Feeling the Heat
PUBLISHED: 18:05 01 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:55 20 February 2013
What can we do this autumn to help our prickly garden friend? Melanie Vincent, of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, offers advice
There are only a few more weeks to go before one of the most anticipated dates in the autumn calendar is upon us Bonfire Night. All over the country, children are eagerly awaiting Guy Fawkes Night when theyll be able to stay up a little later than usual to enjoy the fabulous displays of bonfires and fireworks.
But for the hedgehog, 5 November may spell nothing but disaster. All this endearing creature wants to do at this time of year is find a comfy, warm place to sleep away the winter. The problem is that their ideal spot tends to be a heap of dry leaves and twigs, similar to the ones that are destined to go up in flames! Yet it is very easy to ensure that hedgehogs avoid this fate. Advice from the Wildlife Trust is:
Build the bonfire as close to the night of burning
as possible, as this gives hedgehogs less time to
make it his home.
If collecting material to burn days or weeks in advance, pile it in one place and then rebuild it
in another before setting it alight.
Before starting the fire, carefully search the heap
for hibernating creatures, using a torch and a
rake, and gently pull back twigs or leaves.
If you do find a hedgehog, put on a pair of
gloves and transfer it to a safe, dry place this could be another pile of twigs and leaves, or a ready-made hedgehog box, situated in a quiet
spot away from any disturbance.
Sadly, and not just because of our annual bonfire fetish, hedgehogs are in decline. On a national scale, their population is thought to have declined by a depressing 20% between 2001 and 2005, reaching up to 50% in some places. The main reasons for this are changes in agricultural practices, such as increased use of pesticides and removal of hedgerows, which can have a devastating effect on the insects, worms and snails on which they feed, as well as destroying potential nesting sites. On farms, another serious hazard are cattle grids hedgehogs frequently fall into these and once inside the high-sided pits, they find it almost impossible to crawl out.
The dangers can be similar in private gardens. The trend towards tidy lawns and popular chemical remedies like slug pellets to deal with unwanted garden visitors, does nothing for wildlife in general, nor for the small creatures hedgehogs feed on; they can also fall into drains or slip into ponds, and if these are sheer-sided, its hard for them to scramble to safety.
And, then of course, theres roadkill who hasnt seen a squished hedgehog on the side of the road? Its a sad saying, but probably a very true one, that more people have seen a dead hedgehog than a live one.
In fact, most of the hazards that affect hedgehogs are man-made. In terms of natural enemies, their main predator is the badger, which finds the hedgehogs prickly coat no match for its powerful claws.
The UKs only spiny mammal is afforded some protection by law. The species is covered under The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which means that it is illegal to capture one without a licence, and in 2007 it was listed on the UK Priority Species List as a species which needs special attention.
In 2008, it was added to the Wiltshire Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) the ongoing plan of action for wildlife conservation in the county. However, and rather interestingly for a rural county, the species is listed as a priority species in the built environment.
The Trusts BAP Officer, Sarah Wilkinson, who coordinated and compiled the action plan with the help of over 40 other wildlife and conservation organisations in Wiltshire, explains why: Although hedgehogs are found almost everywhere, it is in the urban environment where people can actually do more to help this animal by, for example, gardening in a wildlife-friendly way.
Hedgehogs are indeed remarkably at home in urban environs and have been known to make good use of public green spaces, cemeteries, railway lines, brown field sites, and, of course, gardens. In fact, hedgehogs are found almost anywhere in the UK, although they are scarce in mountainous regions, pine forests and wet areas as there is often a lack (or an insufficient amount) of insects and other invertebrates on which to feed.
Although they are mainly nocturnal creatures, hedgehogs can be spotted in the daytime, especially during autumn, when they are out and about more, fattening up in preparation for hibernation.
Considering their size, they can travel a great distance in search of food: 1-2 two miles per night. They are noisy eaters and can often be heard first, rather than seen, thanks to the snuffling sounds they make when hunting. They have a good sense of smell and hearing, and are guided by these rather than their eyesight, which is poor.
Hedgehogs usually hibernate between November and April because the creatures on which they feed are no longer around. During hibernation, the hedgehogs heartbeat and breathing rate slows down to a whisper, and their temperature drops from 35C to 10C. In order to hibernate successfully through the winter, hedgehogs need to weigh at least 600g to ensure they have sufficient fat reserves if they are under this weight, they may not be able to survive.
In mild autumns, hedgehogs may delay hibernation till later in the year, and in warm winters they may emerge as early as February. Sometimes, they can also wake up during hibernation in search of extra food. In all these instances, if hedgehogs are spotted, people can help by providing them with food and water to supplement their diet.
It was commonly thought that milk and bread was a good meal for a hedgehog, but this can actually cause them tummy upsets. The advice from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society is to put out a bowl of meat-based pet food (without gravy), or cereal (like muesli or weetabix), and another bowl with water.
Hedgehogs emerge from hibernation with the onset of warmer weather. Their breeding season runs from April to June, and hoglets are usually born four weeks later. There are usually four or five babies in a litter.
If there is a sudden cold spell in spring, a pregnant female may resume hibernation and the process will delay the pregnancy by slowing down the development of her embryos. Once she emerges from hibernation, the pregnancy will continue as normal and will be extended by the same length of time she spent hibernating.
Once the babies are born, they stay close to their mothers until they are four weeks old, soon after which they will disperse. They lead solitary lives and will only seek each others company when looking for a mate, which is usually in their second year. In the wild, hedgehogs can be expected to live three to five years, but sadly over half die in their first year. Sometimes they have been known to live up to ten years, but this is rare.
Hedgehogs may sometimes give birth to a second litter late in the year. These are often in great danger because they have little chance of gaining sufficient weight to hibernate through the winter. They are known as autumn juveniles and if spotted, they need to be looked after straight away. The British Hedgehog Preservation Societys website (britishhedgehogs.org.uk) provides ample information on how to help autumn juveniles. However, it stresses that the job is a specialised one and it may be best to pass the hoglets onto an experienced carer.
So, keep your eyes peeled this autumn and winter for wandering hedgehogs, and be prepared to welcome them into your gardens. Create suitable places where they can hibernate like piles of leaves, twigs and grass cuttings, or try your hand at building your very own hedgehog hibernation box and provide extra food and water. This way, if hedgehogs do feel the heat, we can at least do our bit to help them through the cold months.
For more information on hedgehogs, and on how to make a hedgehog box, contact Wiltshire Wildlife Trusts Wildlife Information Volunteers on 01380 725670.
Rescuing hedgehogs and swans in Swindon
Sue Hulbert, who runs Swindon Swan and Hedgehog Rescue, will
be giving a talk on the trials and pleasures of rescuing wild animals. Contact Jane Baldwin, 01793 721659.
7.30pm, Gorse Hill Community Centre, Chapel Street, Swindon