Deck the halls with boughs of holly

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Deck the halls with boughs of holly, but leave some for wildlife, says the RSPB

It's an age-old tradition - using fresh holly branches to adorn your table and give your home a festive look - but conservationists 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.

Richard James, from the RSPB's wildlife enquiries team, 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 (two are exclusive)
• Under good conditions, holly trees can live to be 300 years old, and still produce holly
• English custom decrees that honey bees be wished a Merry Christmas by attaching a sprig of holly to each hive
• In April, the Holly blue butterfly can be seen flitting around holly bushes on which it lays its eggs; in autumn these young lay next year's generation on Ivy!
• The needle-like points on holly leaves are thought to represent the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he was crucified. The red berried symbolise the blood he shed
• 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

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