Disappearing Hedgehogs

Devon Wildlife Trust's Steve Hussey recalls the day when one of our best-loved animals disappeared from his life

Devon Wildlife Trust’s Steve Hussey recalls the day when one of our best-loved animals disappeared from his life

The scene was set. The BBC were putting together a new wildlife series presented by Bill Oddie, and wanted to film hedgehogs in an urban garden. So, when the call came from a researcher to us at Devon Wildlife Trust, it didn’t take long before I volunteered my home as the venue. Everything seemed to fit perfectly: I lived in Exeter, I had an urban garden, and it regularly attracted hedgehogs. Being a child of the 1970s also meant I was a huge fan of The Goodies TV show, and so the thought of seeing Bill Oddie with ‘my’ hedgehogs in my garden was irresistible. What could go wrong?The first inkling of things not going to plan came when a large BBC outside-broadcast van arrived in our small, quiet suburban cul-de-sac. As it eased into position, a further three BBC vehicles arrived and out poured a dozen staff including the great man himself.Now, I need to say from the outset that Bill and the remainder of the crew were charming and perfectly behaved that night. I still cherish the gift of a signed copy of the book from the TV series. But that said, hedgehogs seem to have little time for celebrities and their camera crews. At that time our garden was something of a hedgehog haven, being visited by several hedgehogs each evening. In fact, on one particularly good night we counted six hogs on our lawn at one time. The secret of our success was that we regularly put out bowls of dried dog food and water for them. In return for our efforts, the hedgehogs would appear dutifully each day at dusk to snuffle and sniff their way around.

The hedgehogs would appear dutifully each day at dusk to snuffle and sniff their way around

But on this evening something was different. The bowls of food and water were ready and waiting, but so too were a couple of camera crews, sound men, lighting men, a producer, a personal assistant and a small, bearded celebrity. Floodlights bathed our garden in white light, mobile phones rang, positions were changed and, inevitably, the hedgehogs failed to turn up.A few fruitless hours later, the producer decided on Plan B: Bill Oddie was filmed stalking our garden looking for hedgehogs that weren’t there. Then he and his entourage went home to bed. The next night a single camera man returned, as did the hedgehogs, and the BBC got their film. Months later when we watched the programme, Bill Oddie and hedgehogs appeared miraculously in the same film, although never in the same shot!Six years later I look back with a smile at this story. But I also look back with some sadness. Not because Bill Oddie has failed to call around to see us again, but because it is our hedgehogs that I’m missing. We still leave food out and we still resolutely keep our garden as a hog-friendly place. It’s an easy thing to do – we don’t use pesticides or slug pellets and therefore have a healthy population of the snails, slugs and mini-beasts that form the bulk of a hedgehog’s diet. We have two large log piles in quieter corners of the garden for hogs to rest and hibernate in. We are (partly through design, but mostly through laziness) untidy gardeners, with parts of our patch left to go wild with long grass and overgrown shrubbery. All this should make our garden a hedgehog paradise, yet hedgehogs have largely disappeared from our garden. Why is this? The answer lies in the habits of hogs. Hedgehogs are foraging animals. Watch a hedgehog at work and you’ll see it head down, snuffling and snorting its way through grass, across soil and through leaf litter like a miniature pig. It uses its good hearing and excellent sense of smell to sense the creeping, crawling, slithering trails left by its prey. During each night’s patrol, a hedgehog may cover more than two miles in its search for food. One person’s garden cannot alone support a population of hogs.   

During each night’s patrol, a hedgehog may cover more than two miles in its search for food

This is where a network of wildlife-friendly gardens, parks and green spaces plays such an important role. Together they can form a landscape in which hedgehogs can make a living. But these landscapes are vulnerable – it only requires one of their component parts to be lost and the whole fractures, a network becomes a patchwork and hedgehogs (amongst many other animals) lose out.This is what happened in our neighbourhood. Within twelve months of Bill Oddie’s appearance, two vital parts of hedgehog real estate disappeared. First to go was a large, long-established orchard in a secluded section of the garden of a large house. In its place came an estate of executive housing with new turf, tarmac drives and high impenetrable garden fences. Then a smaller empty plot of rough, unkempt grass and bramble succumbed to urban infill. Another house went up and the life chances of local hedgehogs went down. Our hedgehogs suddenly found themselves in a much less friendly landscape in which there were fewer secure places to hibernate, fewer safe spots to make their summer day-time nests, in which it was less easy to forage, more sub-divided by fences, with more and busier roads to cross, more land brought into tidy, formal gardens and less left to go wild. As a result the hedgehogs simply slipped away.Sadly this pattern seems not to be restricted to one part of Exeter but to be repeating itself across the UK. The reasons for the hedgehog’s decline may not always be the loss of landscape to new building; in the countryside changes brought by modern farming methods are taking their toll, while an expanding badger population (badgers are one of the hedgehogs’ only natural predators) may also be playing a part. So what can be done to help one of the most familiar of all our animals? This spring and summer Devon Wildlife Trust is running a Help the Hog campaign and you can play your part by:• Making your garden more hedgehog-friendly by taking the very simple steps outlined on this page. • Telling us when you last saw a hedgehog in your garden by filling in the Help the Hog survey form at devonwildlifetrust.org.  And don’t worry if you’ve never seen a hog on your patch – we still need to hear from you!The aim of Devon Wildlife Trust’s campaign is to make Devon a more hedgehog-friendly place. We think we can do this with your (and your garden’s) help. But we also need to know how Devon’s hedgehogs are faring, where they seem to be holding their own, and where they are in trouble. If we can do both these things, we really will go some way to helping the hog. For more information about Devon Wildlife Trust’s Help the Hog campaign, visit www.devonwildlifetrust.org

Hedgehog facts

Most Read

• More than half of hedgehogs die within their first year, and average life expectancy is 2-3 years. In exceptional cases some can live up to 10 years.• Hedgehogs are born with a coat of soft, white spines underneath the skin. This protects mothers during birth. A second coat of dark spines emerges after about 36 hours, and later a third set develops. By 11 days a young hedgehog can curl into a ball.• Hedgehogs are usually a dark grey-brown, but on the island of Alderney, 25% of the hedgehogs are blonde.• Local names for hedgehogs include ‘urchin’, ‘hedgepig’ and ‘furze-pig’.• There are about 5,000-6,500 spines on an adult hedgehog.• Hedgehogs have a peculiar habit of ‘self-anointing’, in which they spread saliva over their own bodies. The reason for this behaviour remains a mystery.

Help hogs in your garden

• Solid fences and walls restrict a hedgehog’s movement through gardens. Be sure you leave or make small gaps at their bases.• Hedgehogs can swim but often drown in garden ponds because of their steep and slippery sides. Provide them with an escape route: a piece of wood, chicken wire or pile of stones.• Bonfires make good places for hedgehogs to nest. Check them for hedgehogs before lighting!• Be prepared to leave a small part of your garden to go wild. Long grass, log/leaf piles and undergrowth provide foraging and nest places for hedgehogs. • Feed your local hedgehogs, but provide dog food and water, not bread and milk.