The Ultimate Guide to Protecting British Hedgehogs (and why they need our help)

By Claire Mitchell Posted in the Gardener’s Corner – 19th July 2019.

Welcome to our complete guide to protecting British hedgehogs.

If you’d like to see more of these special animals in your garden or you have a question about how to look after one, this article is for you.

Introduction

Claire Mitchell

My name is Claire Mitchell and I love hedgehogs and all other animals, especially those that that are in decline and in need of a little help from us.

Hedgehogs can come over as cute, happy-go-lucky minibeasts who do no harm and love a simple country life.

In part, that’s something of the image Beatrice Potter’s Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, pine-cone Christmas-tree decorations, and a host of other hedgehog popular media favourites have helped to create.

And whilst, even in the animal kingdom, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, in truth the sweeping reduction in the UK’s hedgehog numbers is a serious problem which must now be addressed.

As with other wildlife, it’s the way humans have changed the environment which is the most significant factor in the hedgehog’s decline.

The British countryside is a very different place to what it was 50 years ago. And back then it suited our colourful ‘hedge pig’ rather well. But the rate of environmental change is accelerating rapidly and the hedgehog simply cannot cope with the wholesale reduction in habitat which is occurring right across our landscape.

But given sympathetic, light-touch human support, there is still a chance we can help this evocative British mammal to survive, live a more comfortable life, and maybe even thrive.

However, if we do nothing, there’s a good chance our hedgehog species may just fade away, leaving future generations to wonder just what was so special about Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

Hedgehog Fact File

Hedgehog in the forest– We know hedgehogs to be small, brown mammals with a pointed snout, equipped with a sharp set of brown and white spines protecting a soft underbelly. But there are in fact 14 different hedgehog species spread around the world. Ours is officially known as the European Hedgehog (or Erinaceus Europaeus, which is its scientific name).

– As regards spines, a mature hedgehog has anything up to 7,000 – and a tiny tail hidden out of sight. Scientists say these spines are really just tough hairs with a substance called keratin making each one stiff and prickly. A hedgehog has spines everywhere except on its face, legs and belly. The children’s author Beatrice Potter described hedgehog spines as ‘hair-pins sticking wrong end out’!

– What we call the hedgehog was known in the Middle Ages as an urchin, hedgepig or furze-pig, and for a group, the proper collective noun was an ‘array’ of hedgehogs.

– Some UK hedgehogs are naturally blonde due to leucism, a colour mutation believed to be caused by two rare recessive genes. Such hedgehogs are an extremely rare find. However, both the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay and the Channel Island of Alderney have hedgehog populations where 25% are blonde in colour.

– In the wild, hedgehogs live for an average of 2-5 years, though some animals may survive for as long as 10 years.

– Known as the ‘gardener’s friend’, hedgehogs make short work of slugs and other crop pests. Very slippery slugs are often de-slimed by the ’hog’s agile and flexible forepaws before they are consumed.

– UK hedgehog populations have declined by 30% in little more than 10 years. And a recent report says that rural hedgehog numbers have fallen by half since the year 2000, and urban hedgehogs by around a third.

– Based on these figures, we may have less than one million of these creatures left and British hedgehogs are vanishing from their native habitats at the same rate that tiger populations are disappearing around the world.

The Decline of the British Hedgehog

PTES LogoA new report by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) confirms hedgehogs are continuing to decline in the UK. Their surveys conducted by citizen scientists demonstrate that hedgehog numbers have fallen by around 50% since the millennium.

One alarming feature noted by conservationist organisations is the accelerated decline in rural areas, which really should be the stronghold of these creatures.

Hedgehog numbers have fallen by around 50% since the millenium.

People’s Trust for Endangered Species

This rural decline outlined in ‘The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018’ (PTES) has, according to the report, been primarily influenced by a range of modern farming practices such as:

– the wholesale application of pesticides which has consequently reduced the invertebrate species upon which hedgehogs feed;
– the prevalence of much larger fields which makes it far more difficult for hedgehogs to travel around their local landscape in safety;
– the widespread hedgerow-management practice of flailing, which soon produces leggy hedges with gappy growth around the base, transforming a once rich nesting habitat into something much poorer;
– commercial management of pastures using herbicides and fertilizers to reduce the amount of invertebrates in the soil, producing a bland, featureless desert optimised for monoculture and nothing else;
– the ploughing up of permanent pastures established over centuries, which destroys a rich wildlife eco system and often rips out ancient hedgerows and eradicates field headlands – rough, uncultivated areas which serve as a refuge for wildlife.

Hedgehogs in urban areas have tended to fare a little better. However, urban hedgehog numbers have been adversely affected by issues such as:

– ultra-efficient garden fencing and perimeter walling which has reduced the area of connected land hedgehogs can access;
– domestic garden land converted to car parking or decking areas, which has decreased the amount of foraging ground hedgehogs now have available;
– increased volumes of road traffic which has both resulted in mortalities and disrupted hedgehog dispersal pathways;
– new housing developments which are generally planned to remove any connectivity between adjacent gardens;
– over-zealous management and ‘improvement’ of scrub and bramble areas which destroys a rich source of hibernation opportunities;
– regimented garden maintenance which clears away overgrown corners, removes all dead wood, and replaces former foraging territory areas with drives and decking;
– the indiscriminate use of pesticides and slug pellets which wreaks havoc down the food-chain by poisoning animals and killing off the invertebrates on which our ’hogs feed.

One of the authors of this report, PTES surveys officer David Wembridge, said that two surveys focused on garden hedgehog populations and one on highway fatalities confirmed an overall decline. Nevertheless, he was also able to report there had been some signs to indicate urban populations might be recovering. Offering what he described as a ‘glimmer of hope’, he revealed that some measures employed to create useable habitat for town-based hedgehogs were showing promising results, and added: ‘Numbers haven’t recovered yet, but in urban areas at least there’s an indication that numbers appear to have levelled in the last four years.’

The report has some further good news in that the number of hedgehogs perishing on Great Britain’s rural roads has fallen by between a third and a half.

Speaking on behalf of the campaign group, Hedgehog Street, Emily Wilson pronounced the apparent decline in the rural population of hedgehogs ‘really concerning’. Ms Wilson said the ongoing removal of hedgerow and copse habitats to increase the size of fields has hit hedgehogs hard by reducing the number of nesting sites available, while at the same time taking away areas they use for refuge and protection.

The ongoing removal of hedgerow and copse habitats to increase the size of fields has hit hedgehogs hard by reducing the number of nesting sites available.

Emily Wilson, Hedgehog Street

Disapproving of large-scale monoculture strategies, she said: ‘This kind of barren one-crop landscape has removed the amount of area that hedgehogs can live in. The large-scale pesticide use has reduced the amount of food for them to eat – there are fewer invertebrates.’

But both the PTES group and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, the two groups which compiled the report, feel that farming communities could be part of measures designed to halt the worrying rural decline. Initiatives to alleviate environmental pressures on hedgehogs could include: leaving more field margins uncultivated, halting the removal of healthy hedgerows, and allowing scrubby growth areas which would provide a wild haven for our spiky friends.

Other measures include trialling an initiative which would see wildflower strips placed in the middle of larger fields. These strips would encourage a range of insects which could prey upon crop pests and thus help to decrease the levels of pesticides required. If successful, this would benefit all local wildlife, including hedgehogs.

And with the UK on its way out of the European Union, and so no longer bound by EU agricultural policy, the government have suggested that a review of the system of farming subsidies could herald a move away from payments for land ownership to rewards based on the wildlife protection measures introduced.

Addressing these matters, a Defra spokesperson observed: ‘Hedgehogs are one of the UK’s most treasured animals with an important role in our heritage and natural environment. We remain concerned about the decline in their population, and through our 25 Year Environment Plan we’ll be creating or restoring 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat to provide benefits for species such as hedgehogs.’

Defra also said that funding through Countryside Stewardship was being used to restore, link and extend important habitats. This has resulted in over 100,000 hectares of new priority habitat brought into use since 2011.

Life From the Hedgehog’s Perspective

Hedgehog on groundHedgehogs are found right across the British Isles, except for a few remote Scottish islands. Areas such as gardens, hedgerows, woodland edge environments, overgrown grassland, parks, cemeteries and any areas with hedges, greenery, compost heaps, and plenty of garden leaves are all prime hedgehog habitats.

Hedgepigs are experts at finding warm, dry spaces – and underneath a garden shed may be close to ideal. Occasionally, hedgehogs will also invite themselves into outdoor pet accommodation, or find themselves a cosy nest under some garden decking.

Though adult hedgehogs are not territorial, they can journey distances of between 1-2km per night across home ranges which could extend to 10-20 hectares in size. They may build several nests across these areas, and thus won’t always necessarily be found in the same spots.

Hedgehogs find gardens with a good food supply very attractive. Insects are their primary diet, but anything extra is always very welcome. Natural shrubs plus any low-growing flowers and foliage will bring an array of insects, and hedgehogs will dine at their leisure.

Food That Hedgehogs Eat

Hedgehog food

Dedicated food for hedgehogs – Available on Amazon

Hedgehog diets reputedly consist of slugs and snails, but they actually consume a vast selection of other garden invertebrates too.

In fact, their staple foods consist of beetles, earthworms and caterpillars, and indeed larger snail shells can be quite an awkward proposition for even the most determined hedgehogs to access.

A statistical analysis of typical hedgehog feeding preferences would look like this:

Beetles – 27%
Caterpillars – 26%
Earthworms – 13%
Birds eggs – 10.7%
Mammals – 5.3%
Slugs – 4.7%
Millipedes – 3.4%
Earwigs – 3%
Wasps, bees, ants – 3%
Flies and leatherjackets – 1.3%
Bird feathers – 1.1%
Others – 0.6%
Spiders & ticks, harvestmen, woodlice, centipedes – 0.4%
(from Yalden, D., 1976, ‘The food of the hedgehog in England’)

One of the issues for hedgehogs is that vanishing habitats also mean diminishing supplies of some of their natural foods. However, it helps that our typical hedgepig is adept at switching to new food supplies whenever they are in abundance. Something of an omnivore when the need arises, our hedgerow pig can also be partial to taking the occasional frog, and will also be spotted dining on certain windfall seasonal fruits and varieties of mushrooms.

Hedgehog Breeding

Baby hedgehogWhen the breeding season arrives enthusiastic hedgehogs may be observed circling each other and issuing a series of snorting and grunting noises.

Hedgehog litters can be born from May onwards and may consist of up to five hoglets (babies).

They are born blind, and for the first few hours of life, their spines remain sheathed just underneath their skin.

The spines will fully emerge in a short time, and the young urchins then leave the nest altogether after about a month.

Hibernation

Unlike most mammals, hedgehogs do not have to cope with finding food during the harsher winter months.

Instead, just like the bat and the dormouse, they hibernate in winter time. So, subject to the prevailing temperatures and weather conditions, they become lethargic and sleepy for a period from late autumn through till spring – i.e. from around October/November up until March/April. During this time, they lower their body temperature and slow down their metabolism, which enables them to minimise their core energy requirements.

Hedgehogs will always try to feed intensively to get themselves into prime condition before they enter hibernation, and finding enough food at this time is always critical to their chances of surviving through the winter.

Hedgehog Predators

The badger is the main UK predator species. A badger is too tough to worry about hedgehog spines and has claws strong enough to uncurl any hog rolled into a tight protective ball.

Dogs, cats and foxes can also cause harm – more especially to immature hoglets – but the aggressor often suffers wounds too.

Crows, magpies and larger birds of prey will devour young hedgehogs caught outside in daylight.

Even flies can cause deaths by laying eggs in open hedgehog wounds. These become infected with maggots (a fly strike) and a slow death ensues.

10 Steps You Can Take to Help Protect Hedgehogs

hedgehogs

If you’re keen to do something practical to nurture our wild hedgehogs, the following ten suggestions will be appreciated by hedgehogs – and many other creatures too.

1. Connect your garden

Perhaps the best thing of all you could do for your local hedgehog population is to allow them easy access to your garden.

This involves creating a 12cm x 12cm opening at the foot of your existing garden fence. And if you have a larger garden, it would be even better to make access holes at different points.

If at all possible, you could collaborate with your neighbours to create a network of ‘hedgehog highways’ stretching throughout your neighbourhood. This optimum solution would permit your local hedgepigs to roam over the kind of distances their lifestyle demands.

2. Consider planting a hedge

Hedges are a natural feature which will enhance any garden. And equally, they make a great hedgehog habitat.

A good hedge will allow hedges to travel around in safety, provide an ideal foraging area, and accumulate a layer of leaves which could offer a place to nest and raise a family, and/or to hibernate through the winter.

Planting native species like hazel and hawthorn is a sure way to attract egg-laying moths. This in turn will produce a harvest of delicious caterpillars – a favourite hedgehog delicacy.

3. Make your garden pond safe and hedgehog-friendly

’Hogs are good swimmers but they will struggle to climb out of any pond which has sides that are slippy and steep. That unfortunately means they soon become exhausted by their efforts and usually drown.

If necessary, modify your pond so that it has gently sloping sides which will enable a hedgehog to clamber out.

As an alternative, you could use thick rope netting draped over one side, or provide a log at one end which could be used as a ladder exit.

When buying a plastic pond, look for those which include stepped levels leading to a very shallow exit point.

4. Always check before strimming operations

Sadly, hedgehog rescue centres are very used to trying to help hedgehogs with terrible injuries caused by garden strimmers.

Always check and poke about in your long grass areas before using a strimmer to clear away the grass.

This will be enough to warn a sleeping hedgehog and hopefully prevent such injuries occurring. And if you should find one, try to move it out of danger by finding a safer, secluded hideaway. Better still, allow some of your grass to grow wild, which will not only provide a haven, but also encourage hedgehog food species to become established.

5. Try to avoid the use of slug pellets

Standard garden slug pellets contain metaldehyde, a chemical which is toxic for hedgehogs. Alternative organic pellets branded as wildlife-friendly, though they contain less-toxic ferric phosphate, nevertheless still remove slugs and snails from the local food chain. Garden hedgehogs are very efficient slug predators, so if you plan to increase the numbers of hedgehogs visiting your own garden, this alone will have a controlling influence on the volume of slugs available to cause damage to your plants and flowers.

6. Building a hedgehog house

Hedgehogs will always be seeking a dry, safe place they can use to raise a family and hibernate through the British winter, so a box shelter would be the perfect ‘hog habitat.

It’s best to cover your box with waterproof plastic sheeting plus a good layer of leaves. You should also construct an entrance tunnel (dimensions around 12cm x 12cm, and about 40cm long) which will deter predators from attempting to enter the house. If possible, locate your hedgehog hotel beneath a north-facing hedge, in a quiet spot.

Check out our guide to 7 of the best pre-made hedgehog houses you can buy.

7. Supply extra food and water

While natural food will always provide optimum nourishment for your local array of hedgehogs, it can be a good idea to give them another food source too. This is especially true at critical times such as before hibernation and again when they emerge in the spring.

The most nutritious food you can provide is a meat-based dog or cat food, and preferably one which includes chicken or turkey flavours.

Also, make sure there is some water available to your visitors. But please, please, avoid supplying them with what seems to be the ‘default’ hedgehog rations of bread or milk. It must be stressed that either of these foods can dehydrate hedgehogs and will quickly kill them off.

Water should be left in a shallow bowl, so the hedgehog can easily reach the water without falling into a bowl or pot that they can’t escape from.

8. Cultivate some native flora

Try to plant some native varieties such as honeysuckle, dog rose, hawthorn and blackthorn.

These are all host species which provide a source of food for many different caterpillars, so will encourage lots of moths to lay their eggs among the foliage. Then, when the caterpillars finally emerge, they will mostly make their way down to earth in order to complete their life cycle and become adult moths.

These caterpillars will thus provide a nourishing feast for the hedgehogs when they visit your garden.

9. Don’t tidy away all your twigs and leaves

Leaving an untidy pile of logs, twigs and leaf litter in a secluded part of your garden, or even a traditional compost heap, will create a hedgehog-friendly habitat area which is warm and dry – and therefore a very suitable site for nesting or hibernation.

This kind of mini-wilderness area will also attract small invertebrates like slugs, centipedes and beetles looking for a place to shelter.

These visitors will be gratefully dispatched by any resident hungry hedgehogs you may be supporting.

10. Check your bonfires

If, like many gardeners, you are in the habit of building bonfires of twigs, branches and rotting or spent garden waste, do remember your resident hedgehogs could easily mistake this for yet another of your hedgehog hotels.

This could have disastrous consequences unless you check thoroughly before setting it alight. The best practice is to build and light your fire in one gardening session, otherwise you will have to dismantle and rebuild your bonfire before you send it up in flames.

Whatever you do, don’t give hedgehogs or any other garden wildlife the chance to creep in unnoticed.

Some other suggestions are to plan your garden as a green space without decking or paving; cover up your drains to stop hedgehogs falling in and getting jammed; and tidying up dangerous litter like plastic netting which can be fatal to hedgehogs and other wildlife.

When a Hedgehog May Need Rescue Help

Because they are mostly nocturnal animals, hedgehogs are harder to spot. So if you see one at twilight or in the early dawn, just leave it to continue on its way.

But if you find a hedgehog in broad daylight, there’s a greater chance it may be in some kind of trouble.

So here’s some advice about when intervention may be necessary or wise:

i) Daylight roaming

Unless they are clearly dragging nest material, or out at the start or end of a day, hedgehogs wandering in the daytime always need investigation. So contact vet/wildlife rescue services to get the animal checked over.

ii) Signs of illness/injury

You may see the hedgehog wobble, fall over, seem almost drunk, or show signs of limited mobility.

iii) A sunbathing hedgehog

Hedgehogs never sunbathe, in fact they live in dark nests. Should you spot one ‘asleep’ outside, take it somewhere it can receive the help it surely needs (see suggestions at the base of this page).

iv) Fly strike

If you see a hedgehog covered in micro-sized maggots which look like tiny rice grains, you are looking at a fly strike. The hedgehog will not recover in the wild and requires a vet’s help.

v) Baby hogs

Small hogs caught out in daylight need assistance, unless it’s late evening or early morning. Very tiny hoglets need their mother urgently, so rescue them and contact help services.

vi) Winter strays

If you come across a November hedgehog weighing below 600 grams, their chances of surviving hibernation are slim.

To support them, you should carefully weigh the hedgehog on accurate electronic scales. Seek help and advice for any animals below 600g. Rescue services will make a decision about what to do for the best.

vii) Dead hedgehogs

Though you may believe you’ve found a winter hedgehog dead, contact an expert just to be sure. Winter hedgehogs may feel frozen, but could easily just be in a torpid, hibernating state. It’s an easy mistake to make, so don’t take any further action without advice.

viii) The hedgehog looks odd

Exotic breeds of hedgehog can be found ditched in wild places. They are usually abandoned pets who won’t survive in the wild. Show it to a vet for a professional opinion and to get further advice.

Summary

If you are interested in supporting the rich diversity of our native wildlife, it is not too difficult to find hedgehog-friendly ways you can adopt to make a contribution to the task of turning around the population decline they presently face.

No initiative is so small it’s not worth pursuing, and every pro-hedgehog action you take is another step towards preserving these characterful urchins for the enrichment of our planet and the delight of future generations.

Websites Where You’ll Find Further Information About How to Help Hedgehogs

(1) The Tiggywinkles wildlife hospital has a detailed list of the most common ways hedgehogs die, which includes popular garden products such as pesticides, garden wire/string amongst other items.

(2) Founded in 1982 the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, a registered charity, offers help and advice to those with sick, injured or orphaned hedgehogs and maintains a list of rehabilitators based in the UK.

(3) Hedgehog Street has over 60,000 registered members. Check out their site and see how you can get involved.

(4) The Wildlife Trusts has a helpful section about how to help a hedgehog in distress.

(5) The People’s Trust for Endangered Species has a ten-year action plan to tackle issues facing rural and urban hedgehogs.

(6) The Hedgehog has more in-depth information about how to help hedgehogs, including what to do in an emergency and a useful links section.

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By Claire Mitchell Posted in the Gardener’s Corner – 19th July 2019.