When I say hedgehogs need help, I really mean it. Hedgehogs are probably one of our best known mammals, after all, to the average member of the public who is not knowledgeable about wildlife a small brown furry thing can be a mouse, shrew, vole, rat, mink or anything similar, but almost everyone knows that a small spiky animal is a hedgehog. Beatrix potter may have something to do with this because of the numerous childrens’ books she wrote including ‘The tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’ (a hedgehog).
According to experts they have been around in their present form in the region of fifty million years so they must be doing something right. Unfortunately for them, human beings have arrived and with them brought lots of chemicals to kill those ‘pests’ in the garden which just happen to be the food of hedgehogs. That and the incredible increase in the number of roads and cars which travel on them in the past forty years have taken a very heavy toll on the hedgehog population.
They are now an endangered species and need our help to survive.
Whether you like it or not, hedgehogs will visit your garden, indeed you would have to go to considerable lengths to stop them getting in for not only can they dig under fences but they are quite talented climbers and would have little difficulty scaling an obstacle over a metre (3’3” high). They can climb ivy and shin up drainpipes by squeezing themselves between the pipe and the wall and have been found hibernating in thatched roofs so it could be difficult keeping them out of your garden even if you wanted to but there is no need because they do no harm and eat a lot of garden pests.
If you see something on the ground which looks like an elongated black bird dropping it may well in fact be hedgehog poo. It is usually about 5cm (2”) in length.
The giveaway sign is the presence of small shiny pieces. Hedgehogs eat lots of beetles and it is the shiny bits of beetles exoskeletons and wings that you see glistening in the poo. They also eat caterpillars, earthworms, snails, slugs, earwigs and millipedes but will eat almost anything else edible which they stumble across including baby birds, mammals and frogs (dead or alive). Unfortunately they also eat the eggs of ground nesting birds and although they only account for a very small percentage of lost clutches they are very unpopular with gamekeepers who rear pheasants for the wholly distasteful ‘sport’ of shooting birds for fun.
Hedgehogs can be found in most places except moorland, pine forest and wet marsh land. They are not territorial animals and this is possibly because the males do not have anything to do with rearing his offspring so does not need to hold a territory in which to protect them.
The only place where any dispute appears to arise is at a communal feeding place. In areas with plenty of food they travel about 2-3kms (1-2 miles) each night, further when food is more scarce. Because of this their tracks are bound to cross and different hedgehogs will visit the same place each night so it follows the one you may see in your garden each night is not always the same one. About twenty five years ago I did a survey of my own garden by putting small paint marks on the hedgehogs visiting over a short period of time and found there were ten different visitors. I doubt very much there are that number now as I used to see them every night but have only seen one on about three occasions this year (2010).
If you want to get some idea of just how many do visit your garden you can mark each one you find by putting a dab of paint on its spines being careful not to go near its face or ears. Use a quick drying light coloured acrylic paint which will be seen easily in torch light, this is water based so it won’t harm the hedgehog but water resistant when dry so it won’t be washed off by rain, you can get this paint in small tubes from any art shop but DON’T use car touch-up paint or anything straight from a spray paint can because it consists mainly of thinners which will run straight onto the skin and can be very harmful to the animal. You could use a small paintbrush brush to apply the paint. You don’t have to paint the whole hedgehog, just a 3cm (1”) circle and don’t forget to put the mark on a different place on each animal. This will necessitate keeping a record of the ones already seen and the positions of the marks on their spines.
It is fairly common knowledge that hedgehogs are often endowed with those not so endearing little creatures, fleas, which can be fairly easily see through the tangle of spines and coarse hair. Most carry only a few fleas but a heavily infested hedgehog can carry as many as five hundred. The good news is that hedgehog fleas only like hedgehogs and not humans or to put it in scientific terms, the fleas are ‘host specific’ so if they do jump onto you they will leave again as soon as they realise you are not a “hoggy”. If you find it necessary to adopt a hedgehog for a while you can soon get rid of its passengers, more about that later.
Spring is courtship time. On the first warm nights of may and June upon encountering a female a male starts his courtship ritual which entails encircling the female whilst emitting snorting and puffing noises which can be Quite loud. This may go on for quite some time and end fruitlessly with one or the other just walking off. On the other hand, if a successful mating does take place it is a case of ‘ships that pass in the night’ as the male takes no further part in the rearing of his offspring. Hedgehogs arrive into the world blind and spineless between June and August depending on weather conditions and location (northern or southern Britain). They are born completely enclosed in a nest of leaves grass and moss hidden somewhere the female considers safe and permanent and often under a garden shed or pile of logs. There are usually three to five young born and if the nest is disturbed within the first few hours the mother will either desert or eat the young. If disturbed at a later time she will take the less drastic action of moving the nest.
At two weeks old they have a thick spiny coat and their eyes are open and after three or four weeks they will leave the nest to go with mother in search of food but will still return to the nest for milk. I can’t think of a more pleasant sight than that of a mother and her young meandering though the garden. After another week or ten days the family will split up and each will start its own solitary way of life. Sometimes if the first young are born early in the year a second litter will arrive around September or October, this does not give them much time to build up fat reserves needed for hibernation and unless they reach the magic weight of 600 grams (22oz) they are unlikely to survive. As winter draws near and their food supply diminishes they desperately try to gain weight, but they are nocturnal animals and if you see one out in the daylight it is probably in poor condition and not just foraging for food. This hedgehog will need help and may be close to death.
These late starters may be seen late into November or even December trying to build up weight but if the weather turns cold early they will surely die. This is where you may be able to help. If you find any small hedgehog from the beginning of October onwards, weigh it, you can even look out for them after dark. If they don’t reach the 600 gram (22oz) minimum weight you should take them into care. Although they are used to the wide open spaces, a box measuring approx. 600mm (2’) square will be adequate for a short time but a little exercise each day would be appreciated. Cover the floor of their temporary home with something soft like newspaper and sawdust or soft earth, and change it frequently. Don’t forget they can dig and climb so make sure the base is solid and the sides smooth and high enough for the top to be out of reach all the way around. Put in a box to act as bedroom, completely closed but with an entrance hole, put some bedding straw in this.
For water it is cleaner to put a wall mounted bottle with a drip nozzle than a tray of water which “hoggy” will soon tip over or paddle in, they can obtained quite cheaply from pet shops. Before placing your new lodger in their apartment lightly dust their spines with flea powder (which can also be bought from pet shops) being careful to avoid getting any in the eyes. Purchase the type of flea powder which is suitable for kittens and other young animals because some powder is too strong and could be dangerous. Don’t worry if you can’t get to its stomach hair with powder as the fleas actually breed in the nest so by changing the nest material frequently and dusting “ hoggy” a couple of times you will soon get rid of them.
Feeding is not really a problem as they will eat a variety of foods although like we humans they have their preferences and after once trying something new and tasty it may not want to eat anything but that, however, this should be discouraged because a varied diet will avoid stomach complaints. It isn’t necessary to go crawling in the grass collecting snails and slugs to satisfy its appetite, far more civilised foods like crumbled biscuits, chopped chicken (nothing with spices), fresh chopped liver, dog meat and biscuits and cat food but nothing that contains fish.