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Tread Lightly: A prickly subject - how to help our declining hedgehog population

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Allie Birley explains how to make your garden hedgehog-friendly.

I love hedgehogs! There, I’ve said it.

If I had my way, the whole of this week’s paper would have been dedicated to this charming mammal. Unfortunately, the editor said no and stopped taking my calls.

Hedgehogs are in rapid decline in the UK
Hedgehogs are in rapid decline in the UK

Many people think that hedgehogs are common in the UK, but their numbers have been declining at an alarming rate. In July 2020 they were included in the Red List for British Mammals, classifying them as vulnerable to extinction.

The most recent studies show that the numbers have stabilised in urban areas, although they are still low. Worryingly, the rural population is dropping between 30 to 70 per cent and here in the East of England we are at the top end of that range.

If I’m talking about low hedgehog numbers, there will often be someone who says it’s because of badgers. Badgers are certainly one of the few animals who have the tools to be able to kill a hedgehog, but their preferred diet includes earthworms, insects, amphibians, seeds and berries. Badgers and hedgehogs have lived together for thousands of years and it is our impact that is leading to the imbalance.

A key factor in the decline of hedgehogs is the loss of suitable habitats and lack of connecting wildlife corridors. The use of harmful chemicals is another issue and, according to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, 50,000 to 100,000 hedgehogs are killed on the roads each year.

The good news is that there are lots of easy steps we can take to help hedgehogs.

Make surethere are holes in the bottom of your fences so hedgehogs can travel between gardens
Make surethere are holes in the bottom of your fences so hedgehogs can travel between gardens

The key thing is to give them the chance to roam. A wildlife-friendly garden is fantastic, but hedgehogs can travel up to a mile a night looking for food and at some point, a mate. So please make sure there is a gap for them to get in and out of your garden and if not, cut a ‘Hedgehog Highway,’ which should be about the size of a CD case, in your fence or gate. Hopefully, you can encourage your friends and neighbours to do the same.

To make your garden hedgehog friendly you also need to:

  • Provide water in shallow dishes.
  • Put out food on a regular basis. Meat-flavoured cat or kitten biscuits are a good choice. A lot of rescuers advise against many of the speciality foods, as they contain things like meal worms which are not good for hedgehogs – although they love them.
  • Avoid using harmful chemicals in your garden, including slug pellets.
  • Provide an escape ramp if you have a pond, which you should all have after a previous ‘Tread Lightly’ feature
  • Check for hedgehog and hoglets before strimming or mowing. I have seen some horrific injuries on hedgehogs who have been caught with a strimmer.

You can also help by taking a hedgehog, which is sick or injured, to a local rescue.

A hedgehog at Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital
A hedgehog at Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital

There are a number in this area including Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital, Cambridgeshire Wildlife Care (near Ely) and Hartford Hedgehog Rescue (near Huntingdon). https://helpwildlife.co.uk/map/ is a particularly useful website if you find any sick or injured wildlife.

The key indicators that a hedgehog is sick include:

  • If it looks thin - healthy hedgehogs are a nice round shape. When they are underweight, they will often have a more pointed backend.
  • Being outside in the daylight - there may be the occasional nursing mother out during the day, but they will be a healthy weight and walking very purposefully. On the subject of nursing mothers, if you come across a nest of hoglets please do not touch them with your bare hands or the mother will kill or abandon them. Keep an eye on the nest to make sure the mum returns. If she doesn’t the hoglets will be peeping and venturing out of the nest, at which point contact your local rescue for advice.
  • If the hedgehog is ‘sunbathing’ or staggering around then it is likely to be suffering from hypothermia and needs immediate help.
  • Coughing and breathing difficulties are a sign of lung worm, which is a dangerous infection.

The best chance for a poorly hedgehog to survive is to take it to a qualified rescuer or vets, if they have an experienced hedgehog carer. It is great to rescue a hedgehog, but a bad idea to try and nurse it back to health yourself.

A hedgehog at Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital that had been found on a rat glue trap. Picture: Keith Heppell
A hedgehog at Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital that had been found on a rat glue trap. Picture: Keith Heppell

If you find a sick hedgehog you will need a pair or heavy-duty gloves to pick it up, a high-sided box, lined with newspaper. Also pop in a couple of extra sheets of newspaper for them to hide under. Add in a dish of water and some meaty cat food or biscuits, but don’t try to feed them by hand.

A hedgehog at Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital
A hedgehog at Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital

They will usually need a hot water bottle filled with warm, not boiling water. It is worth mentioning that a source of warmth is not ideal if there are fly eggs (which look like grains of rice) on the hedgehog. But hypothermia is the bigger danger.

If you would like to become a hedgehog champion and help map hedgehog highways and sightings then please go to https://www.hedgehogstreet.org/.

One final hedgehog fact is that their fleas are host specific, which means they will not survive long on other animals or humans.

Read more from Allie

Tread Lightly: How to create a successful garden pond

Tread Lightly: Face it - we need to make our cosmetics a little greener

Tread Lightly: Ease back on the throttle and drive down motoring costs

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