When I was younger, I collected hedgehogs, not real ones, but ceramic figurines. They were all shapes and sizes, and each time I went on holiday I would search through the gift shops to add to my growing array. I loved them all, but there were two I remember especially. One was a realistic but miniaturised hedgehog by Peter Fagan, with eyes and nose that twinkled all shiny and black. The other was a Whimsey hedgehog, a very special collectable made by the British pottery company Wade between 1971-84. I wish I could say I still had these beloved figures, but they were either lost or given away as I grew up into a teenager and my attention turned to collecting clothes, albums and the latest copy of Just Seventeen.
My fascination with hedgehogs as a child was due to the fact I had never seen one in real life - they were elusive, almost fairy tale creatures that lived in stories or glossy picture books of nature. I would try to stay up late and go on hedgehog hunts in our garden, with not so much as a sniff or a rustle. But one day, when I was about eleven, I got my first sighting. I can remember it so vividly. My father was a milkman for our village, and I was helping to deliver milk one summers morning. As I walked from one house to another, there trundling along, minding its own business was a real, live hedgehog. It was very content to let me stare and watch as it made its way across the driveway and into the neighbouring garden. I knew not to touch it or try to pick it up, so let it quietly slip away into the fading darkness of that early morning. It was magical. I would not see a live hedgehog again until over 30 years later.
2020 brought us all a lot of unexpected things, and as a result of time slowing down and our world shrinking to the street, village or town in which we lived, our garden's - no matter how small - became a close comfort, a haven and much needed distraction from the scary, restricted world we found ourselves in. My garden brought me so much pleasure during those warm spring and summer months. Working from home allowed me to take my coffee breaks on our lawn it became a classroom for my children - measuring sunflowers and counting worms and the evenings stretched out as long as the sun’s rays would allow. We were visited by woodpeckers, an unusual oak moth caterpillar and a familiar friend - a hedgehog.
We spotted the hedgehog a few days in the row, and I say we because as a family we were outside enjoying the sunshine in the middle of the afternoon. Hedgehogs are nocturnal, they rarely come out during the day. This set alarm bells ringing, but after a little research, we thought maybe it is a female hedgehog taking a break from her nest. We put out fresh water and a saucer of tinned dog food, which the hedgehog really enjoyed. It was lovely to see and know we were helping in a small way, and even better to think we had a garden friendly enough to support hedgehogs. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that this hedgehog was not well, by our third visit the animal was wobbling as it walked and seemed disorientated, it was curling up on its side as if to sunbathe. All these were warning signs of a sickly, dehydrated hedgehog.
After an overnight stay at the vets, another night at home with us - which was very exciting - we rushed her to our local Hedgehog Helpline rescue charity when there was no sign of improvement. A wonderful lady took in our hedgehog but couldn't save it. Dehydration and cold had set in, this had caused the animal to lose weight and become unresponsive to IV fluids.
Next week 2nd-8th May is National Hedgehog Awareness Week here in the UK. My experience of looking after a sickly hedgehog has made me realise the vital steps we need to take if we see one out during the day. It has also inspired me to make our garden as safe and friendly to hedgehogs and other wildlife as possible. I've put below a few tips to help you do the same. There are great national rescue centres around the UK and across the world - I have put links to these below.
But why all the fuss? Is it just because I love hedgehogs? No, as of July 2020 Hedgehogs are now officially vulnerable to extinction. There are 11 other UK native mammals under threat of disappearing too, due to historical persecution, a loss of habitat, development and the introduction of non-native species. These include the water vole, hazel dormouse, wildcat and the grey long-eared bat. I do not want future generations to grow up in a world where they ask, what's a hedgehog?
So, what can we do? There is always hope for change, when we take small steps and encourage others to do the same. Here are top tips from the web and links for you to follow:
Out in the Daytime
Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals; therefore, they should be sleeping during the daytime, they can often be seen midst winter also heading back to their nests around 7am. If they are out doing the day this can signify a problem and it is important you seek professional help as soon as possible. The only exception would be a pregnant hedgehog who can often be seen moving with purpose and nesting material in its mouth.
If you see one during the day and it looks wobbly or slow then please pick it up gently wearing gloves for protection. Put a hot water bottle filled with warm, not boiling water and wrapped in a towel or fleece in the bottom of a high sided box and place the hedgehog in it. It is important the hedgehog is kept warm - even if it is a sunny day. Provide fresh water to drink and a small amount of wet cat or dog food (not fish flavoured). Do not attempt to force or hand feed the animal. DO NOT give milk, nuts, fruit, sunflower seeds or meal worms.
Call your local hedgehog helpline or wildlife rescue centre. You can ring a vet if you see that the animal is injured.
During the Night
Place food and fresh water out at night, either in a quiet corner of your garden or in a feeding station. There are some great ideas for these online. Do not feed milk and bread, as hedgehogs are lactose intolerant. Only feed dried/wet cat/dog food or even better, specific hedgehog food. Put this in a low dish, alongside a fresh bowl of water. Water is scarce during dry periods - so keep it topped up even if you do not put out food, as other wildlife will benefit from this too.
Follow these steps to make your garden a hedgehog haven:
Avoid pesticides and chemicals – especially slug pellets. Hedgehogs are the gardener’s friend and will be delighted to dine on the slugs, snails and caterpillars in your garden. If you are using slug pellets and pesticides in your garden, these will make their way into the hog’s digestive system and will make them ill.
Put an escape route into your pond. Hedgehogs are quite good swimmers, and they enjoy a drink of pond water. But if your lake has steep sides, they will have trouble getting out. Provide a ramp, or a “beach” to help.
Be careful with your power tools. Hogs love to hide in piles of vegetation or overgrown areas. So, if you’re mowing long grass, strimming undergrowth, or even forking over the compost heap, check for hedgies first.
Nuisance Netting. You know that old saying “curiosity killed the cat”? Well, it probably should say “curiosity killed the hedgehog”! They love poking their noses into things they shouldn’t. And if you’re covered in long spines, once you’ve poked your nose into something it can be tough to get back out again. Netting for protecting vegetables is a particular problem. So is sports netting. Try not to leave them lying around.
Beware of Bonfires. A nicely built bonfire looks like a perfect nesting site to a hedgehog. Be very careful before you light one. The best approach is to build a bonfire just before you plan to use it. So, you don’t give hogs a chance to take up residence.
Dangerous Dogs. If your dog tends to chase things, watch her carefully when you put her out at night. Maybe even consider putting her on the lead after dark. Though it’s unusual for dogs to kill hedgehogs, they can cause injury and upset.
There are many resources online, with tips and ideas, ways to donate and helping numbers to call. Here area a few more links - awareness is key, so please pass this post and the information about hedgehogs on to your family and friends.
I am choosing to not use weedkiller or slug pellets, leaving areas in the garden more 'natural' (read untidy!) and ensure there is an accessible water source available all year round. My sister bought my children a hedgehog house last Christmas, and this now has a resident. This is something very special and reminds me that we humans do not own the natural world, but if we live in harmony with it, it will reward us with precious wonders - the prickly, snuffly, black twinkly eyed kind.
Image via Unsplash