A garden for hedgehogs in spring

One of the highlights of last summer for me was regularly finding a hedgehog (which I imaginatively called Hedgey) and a larger hedgehog (Hodge) in our garden late on summer evenings.

The hedgehog loves rough grassland beside hedges or woodland – which is a major reason why they are commonly found in gardens. Gardens can resemble wildlife-rich woodland edges where a hedgehog can forage for those tasty creatures that mill around at ground level, and springtime is when they emerge and begin to seek a mate.

Sadly, our endearing native hedgehogs can struggle to survive in open farmland, due to changes in agricultural practice. Unlike the small, hedge-bounded traditional grazing meadows of yesteryear – full of a variety of juicy caterpillars and beetles – vast, bare, sprayed or reseeded fields, filled from edge to edge with a single crop, are simply not suitable. Also, these small mammals frequently fall victim to modern technology because their defence mechanism is to roll up, keep still and extend their prickles. This works well against all but the most determined predators, but is no use against farm machinery.

Hedgehog declines are often blamed on predatory or competing badgers, but these species have coexisted in Britain over millennia and, like other native prey, predators and competitors, they could carry on coexisting in the countryside. Heavy-handed human interventions just cause new and unforeseen problems.

Garden hazard advice

Many of us are confined to our homes and gardens during the Coronavirus crisis, and are eager to do useful jobs in the garden. Please don’t be too tidy, however, and do check for hedgehogs before using strimmers, hedge cutters, a garden fork, shears, scythes or any other sharp tools. They build summer nests of leaves and grass for shelter and breeding, not just well-hidden winter hibernation nests.

In spring, hedgehogs will be out and about after dark, meeting briefly to start their families. The two to seven babies go out foraging with their mother in a dangerous world.

Here are some typical problems they encounter in gardens:

  • A sterile landscape: what use are neat, empty spaces, concrete, tarmac, paving slabs, artificial grass or gravel to a ground-foraging mammal?
  • Solid fences and walls. Hedgehogs need gaps or tunnels through these barriers, as they range widely in search of food and a mate.
  • Some formal ponds don’t have a shallow end or a way to climb out. A hedgehog is a good swimmer but needs a way to escape.
  • Poisons in slug pellets and garden chemicals kill prey, leaving predators like hedgehogs with nothing to eat. They can also kill hedgehogs (and thrushes, etc.) that eat poisoned creatures, or affect them directly.
  • How many hedgehogs have we killed with misguided kindness? Milk gives them diarrhoea. Bread fills them up without providing nutrition. We now realise that mealworms are low in calcium and cause metabolic bone disease. Peanuts and sunflower hearts do the same.
  • Always check bonfires and compost heaps before burning or turning!
  • Litter, netting, rubbish, bins, buckets and holes – all of these are hedgehog traps!

There has been a 97% fall in hedgehog numbers since the 1950s, and so in the 2020 active hedgehog season, we need to take action now!

Create a hedgehog haven

Now for the positive bit. Garden owners, especially when they work together, can create real hedgehog havens.

At the bottom of my own garden there’s a pile of old branches and leaves looking a bit like an unlit bonfire, with a hedgehog box underneath. I hope last summer’s visitors, ‘Hedgey’ and ‘Hodge’, spent the winter inside.

A normal garden hedge can become part of a hedgehog highway, as long as there’s a way through into more gardens or habitat (avoiding dangerous roads if possible).

A pond with a shallow end is great for encouraging all wildlife to come and drink, so even a tiny one is worthwhile.

It’s easy to leave some long grass and leaves around garden edges. It’s the opposite of hard work and yet it’s really useful for hedgehogs and provides shelter for its main prey animals – caterpillars and beetles.

If you’d like to be more proactive, make a hedgehog box. Although wood is the usual material, as long as it has a door, walls and a roof, you can make it out of all sorts of non-toxic things, including bricks and slate. Leave bedding such as leaves and dry grass nearby. It could become a regular feeding station in a quiet part of the garden.

To feed hungry hogs, leave out meaty cat or dog food, or (more expensive but specially formulated) hedgehog food, plus a dish of water. Can you create a hedgehog food tunnel, house or space where someone’s cat cannot get in first?

Grow all sorts of plants to encourage many insects for your hedgehogs to eat.

Mulching your garden edges is great for your soil, your plants and the soil creatures that hedgehogs eat. It’s a win-win situation. Home-made compost and leafmould are ideal mulches.

I’m feeling a bit more positive now.

Hedgehog

Amy Lewis

Last summer I sometimes found Hedgey and Hodge (it it was the same hedgehogs) together, and not just at their food bowl. Some loud grunting and snuffling led me to hope that they were a couple and would produce more little hedgehogs.

Data about how many hedgehogs there are and where they are found is important, so add your hedgehog sightings to ORKS, our wildlife recording service.

GUIDE

Hedgehogs - your guide to Britain's most loved creature and how to protect them

Everything you need to know about Britain's best loved creature and actions you can take to give them the best chance of recovery.

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© Jon Hawkins

APPEAL

Cornwall’s hedgehogs are disappearing – you can help them by making a donation

To coordinate hedgehog-saving action across the county and ensure these activities are effective, we need your help. Right now, the best action you can take is to donate to the Hedgehog Appeal.

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Tom Marshall