Nature on our doorsteps: Surviving frosty winter weather

By Rosaleen Dwyer

Rosaleen Dwyer is the County Heritage Officer at South Dublin County Council – every week she gives us an insight into the natural heritage around us and the beautiful biodiversity of the plants and creatures

Until the recent spell of frosty weather, temperatures this winter have been relatively mild.

Nature, however, is well prepared for changeable winter weather. 

Buttercups are frost hardy native plants 1

Buttercups are frost-hardy native plants

Once the periods of frost and snow, or the cold, wet, and windy conditions do not continue for too long, most of our native species are well-adapted to survive a ‘normal’ Irish winter.

Frost in particular is a real challenge for plants, because it freezes the water in leaf and root cells. 

As the ice crystals expand, they burst through the cell walls. 

Then, when the ice eventually melts, vital nutrients leak away. 

Trees avoid this challenge completely by dropping their soft leaves in autumn, having first saved their vital nutrients deep inside their wooden trunks and branches.     

Wall mosses are not affected by icy weather 1

Wall mosses are not affected by icy weather

Delicate leafy plants cannot do this.  Instead, they produce plenty of small, tough-skinned, dry seeds that will survive over winter while the plant’s more tender leaves and roots die away. 

Water in the soil also freezes. 

This can deprive plants of life-giving water, causing them to shrivel and die.

Frost also affects soil creatures.  Earthworms dig deeper into the soil away from the frozen surface, while slugs and beetles hide under stones. 

Without these creatures to feed on in winter, Hedgehogs use a different strategy to survive. 

They sleep away the winter challenge, waiting until milder springtime weather encourages its food species back out once again.

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