How to help hedgehogs in your garden
- Credit: Tom Marshall
The hedgehog is under threat from development and habitat loss. Conservation Officer for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, takes a closer look at this endearing animal and explains how you can help
The hedgehog is our most easily recognised garden mammal. The spines are specially adapted hairs, and an adult hedgehog has about 5,000 of them. Strong muscles beneath the skin enable the hedgehog to curl up at any hint of danger so its face and soft underside is completely protected by the sharp spines.
Their natural habitat is woodland edges and hedgerows, but the shrubberies and borders of our gardens are also a very good substitute. Hedgehogs are almost entirely nocturnal so they can be difficult to see, but they can often be heard as they rustle in the undergrowth, occasionally snorting. Hedgehogs can cover up to two miles every night foraging for food, so each hog can visit many gardens. They are good climbers, so can scramble up fences and low walls. They have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell, and very good hearing.
They come out of hibernation in spring and almost immediately the males start seeking out females. Before mating the pair will circle each other for hours in a kind of courtship dance. Eventually the female will lower her spines to allow mating. The male takes no further part in raising the young.
The babies are born after 30 days, sometime between May and July and they are usually four or five in a litter. At birth the young hedgehogs have no spines, but very shortly soft white spines appear through the skin. Within two weeks strong brown spines appear. The young grow fast, and by eight weeks they are fully independent.
Hedgehogs hibernate through the winter in order to get through a time when there is very little food available. During the autumn they eat as much as they can, to accumulate a reserve of body fat to see them through the winter. A hedgehog can lose a third of its body-weight during hibernation. Sometime between October and December the hedgehog finds a dry frost-free place to build its over-winter nest. During hibernation the heart rate reduces from 190 to 20 beats per minute, and the body temperature drops to four degrees centigrade. In this state they get through their fat reserves very slowly. Hedgehogs can wake up several times during the winter and may even move to a new nest.
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Hedgehogs like a varied diet and eat all kinds of invertebrates, as well as amphibians, birds’ eggs and anything else they can catch; they particularly like big, crunchy beetles, earthworms and slugs, making them a gardener’s best friend.
Many gardeners like to feed their hedgehogs, to encourage them into the garden, or so they 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, but don’t put out too much – you want your hedgehog to have room left for a few slugs! Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t feed hedgehogs bread and milk as they cannot digest cow’s milk and it will give them a nasty stomach upset.
Hedgehogs on the garden
There are several things you can do to make your garden more hog-friendly and increase your garden’s overall value for wildlife. Anything that mimics their natural habitat of woodland edge and hedgerow bottoms is ideal. An uncultivated patch overgrown with brambles, creating a dense mass of vegetation, provides plenty of feeding and nesting opportunities.
Here are some other ways you can help hogs in your garden:
1. Dense shrub borders also give plenty of cover, and are a good place to put a hedgehog house.
2. If you have good fences, a small hole at the base will allow hedgehogs to come and go.
3. A bog garden can be home to many invertebrates and so be good foraging grounds.
4. Avoid using slug pellets or other pesticides, as these reduce food availability and can even poison hedgehogs. If you must use pellets put them under a slate or flat stone, so animals and birds cannot get at the pellets or dead slugs.
5. Ponds with steep sides all round are dangerous as hedgehogs can fall in and drown when trying to drink. A shallow beach around part of the perimeter will let hedgehogs, as well as other animals and birds, drink easily.
6. Check undergrowth carefully before using a strimmer – they can cause horrific injuries.
7. Hedgehogs can get caught up in garden netting, and if not found and released will starve: check any netting regularly
8.Every year hedgehogs get roasted when they decide a bonfire heap is an ideal nesting site. Check the base of your fire before lighting, or build the fire on a clear base just before lighting.
Where are our hedgehogs?
Although hedgehogs are thought of as common, their numbers are in decline with several surveys have painted a fairly dismal picture. Nationally, The Wildlife Trusts states that in just the past decade, hedgehog numbers have fallen by 30 per cent, and there are now thought to be fewer than one million left in the UK – they are disappearing from our countryside as fast as tigers are worldwide.
In Cheshire hedgehogs are comparatively rare, with most found in parks and gardens. Some newer housing estates have large gardens as well as large areas of shrubby amenity planting – ideal hedgehog habitat. The low speed limit in many of these estates helps prevent road casualties.
Cheshire Wildlife Trust is planning a campaign to help people take more action for hedgehogs and is always interested in hearing about any sightings. If you have seen a hog recently contact Sue Tatman at email@example.com. If you know the Ordnance Survey grid reference where you saw your hog this would be a great help, but don’t worry if you don’t, an address or postcode will be sufficient. w