedgehogs that are seen out during the day in hot summers are often females with young that have been unable to find enough food to support lactation. Sometimes, the babies are with her.
  • If you want to help, offer them commercial hedgehog food or tinned pet meat and water.
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Main image: House sparrow bathing in water – garden birds need fresh water in the heatwave. © Ray Kennedy/RSPB