With a new ‘State of Britain’s Hedgehogs’ report showing hedgehogs numbers are continuing to decline in rural areas, I snout out the ways we can go the whole hog to help these prickly creatures in our own gardens…
One of the most enduring memories of childhood has to be the ritual of hedgehog feeding. Out we’d go into the night with a shallow saucer of cat food (or, before we knew better, bread and milk), placing it strategically near a shrub or hedge, before tiptoeing back indoors to peer out, breathless with excitement for a glimpse of our nighttime visitors.
On most occasions we’d be rewarded; first with those tell-tale grunting, snorting and puffing noises then with shuffling spines and a snuffling snout as the hedgehogs emerged to take a dip in our midnight feast.
But when homeowners began to deck over gardens, smother lawns with sterile artificial grass and put up impermeable boundaries to keep out the neighbours – they kept out the hedgehogs too.
According to the State of Britain’s Hedgehogs report and ongoing surveys by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), there has been a steep population decline in the last decade with half of rural hedgehogs and a third of urban ones disappearing. Thankfully, the latest report (published in February 2018) shows the decline is starting to slow, and numbers are even increasing in certain areas.
“Hedgehogs now appear to be declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers are globally – at around five per cent a year,” says Henry Johnson, who as ‘Hedgehog Officer’ at Hedgehog Street, a joint campaign between wildlife charities the PTES and The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), has to have one of the UK’s best job titles. “We all get dewy eyed about the loss of these magnificent beasts but often overlook what is, or isn’t, in our own backyards.”
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So is there a way to stem the tide? Henry and other hedgehog experts believe the problem is not about what is in our gardens, but more about getting into them.
“Hedgehogs thrive in gardens because of the diverse range of habitats they provide,” says Henry. “But fences and walls stop them in their tracks, and the single most important thing we can do is give them access to roam.”
The main focus of the Hedgehog Street campaign, therefore, is to get homeowners to create ‘hedgehog highways’ i.e. small 13cm by 13cm holes or gaps in garden boundaries so the animals can travel into and between gardens.
Evidence from radio tracking studies shows hedgehogs snuffle their way through more than one kilometers of gardens every night in search of food, with a sustainable hedgehog population needing at least 90 hectares of connected land to survive.
The garden, which opened in April 2017, showcases a number of hedgehog-friendly features such as nesting sites, tunnels and holes, as well as safe water features and planting designed to encourage the prickly mammals.
“A whole family of hedgehogs was raised every year in my garden as a child,” says Tracy. “But these days, so few of us – garden designers included – take into account how airtight gardens have become and that fences and walls unwittingly lock out hedgehogs.”
Through her hedgehog garden, Tracy shows that a wildlife-friendly garden doesn’t have to mean “scruffy”. As well as a feeding boxes and tunnels, there’s also a mud pie sculpture of a hedgehog planted with sedges and a shallow water feature.
“It doesn’t have to be all nettles and tyres! “ says Tracy. “At Harlow Carr we’ve also created a little rill, with steps made of flagstones so the hedgehogs can get in and out easily. It looks like a hedgehog spa!”
Tracy suggests a great place to start is by creating a hole in your fence. “It doesn’t require wood working skills, you can scrape a hole underneath the fence and make a mud tunnel – I have done this in my own garden – or buy fence panels with pre-cut holes.”
If you’re having a wall built, add a ‘smoot’ (traditionally a hole to let lambs move from one field to another) that’s just large enough for a hedgehog. Then, add your hedgehog hole it to the Big Hedgehog Map at hedgehogstreet.org.
In June and July, hedgehogs will also be breeding so it’s the perfect time to leave out some nesting materials, create a log pile hibernacula (a hog house) in a quiet undisturbed corner, or add a compost heap or leaf pile to encourage more insect prey.
Ponds are an often-overlooked hedgehog friendly feature but hedgehogs benefit greatly from a year-round water supply and are great swimmers. Ensure the sides are gently sloping so they can get in and out easily.
“Consider planting perennials that attract pollinators too rather than mass-produced bedding plants,” says Henry. “Plant hedges, create lawns for worms and beetles and grow herbs such as thyme and marjoram between paving stones.”
Put out bowls of mealworms, crushed unsalted nuts, meat based cat and dog food, and sunflower hearts – avoiding bread and milk – and a saucer of water if it’s dry. To stop cats and other garden visitors pinching the food, you can make a feeding station out of an old wooden crate or plastic box, with a hedgehog-sized hole cut into it.
And once you’ve attracted your hedgehogs – shout about it! No single garden is large enough for a hedgehog population so you have to think of your garden as part of a ‘local hog network’.
“I have encouraged all my neighbours to make a hole!” says Tracy. “Gardens don’t function without a wildlife element and you need a natural balance for its health and well-being. It’s thrilling to know other creatures are sharing that space with you.”
Got a hog? Here’s how to know for sure…
- Find tracks. Create a footprint tunnel to detect them, go to ptes.org for a diy kit.
- Look for droppings. Generally dark brown-grey or black, firm and typically packed with the exoskeletons of invertebrates, such as beetles. Roughly cylindrical, they can be 15 to 50mm long.
- Log your hog. Note hedgehog sightings at hedgehogstreet.org and become one of 43,000 ‘Hedgehog Champions’, or sign the new hedgehog petition to increase legal protection for hedgehogs. Find out more information about hedgehogs at www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk
- There are 17 species of hedgehog across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. The West-European hedgehog is Britain’s native.
- Most of us live within a mile or two of the nearest wild hedgehog population – even in the middle of large cities. In the breeding season, male hedgehogs can cover up to 3km in one night in search of females!
- How do hedgehogs mate? Carefully, of course! Males attempt to woo females in lengthy encounters that involve much circling and rhythmic snorting and puffing. Once wooed, the female adopts a special body position with her spines flattened. Breeding occurs between April and September with most hoglets born in June/July.
- During hibernation, from October to April, hedgehogs drop their body temperature to match their surroundings and enter a state of torpor. However, they can move nesting sites and, during mild winters, will remain active into December.
- It’s a myth hedgehogs should be fed bread and milk. They are in fact lactose intolerant so should not be given milk and bread is so low in energy, it’s almost worthless to them.
- Hedgehog fleas cannot be transferred to pets: the fleas are species specific.
- Slug pelletsare the most well-known chemical hazard to hedgehogs. Other pesticides can also affect hedgehogs as they lead to a decrease in the number of earthworms and other invertebrates available.
- Wood preservers can also be harmful to hedgehogs, as they will often lick freshly treated fences. Try to use a water-based environmentally friendly treatments.
First published in Vegetarian Living, 2017