The Cheshire Wildlife Trust on what you can do to help the much-love hedgehog
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 February 2014
From Shakespeare to Beatrix Potter, we’ve always been fond of hedgehogs. In recent years however, these spiky garden guests have struggled to adapt to our modern world. Fortunately, there’s still lots we can do to help as Tom Marshall from Cheshire Wildlife Trust reports
Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To see his ‘flat mate’, of course. The joke may be one of the oldest in the book, but the scene which inspired it is no longer as common as you might think; and not because these charismatic creatures have worked out how to use a pelican crossing.
Delightfully cute and alarmingly spiky all at the same time, hedgehogs have found their way into our hearts through children’s books and their regular appearance on our screens as inpatients to the nation’s animal rescue hospitals. Indeed, when the RSPB recently took on a multi-million pound TV re-launch, the hedgehog stepped-up to centre stage.
Whatever the reasons why hedgehogs have endeared themselves to us all, we may soon have an ever bigger role to play in the survival of what is considered the nation’s ‘favourite wild animal’ than a careful swerve when driving after dark.
It’s thought we have lost a third of our hedgehogs in the last decade, which may explain why we now see fewer on our streets – crossing the road or otherwise – given the sudden drop monitored between 2003 and 2012. Compared to more than 30 million hedgehogs in the UK during the 1950s, we may now have just a million left.
So what do we know about these mysterious backyard visitors? Firstly, those spikes. There are around 5,000 specially adapted hairs on a hedgehog’s back, creating a defensive coat that few, perhaps just badgers, are prepared to tackle. A strong set of muscles beneath the skin are what allows the hedgehog to rapidly retreat into a protective ball – keeping their softer belly and face well out of harm’s way.
Hedgehogs are almost entirely nocturnal so they can be difficult to see, but can often be heard as they rustle in the undergrowth and in particular can become quite loud during seasonal romantic liaisons. They can cover up to two miles every night foraging for food, so each hog may visit several gardens. Hedgehogs are good climbers too and can scramble up and over low walls with relative ease. They have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell, and very good hearing – picking up on the smallest of vibrations.
Hibernating through the winter is key for hedgehogs, helping them to survive when there is very little food available. During the autumn they eat as much as they can, accumulating a reserve of body fat to see them through the tough sub-zero months. During hibernation, a hedgehog can lose a third of its 2kg body-weight. When hibernating their heart rate reduces from 190 to just 20 beats per minute, and body temperature drops to as low as four degrees centigrade. Despite this, hedgehogs can wake up several times during the winter, and may even move to a new nest – making your garden even more important.
Traditionally, the hedgehog has been the gardener’s friend – with caterpillars and slugs on the dinner menu. Although they have also developed a bad reputation for destroying the nests of ground-nesting birds in some parts of Scotland, this is largely restricted to offshore islands where the hedgehogs have been introduced as a non-native species for which the birds have no defence, and a situation you can’t really blame on the hedgehogs themselves.
More typically on the mainland, their natural home is woodland edges and hedgerows, but hedgehogs find the shrubberies and borders of our gardens a very good substitute for this habitat that has disappeared from large parts of the countryside. In some areas of the country, around half of all hedges have been lost or have fallen out of beneficial management since World War II, no surprise then that our hedgehog numbers have followed suit.
Along with this most obvious impact on hedgehog numbers, our ever-growing road network, increases in garden pesticides and hard landscaping reducing access to gardens have all played their part in the hog’s apparent decline. However, there is still lots we can do to reverse that trend.
Hedgehogs like a varied menu. They are loved by gardeners for eating slugs, but they will also eat snails, earthworms, beetles, spiders, caterpillars, millipedes and woodlice – so they make the gardener’s perfect dinner guest!
Lots of us like to feed hedgehogs, to encourage them into our garden, or so you can see them easily. Suitable foods for hedgehogs are canned dog or cat food, minced meat or scrambled egg. You can also buy special hedgehog food. Don’t put out too much food – you want your hedgehog to have room left for a few slugs! Contrary to what you might have seen, bread and milk is not good for hedgehogs and can lead to upset stomachs.
What you can do
There are lots of things you can do to make your garden more hedgehog-friendly. These might not guarantee you a new spiky neighbour, but will certainly increase your garden’s overall value for wildlife.
Recreate their natural habitat of woodland edge and hedgerow bottoms. An uncultivated patch with brambles, creating a dense mass of vegetation, provides plenty of feeding and nesting opportunities.
Dense shrub borders also give plenty of cover, and are a good place to put a hedgehog house (use old wood or stones with at least 1ftx1ft (30cm square) hollow area and entrance around the size of a postcard. A turf roof will keep the weather out and the warmth in!
Avoid using slug pellets or other pesticides, as these reduce natural food sources and can even poison hedgehogs – let the hogs do the work for you! If you must use pellets, put them under a slate or flat stone, so mammals and birds cannot get at them.
Ponds with steep, smooth sides are dangerous for hedgehogs. A shallow ‘beach’ or pieces of bark around part of the perimeter will let hedgehogs, as well as other animals and birds, drink easily.
Hedgehogs can get caught up in garden netting – check yours regularly and release any trapped hogs.
Bonfire heaps make an ideal place to hibernate. Try to build your fire as close to lighting as possible and check any gaps at the bottom.
Fences, walls and other hard barriers around your garden means hedgehogs won’t be able to visit – consider leaving access (around the size of a postcard) or better still plant a native hedgerow.
Specialist hedgehog food and houses are available from the Wildlife Trusts’ conservation partners at Vine House Farm (www.vinehousefarm.co.uk) where your purchase goes to raise funds for our work here in Cheshire.