Five things we found out about hedgehogs at 'Wildlife Matters LIVE: Operation Hedgehog update'

Hedgehog, Image by Jeremy Northcott

Hedgehogs are easy to love. With their curious, snuffly faces and habit of rolling into a ball when things get too much, it’s certainly not hard to understand why they’ve repeatedly been voted as the UK’s favourite animal. Yet their popularity offers no safeguard — their numbers have been steadily dropping for years, and our prickly pals are now in a real spot of bother.

We organised an online Wildlife Matters event to discuss what we can all do to help. Chaired by Head of Conservation, Cheryl Marriott, the panel included Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Tom Shelley and Laura Fox, who were joined by Dave Groves from the Cornwall Mammal Group and Dave Hudson and Katy South from Prickles & Paws Hedgehog Rescue.

If you’d like to watch the Wildlife Matters event yourself, you can find the recording below. Or perhaps just read this guest blog by Will Hazell, and hear about five key things we learned. 

Hedgehogs are coming to us

Whilst their numbers are declining across Britain, there is a surprising trend at work as well — hedgehogs seem to be gravitating towards residential areas and away from life in the open countryside. 

Dave Groves described a study last year where tracking tunnels were placed in fifteen Cornwall Wildlife Trust nature reserves across Cornwall. In the end, only one of these recorded any hedgehogs at all. Hedgehogs are showing signs of being more prevalent than previously expected in more urban areas, confirmed by volunteers who recorded them when placing the tunnels in their own gardens.

What does this tell us? That we we all have an important part to play in securing their future – with actions at home and by supporting projects like Operation Hedgehog.

Hedgehogs appreciate our help

Hedgehogs appreciate our help

Given that our gardens are becoming important hedgehog havens, it's well worth spending the time ensuring their accessibility. Hedgehogs love to travel; in search of food, shelter and romance they will roam many miles, and at least 200 acres of interconnected habitats are therefore required to sustain a healthy population. 

As such, ensuring that there are a few routes in and out of your garden (and perhaps asking your neighbours to follow suit), will make a very real difference to the spikey explorers roaming your area. And if you’re worried about other animals making use of these entrances, perhaps consider creating an L-shaped tunnel? Many species won’t venture into a tunnel if they must turn a corner to do so, but hedgehogs aren't burdened with such considerations. 

Once they’ve wiggled their way into a garden they also appreciate the presence of some simple hedgehog-friendly infrastructure. Although they are fairly able climbers, it doesn’t hurt to slot a hedgehog-sized staircase into human-sized steps. And while they certainly swim adeptly when required, a ramp may be necessary to help them in and out of steep sided ponds.

Even more helpful for their survival would be a wild garden that suits their habitat requirements. This is partly about food — they eat a wide range of invertebrates, and so gardens that encourage biodiversity are a great help — but also about shelter, since they need places to hide and nest. Gardens will obviously vary in what they can offer, but native plants, especially wildflower meadows and hedges, are terrific, while log piles, areas of long grass and compost heaps are greatly appreciated too.

So, while an Englishman’s home may be his castle, his garden should be an easily accessible public space… for hedgehogs at least. 

Live hedgehog at Prickles & Paws

Hedgehogs do like to be fed 

It goes without saying that a wild diet is the ideal — if hedgehogs can sustain themselves by munching local insect life, more the better. But given the challenges they face, hungry (and thirsty) hedgehogs will obviously benefit from a helping hand from time to time. 

This is especially true during spring, when they will be trying to replenish fat reserves, and during autumn, when they’ll be chunking up in preparation for winter. Milder periods during the winter can also be an important time, since warmer weather may prompt them to leave their hibernation in the interests of finding a snack. 

The right food matters. You can now buy special hedgehog food, which obviously ticks all the right boxes, but cat food will also do the job, as long as it doesn’t comprise fish. Raw mince and scrambled egg are also good choices. 

It’s important to note that there are a few no-nos as well. Mealworms are often given to hedgehogs, but should ideally be avoided since they contain a lot of phosphorus, which can lead to metabolic bone disease. Prickles & Paws near Newquay currently have a hedgehog struggling with this, but hope that calcium supplements will get her back on her feet soon enough.

Arguably even more important than food is water, so don’t forget to leave a bowl of water outside if you don’t have an easily accessible pond. Make sure not to offer any milk though, since hedgehogs are actually lactose intolerant. 

Counting hedgehogs using hedgehog tunnels

Hedgehog counting is well worth doing

In addition to helping the hedgehogs in your area through your garden-based efforts, you can also help the species across Cornwall by helping us track their whereabouts. 

Although their free-roaming tendencies make them hard to count, monitoring their rough population distribution is still deeply useful: it helps clarify what they’re looking for in a habitat, and shows whether attempts to assist them are succeeding. It also helps with the successful reintroduction of injured hedgehogs back into the wild, since Prickles & Paws always try to return discharged patients to areas with healthy hedgehog communities. The better sense we have of their whereabouts, the more precise this process will be. 

You can log sightings directly with us using the ORKS app, Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s very own wildlife recording service which feeds directly into the county’s Environmental Records Centre. The more people who keep an eye out ‘on the ground’ and submit their recordings, the better we are able to understand the species.

Hedgehogs are in serious trouble

Hedgehogs are in danger, but there is hope 

Not to lay on the bad news too thick, but it is worth clarifying just how alarming the situation is currently. When the IUCN published the first Red List for British Mammals a few months ago, hedgehogs were listed as being ‘vulnerable to extinction’. Those are words which surely leave no doubt about the seriousness of the species’ plight. 

But, as Dave Groves pointed out, there is hope. Given the right circumstances — connected habitats and some healthy biodiversity— hedgehogs are very capable of bouncing right back. For an example of this we only need to look at some Scottish islands where accidental hedgehog arrivals quickly established themselves. 

So, while hedgehogs may greatly need a helping hand, it is reassuring to know we at least have the means to give it. That, if nothing else, should be an encouraging thought. 

Cornwall’s hedgehogs are disappearing – you can help them this winter

The faster we raise vital funds, the faster we can act to protect them from possible extinction.