Why are hedgehog populations declining?

Hedgehog by Tom Marshall

Hedgehog by Tom Marshall - Credit: Tom Marshall

Hedgehogs are having a hard time but there’s a lot we can do to help the charismatic creatures come back from the brink. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s, Katie Piercy reports.

Hedgehog by Tom Marshall

Hedgehog by Tom Marshall - Credit: Tom Marshall

From Mrs Tiggy-Winkle to Sonic, hedgehogs have long been a beloved part of our culture – and our cuddly toy collections. Named for their pig-like snouts and shuffling behaviour in hedgerows, they are the only spined mammal in Britain. Hedgehogs, or hedgepigs as they were once known, live a solitary life for most of the year with males and females pairing up only to breed. Courtship is a complex affair where the male has to woo the female with a dance. She will then flatten her spines to allow mating to safely take place. If a female catches the attention of two males at once, they may ‘rut’, bumping foreheads and chasing one another until the best hog wins.

The female raises the young alone, who arrive in June/July. The hoglets are blind when born, staying with their mother until they are old enough to go off on their own. They are fed their mother’s milk before joining her on foraging expeditions after one month. From their first family trip out, it may only be 10 days before the tiny hoglets head out alone to search for their own wriggly supper.

Hedgehogs are one of the few animals in the UK which truly hibernate, lowering their body temperature to around 1°c, and slowing their heart rate to just 20 beats a minute. This allows these tiny creatures to ‘sleep’ through the leaner months of the year without using up too much energy. Most will make themselves a comfy bed, usually of leaves and grass, which will help keep them warm through the winter frosts. If these sleeping hogs get too cold they could die, but most will wake up and move to a warmer spot if they begin to shiver. Hedgehogs generally move their bed at least once in the winter, usually hibernating from October to March, depending on temperatures.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal, sleeping in areas of scrub or bramble during the day. Their main food source are slugs and worms, with occasional crunchy beetles and millipedes. They may also nibble fungi and fruits, though the rumour that they carry fruits around on their spines is sadly not true. Their spines are specially adapted hairs made with keratin, the same material from which a rhino’s horn, and our own hair and fingernails are made. When threatened, hedgehogs will curl into a ball; excess skin on the hedgehog’s back allows our hogs to pull their spiny skin over their heads.

Hedgehog by Tom Marshall

Hedgehog by Tom Marshall - Credit: Tom Marshall

Between 2000 and 2010 hedgehogs are thought to have decreased by 25% across Britain. The strongest decline is in our rural hedgehog population, though many surveys show declines in urban hedgehogs too. So why are our hedgehogs in trouble?

There are many reasons why hedgehogs may be declining. The most obvious causes are the reduction in food and safe places to hibernate. As farming has intensified, more pesticides are used which reduces the number of insects across much of our farmland. Slug-pellets are widely used, taking one of our hedgehog’s favourite foods off the menu. In gardens and allotments too, many homeowners are choosing to rid themselves of pesky bugs through chemical means, leaving less for our foraging hogs. Fields have also become larger, with fewer hedgerows where hedgehogs can find food or hibernate.

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Gardens have also been a useful place for our hogs to feed and sleep. But today fewer gardens exist, with new housing estates having smaller, if any, gardens. Many existing gardens have been converted to parking spots or patios, creating unsuitable environments for hedgehogs. Strong fences and walls mean hedgehogs can’t get access to many remaining gardens. Rough areas such as scrub and brambles, or even log piles have become less common and gardens, parks and roadsides are becoming more manicured – leaving few resting spots for our hogs. Roads have also isolated populations and killed many of our wandering creatures. While badgers, foxes, and tawny owls are all known to prey on hedgehogs, research has found that pressure from predators isn’t a key cause of declines, with hedgehog numbers decreasing sharply even in areas where predator numbers are low. So what can be done to help?

Many simple steps can be taken in our own gardens to help. Firstly, using natural methods of pest control rather than pesticides, such as encouraging insects into your garden. This can involve providing nectar sources throughout the summer, and leaving stems and dead heads standing throughout the winter as natural bug hotels. A 13cm diameter hole in fencing or walls will allow hedgehogs to safely access your garden, and even small areas of scrub can be a perfect place for your visitor to rest in the winter. Finally, a shallow water bowl can benefit all sorts of wildlife in the heat of the summer, especially a thirsty hog.

Log pile by Claire Huxley

Log pile by Claire Huxley - Credit: Claire Huxley

In the wider countryside a hog’s needs are just the same as in our gardens, but on a larger scale; plenty of food and a safe warm place to sleep are all they ask. Buying organically grown food can be a simple way to reduce the amounts of pesticides being used on the landscape. By leaving rough patches, maintaining hedgerows and encouraging wildflowers in roadsides and green spaces, hedgehogs can be given more places to sleep, and more snacks to fatten themselves for their yearly slumber.

Cheshire’s hedgehogs

Want to know more about how to help our humble hedgehog? When you adopt a hedgehog with Cheshire Wildlife Trust you will receive a pack giving you all the information you need to encourage prickly friends back to your neighbourhood, plus a great hedgehog soft toy.

visit: www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/naturegifts.