Hedgehogs in the garden

by Kate Bradbury

Hedgehogs are mainly active at night, so many of us don't realise we share our gardens with these prickly beauties.

HedgehogIn the 1950s, the UK was home to some 30 million hedgehogs. Now it's estimated that there are just one million, according to a recent report published by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES). It’s not known exactly why hedgehogs are declining so alarmingly, but the usual factors are likely to blame: in rural areas, there are fewer hedgerows to provide shelter, while use of pesticides removes a vital source of their food. In towns and cities, small, over-tidy and paved gardens reduce foraging habitat. It is only in scruffier, suburban plots, that hedgehogs can thrive.

Hedgehogs are mainly active at night, so many of us don’t realise we share our gardens with these prickly beauties. They shelter by day in thickets of grass, leaf and log piles, under sheds and in compost heaps. They breed from early to late-summer, giving birth to up to seven hoglets at a time, and feed on earthworms, beetles, caterpillars, and - happily for gardeners - slugs.

I've never seen a hedgehog where I live, but my mum used to see them occasionally in her garden. Like many gardeners, she sadly realised she had them when it was too late - she had commissioned some builders to take down her shed, and they found a nest of hoglets beneath it. I've also heard of gardeners discovering hedgehogs in their compost bins and, at this time of year, many will be found - or not -  in bonfires.

Despite the potential hazards of living in such close proximity to humans, there are many ways we can make our gardens safe havens for hedgehogs. Like all wild creatures, they need food, shelter and breeding opportunities. First, they need access to gardens, so dig holes under your fences (or take out the bottom of one panel on either side) to help them travel between plots. Leave an overgrown area, preferably with a log pile, where they can shelter, breed and forage. If you have a pond, make sure they can enter and exit safely.

Hedgehogs love compost bins. If you need to empty yours and you're worried about disturbing any hogs, do so in April, after hibernation and before they start breeding. If you use slug pellets, follow the instructions on the packet and clear up any dead slugs immediately, as these will be quickly hoovered up. (Better still, don't use them.)

At this time of year, hedgehogs are trying to fatten themselves up for hibernation. Those born in late-summer may have difficulty reaching the weight needed to get through winter, so if you share your garden with them, consider feeding them to help them on their way. Instead of milk and bread (which can dehydrate and kill hedgehogs), feed them cat or dog food, unsalted peanuts, sunflower hearts, dried meal worms or sultanas. Feed them every night until they no longer take the food, by which time it is safe to assume they have entered hibernation (normally around mid-November).

If you have a bonfire this month, think about what's hiding among the dry wood. Unlit bonfires make ideal hibernation sites for hedgehogs (as well as frogs and toads), so build your pile as close to the night as possible so there's less chance of wildlife moving in, or re-stack the heap before you light it.

And if you'd like to do more to help hedgehogs, why not become a Hedgehog champion? As part of the PTES and British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) Hedgehog Street campaign, you can make a difference to the lives of hedgehogs in your area. It's a brilliant campaign, and could make a difference to the future of hedgehogs, helping them avoid extinction.

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Talkback: Hedgehogs in the garden
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Gardeners' World Web User 28/10/2011 at 14:20

Oh, i do wish they did not feel the urge to cross the road. We have lost so many to cars in Bristol. Timely reminder, Kate, to check bonfires before lighting them on Nov. 5th.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/10/2011 at 15:50

I totally agree Kate, at this time of year it's vital to check bonfires before lighting. Also, empty the compost heap out now or leave it, as you say, until spring. There's no point leaving turfing out the heap as a winter job when you might uncover hibernating hogs, and other creatures, which will likely die because of the disturbance. Thanks for highlighing their plight! Alas, I have none to save, but those who do should take note!

Gardeners' World Web User 28/10/2011 at 15:50

I used to see hedgehogs quite often in our garden but haven't spotted one this year. I have seen what I'm sure is hedgehog 'poo' though & I think they may be eating the suet nibbles & dried mealworms I put out for the birds.I have a hedgehog house, piles of logs, a small pond & lots of slugs & snails for them as well so they're welcome to stay!

Gardeners' World Web User 28/10/2011 at 16:14

Thank you Kate. We are desperately trying to save as many as we can and the state some of them arrive in is pitiful. Much of it is down to human activity which is completely at odds with what our wildlife needs. Anyone who is interested in these animals can find a vast amount of information about them if they care to do a search but the best thing they can do right now is put out cat biscuits and water to help the hogs fatten up for hibernation.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/10/2011 at 17:56

We currently have at least 5 hedgehogs in our garden which we are feeding everynight. They come to the dishes we put out by our patio doors so we can see them. We have also put up a camera to record their activity throughout the night. They are so cute and adorable.

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