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Why hedgehogs are in trouble and what you can do to help

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 09:37 UK time, Thursday, 10 November 2011

Guest post: The usual advice when dealing with wildlife is leave well alone. In the case of hedgehogs, however, and especially at this time of the year, rules are there to be broken, and here's why, says Pauhla Whitaker from the Help A Hedgehog Hospital in Gloucestershire.

hedgehog in bluebells

If we don't help our hedgehogs, they could be gone by 2020 © Julien Crowther

This is the time we start to see autumn juveniles out and about. These are young hedgehogs from the second litter of the season and if they are small then they are in real trouble. Annie Parfitt, manager at our hospital, recommends that hedgehogs should weight at least 600g or more in order to survive hibernation. Any lighter than that and they will not have the fat reserves to get them through winter and death is a certainty. The tragedy is we are seeing more and more underweight hogs later in the season.

So why is this? Well, with nature, there are always many factors at play but our changing and unpredictable weather seems to be the biggest culprit. Imagine a cold, hard winter with prolonged frost and long periods of snow cover, followed by a dry but not particularly warm spring. Sounds familiar doesn't it? If you believe the weather predictions, this winter is going to bring more of the same.

This spring, hedgehogs that made it through hibernation woke up as the days warmed up and lengthened, only to find there was little spring rain in many parts of the country. As a consequence, the bugs, beetles, worms and other invertebrates they rely on for food were in short supply. This meant that their the breeding season was delayed and although the first litters of hoglets will have survived, the second litters were born very late.

little and large hedgehogs

Hedgehogs need to weigh at least 600g to survive hibernation © Damon Cannard

We had another dry spell in many areas in late summer and food was in short supply again, so these vulnerable babies will have been struggling not only to find enough food, but to eat enough of it in time to get up to hibernation weight before the cold weather set in again. The situation was bleak. Judging by the numbers of juveniles we are already seeing admitted to our hospital alone, the doom-laden predictions were spot on.

Already, you can see how easy it is for hedgehog numbers to be drastically affected by one bad season but the knock-on effects will spill over to next year. This is because hedgehogs are not sexually mature until a year of age so if they were born later in the spring than normal, they may not breed at all in their first year and if they do, their own first litters may also be late-born and consequently not survive the winter.

Add to that habitat pressure from urban in-fill, increased traffic and new roads carving up traditional hedgehog routes plus many, many other factors and you can see how precarious a balance it is.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal nomads, travelling between one and two miles a night to forage for food. They are not easy to count but the best estimates we have say that numbers have declined from over 30 million in the 1950s to around 1.5 million now. They are now listed as an endangered species. If the decline continues, we will lose our last hedgehog by 2020.

But don't despair. Here's what you can do to help:

  • Any hedgehog out at night and weighing less than 650g will not survive winter. Pick it up, weigh it and call your local rescue (see later for details). Looks can be deceptive. Remember that only one of the eight similar sized hogs we brought to Autumnwatch Unsprung was big enough to survive the winter.
  • Any hedgehog seen out by day is in trouble and is often suffering from hypothermia, even on a warm day so they need to be warmed up. Pick it up and call your local hedgehog rescue for advice. In the meantime, put the hog on a warm (but not scalding hot) hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel and place it gently in a box. Your kerbside recycling box is fine is you don't have a cardboard box. Cover the box with a towel or blanket and place it somewhere dark and quiet.
  • Hedgehogs eating

    Tinned cat or dog food is good for hogs © Julien Crowther

  • If you have hogs in your garden, buy a feeding station or make one by putting a paving slab on top of some bricks and put out food. Dry, good quality cat biscuits are ideal as they don't freeze or go off but tinned cat or dog food is good if you put it down fresh each night. Dried mealworms are packed with protein and energy and hogs love them. Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant and must never be given cows' milk or milk products. It can cause severe digestive upset and kill them. If you want to give them a drink, make it water.
  • Always keep a supply of clean, fresh water available in a shallow, heavy based bowl. If you have a pond, hang some netting over the side and secure it so wildlife can use it to climb out if they fall in. Hedgehogs are excellent swimmers but will die of exhaustion quickly if a pond has steep sides that they can't climb up.
  • Leave a small area of garden as natural as you can. Log piles, hedges, long grass, piles of dead leaves and shrubs with branches that reach the ground are all ideal places for hogs to make their nests.
  • Bonfires are death traps for hedgehogs. If you have a fire, stack the material in one place and then move it to make the fire on a different site the day you intend to light it. Even if you only made it the day before, a hedgehog could have moved in overnight to sleep there and will be burned to death. Only last week we had a report of a female with five babies who were only saved because the garden owner though to check their bonfire before lighting it.
  • Never be afraid to pick up a hedgehog if you think it may need help. They are very docile creatures and deal with being handled very well. Wear garden gloves to protect your hands from the prickles or wrap a towel over the hedgehog to pick it up. At worst, you may find it is a healthy weight and can be released and all you have done is wasted a few minutes of its day. At best, you may find it is severely underweight and needs to go to a carer to over winter and you will have saved its life.
hedgehog in grass

In our small way we have helped to ensure their survival © Damon Cannard

We over-wintered 84 autumn juveniles last winter and virtually all of them survived to be released this spring. We always release in pairs or trios of one male and two females and never release littermates together to ensure genetic diversity and reduce the chances of in breeding where populations may be small.

We've had reports from the public of released hedgehogs taking up residence in their gardens and going on to successfully raise a litter. To know that in our small way we have helped to ensure the survival of another generation of this ancient and endangered animal is a feeling beyond description.

Find out more:

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is a membership organisation open to all. It has a list of carers on their website and vital information on what to do if you find a hog in trouble. If all else fails, local vets will usually take in wildlife and pass it on to a local rescue for you.

Hedgehog feeding stations are available from many outlets in all sorts of designs. A search engine will bring up hundreds of suppliers.

Hedgehog Street is a campaign run by BHPS and the People's Trust for Endangered Species is a fantastic way to get everyone in your street or village involved in hedgehog conservation. There is loads of information on the website where you can also sign up for a free information pack.

Our own website with more information on the work we do for Gloucestershire's hedgehogs, fundraising events, our "Friends" scheme for supporters and lots of useful hedgehoggy info. Help A Hedgehog is run by a fantastic team of nine dedicated carers. We are always happy to hear from you via the Contact Us form.

If you live in Gloucestershire, whether you've got hedgehogs or not the University of Gloucestershire would like help with their hedgehog survey.

Help A Hedgehog Hospital is on Facebook and we have over 1,200 friends. Come and join us.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you for the advice on last weeks autumnwatch. I had no idea of the danger they were in. I had a hedgehog coming into my garden (my first experience of them) for the previous few weeks, so after watching autumnwatch, I caught and weighed the hedgehog only to find he was just over 400grams. A carer came and collected him, so he is now safe and happy!

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi to all the Guys at AutumWatch.
    Thank you for the information you gave last friday on hedgehogs. I have always had Hogs in my garden but asumed I should leave them alone, I had no idea about the trouble they were in! I am pleased to say that since last weekend I have built a feeding station out of bricks and slabs and have been feeding them every night. They are loving the mealworms, cat biscuits, sunflower hearts and raisans. But not so much the banana chips!! I will be weighing them now that I have scales. I love these little guys and I hope that we all can make a differance.
    Happy Hedgehog feeding :O)

    Avid fans Chloe and Anna (Kent)

  • Comment number 3.

    Thank you for great advice on Autumnwatch. I've been feeding our resident and visiting hedgehogs for several years now, and am now more than a bit upset that I didn't argue more last year. When the snow hit Kent quite hard last November, we had two young hedgehogs in the garden at their food bowl, with the snow landing on them. I did everything I thought I should, brought them in and weighed them, and they were only 550 grams each. I phoned a number I found on the Hedgehog Preservation Society website for advice, and was told to put them back in the garden, despite the snow, as they often wouldn't hibernate until around January, and just to keep putting food out. I don't see how they could have made it through from last year. Luckily we have more youngsters around at the moment, but sometimes, its not easy to do the right thing.
    Gill

  • Comment number 4.

    lovely to hear more on hedgehogs.We live in a village near dartmoor and over the last 5yrs have been geeting hedgehogs in our garden, this year word must have got around in hog hear say as we have had 38 at different times all are marked in a certain way (little paint marks and colours so we know each one and also have recorded times dates in nest etc} these last few days we only have 4 left as they are trying to put the weight on they are babyies from august/september doing well as they are roughly 550 grams upwards . We thought that seeing they was alright we could just sit down and enjoy them on the webcams i have fitted in the garde but last night {thursday) a little one weighing just 300grams came in although lively
    he was cold so he will be our first 1 to have a bed in our shed for the winter i thing there will a few more like this one as it must be from a very late litter hopefully they will be on the lookout for their buddy yours :doglodgeannie

  • Comment number 5.

    Thank you so much for the info last week. We've been feeding what is probably a family of hedgehogs for the last few months and had a wee one appear recently - only 370g. So he's now on his winter hols with a lovely carer and hopefully we'll get a much bigger hog back for release next spring!

  • Comment number 6.

    aye up , now looking after two little hedgehogs after seeking advice from the hedgehog preservation society , one was only 200g in weight so had no chance of surviving the winter, sad to hear they are in decline i am a keen veg gardener and these little prickly guys are great slug terminators and do all i can to encourage them.

  • Comment number 7.

    I saw a hedgehog on our sideway paving about a week ago and he looked quite small. After seeing the Autumnwatch article we built a feeding station and, every night this week the food put out has been eaten, although we miss the arrival of the animal. I will be keeping a watch this weekend and will see if we can get hold of it to weigh. It's actually been nice to see them as we used to get lots back in Essex but didn't see any up this way for some years.

  • Comment number 8.

    I put out a bowl of dry cat food every night and it disappears. I assume it is eaten by a hedgehog, but haven't seen one in a couple of months.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi all and thanks for such positive stories and comments.
    I just wanted to say thank you to Hugh Warwick, who I am sure you know of if you are at all interested in hedgehogs, and who will hopefully have time to come on and leave a message here as his knowledge of hedeghogs is incredible! He has been in touch regarding hibernation weights and pointed out that a hog under 600g at hibernation is not necessarily doomed as I said in the blog so HUGE apologies if I have scared you all silly with a very poor choice of words!
    Since appearing on the show we have had quite a few emails from people who have had conflicting advice from various sources and from the blog posts, it seems people here have had a similar experience. As Hugh pointed out, work done by Dr. Pat Morris has shown that the minimum weight for hibernation is 450g but the chances of survival increases with weight.
    The advice from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society on their website and in the leaflet they issue to their carers is that any hog weighing under 600g in September should come in for extra feeding. They also say hogs can be released in the winter if the weather is mild and there is a suitable hibernation site but they advise not releasing them until they are 800g and waiting till spring if the weather is going to be changeable (crystal balls needed for that decision I suspect!)
    At Help A Hedgehog Hospital, we generally take in hedgehogs at this time of year if they are under 600g, although if it is only a few grams short then we usually advise people to put down food and monitor the situation.
    As Hugh Warwick has said, the situation is complicated by many factors and the study in this is ongoing so recommendations may well change as knowledge increases. What is really fantastic is that the issue of weight is now in people’s minds, and judging by the stories here, “unviable” hedgehogs are being taken into rescue in good time to feed up and release at a later date and that is great news all round!

  • Comment number 10.

    We discovered how endangered Hedgehogs were a few months back through a newspaper article written by a lovely lady called Anni who offers care and rehabilitation for hedgehogs in Braunton, North Devon. We now look after some of the hogs when needed and also help soft release them back to the wild through our woodland when they are fit and well enough. We are also in the process of setting up a website for North Devon Hedgehog Care & Rehabilitation over the next few weeks so keep your eyes peeled!

  • Comment number 11.

    we have just weighed our hedgdehog who is hibernating in our garage
    he weighs 800 grams and he's massive

  • Comment number 12.

    l have been told that fish based tin cat food is not good for hedgehogs, is this true?

  • Comment number 13.

    Come and learn about hedgehogs at the Idler Academy - November 22nd - I will be talking about the threats they face, how we can help and explaining what can go wrong when we love hedgehogs just a little too much ... http://idler.co.uk/academy/events/event/what-is-a-hedgehog-and-why-should-we-care-with-hugh-warwick/

  • Comment number 14.

    I have Hogs at home and am putting food out every night, they also have a box warm area where they can sleep if needed, I feel as long as I don't see them out during the day and they are feeding OK I will not worry too much about them. I have taken 3 to the hospital this winter but my lady is having to give up due to illness, so I will have to find another near Poole or Bournemouth where I shall be able to take any that need to be taken into care.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi Hedgehog friendly. You will often be told that fish-based cat food isn't ok for hogs but the general feeling is that it won't do any harm. It's just that they often turn their noses up at it. Having said that, I have been told by several carers that "their" hogs love it. It's down to personal taste I guess.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi Joyce. Sounds like your hogs are doing well! Such a shame your rescue lady is having to give up. If you click on the link to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society at the bottom of the blog, you can find a BHPS carer who is local to you by clicking on the "Carer" page".

  • Comment number 17.

    I have noticed an unexpected problem while out walking and conducting research into a project. When I was younger I always wondered where the elastic bands came from that were on my doorstop but now I know as the postmen drop them on the streets. I was shocked at the amount there were for me to pick up when going for a short walk with my dog (link for picture - http://www.flickr.com/photos/55314368@N05/6389080217/in/datetaken/ ). I know these can be a huge danger to wildlife, hedgehogs included which are already in a lot of trouble. Regarding this issue and other dangers the hedgehog faces do you think they will become extinct in the UK in the future and what can we do regarding the elastic band problem?

  • Comment number 18.

    We found a little hedgehog in Pershore yesterday afternoon, and thanks to the info on Autumnwatch took him to the Vale Wildlife Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre just outside Evesham. Wonderful place - they have over 100 hedgehogs to care for. He weighed just 323 gms, and has already had fluids twice, a blood test and wormers for capellaria worms, and antibiotics. And a bit of food. Fingers crossed, and he'll make it through. But - it costs on average £100 to see a little hedgehog like him through the winter, and I'm beginning to see why. Brilliant website on www.valewildlife.org.uk - lovely pics of catering on a grand scale for the spiny residents! They need our support.

  • Comment number 19.

    mrsreet I have three baby hedgehogs in my garden i am quite worried about them im going to get intouch with a hedgehog rescue tomorrow hopefully they will be able to advise me what to do. They are so cute!

 

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