Go easy on holly and leave some for the birds, say RSPB in Sussex

Frosted Holly berries. The Lodge RSPB: the garden. England. December 2006.
Frosted Holly berries. The Lodge RSPB: the garden. England. December 2006.

IT’S an age-old tradition – using fresh holly branches to adorn your table and give your home a festive look – but the RSPB in Sussex are warning that using too much could leave wildlife out in the cold this winter.

Holly is a valuable source of food and shelter for a number of birds, mammals and insects.

Thrushes, robins, dunnocks, finches and goldcrests use it for nesting as the prickly leaves provide excellent protection; blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings, mistle and song thrushes, among others, eat the berries; and hedgehogs, toads and slow worms hibernate in the deep leaf litter that builds up beneath the plant.

The bush is slow growing, so while pruning in winter is good because it can create denser growth, it is important that holly is not over-trimmed.

The plant only flowers and produces on two-year old wood, so pruning too hard can stop it flowering next spring.

Samantha Stokes, from the RSPB in the Southeast, said: “You can’t beat a bit of holly around the house to make you feel all Christmassy, but as well as it being a pretty plant, holly also plays a very important part in the lives of wildlife at this time of year.

“Taking the odd branch here and there will do no harm at all, but don’t take too much. Removing all the berries or cutting the bush back too much will mean birds and other animals that rely on the plant for food and shelter will be left without.

And it could also damage the plant in the long-term too, meaning you won’t have any holly to jolly up your home next year.”

Festive facts about holly:

Holly berries are unusual in that they stay fresh, even through very cold weather - they don’t shrivel and dry up or go off, which makes them brilliant for birds right through the winter

There are over 400 hundred species of holly with either prickly, spiny, or smooth edged leaves. Most are evergreen, but some are deciduous

Only female trees produce berries, but a male plant needs to be close by for this to happen

36 species of insect have been recorded feeding on holly

Under good conditions, holly trees can live to be 300 years old, and still produce holly

To benefit wildlife, conservationists recommend waiting until February to prune bushes and trees so that cover, insects and berries are left in place for as long as possible

Holly was originally valued by the pagans in Northern Europe.

It was also an offering given to the God Saturn by the Romans during the festival of Saturnalia.

Eventually it also become signiciant to Christians, who decorated their doors with it as a method of preventing persecution.

Samantha added: “At this time of year, our wildlife can struggle to find food and shelter in the wider countryside, but there are all sorts of ways that we can ‘Step up for Nature’ and help out, especially in our gardens.

“Whether you have a balcony, small lawn or large garden there are plenty of things you can do to benefit wildlife during the winter months.

“From providing food and water, to putting up nestboxes for birds to roost in, or creating wood piles for creatures to hibernate under – every little step will help”

For more information on how you can make your window box, balcony or garden a ‘Home for Wildlife’ visit the RSPB’s website: www.rspb.org.uk/hfw