Why British hedgehogs need your help

With their unmistakable spiny coats and pointed furry faces, hedgehogs are one of Britain’s most-loved mammals.

West Midlands Hedgehog Rescue founder Joan Lockley
West Midlands Hedgehog Rescue founder Joan Lockley

But these charismatic creatures and night-time visitors to our gardens are in trouble.

An estimated 30 per cent of hedgehogs have disappeared over the past decade and there are now fewer than one million left in the UK.

The reasons behind their rapid decline are not clear, but it’s believed that habitat loss, such as removal of hedgerows, urban development, roads and garden pest control, including slug pellets, are all contributing to the falling numbers.

Last year the British hedgehog was officially classified as vulnerable to extinction and it has led to fresh campaigns to protect the habitats that they need to thrive.

This is Hedgehog Awareness Week, which sees householders urged to encourage these spiny visitors to their gardens.

And it’s also being used an opportunity to remind people that hedgehogs are wild mammals and not pets.

It comes after concerns that some people have almost adopted them as pets, picking them up and taking cute pictures of them to post on Instagram, unaware that that actions may cause hedgehogs stress or even poison them.

Native hedgehogs are vulnerable and should be treated with care, says Grace Johnson, hedgehog officer for Hedgehog Street, a nationwide campaign now celebrating its 10th anniversary. It was launched by wildlife charities People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and Ludlow-based British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS).

“It’s best not to handle native wild hedgehogs. Evidence shows they can get quite stressed if they are handled unnecessarily,” says Grace.

There are fewer than one million hedgehogs left in the UK

“A lot of the pictures you see on social media are of African pygmy hedgehogs, which people keep as pets and often you see them dressed up doing cute things.

“The wild species we have in the UK and Ireland is the west European hedgehog, which is a dark brown colour. African pygmy hedgehogs are much paler and quite distinct.

“They are a common pet in America. People here also keep them as pets, but you won’t find them in the wild. We don’t recommend them as pets.”

If you see a wild hedgehog in your garden, you shouldn’t pick them up unless you think they are injured or sick.

“If you see a hedgehog out and about at night, you are very lucky. As long as it’s not trapped, or caught in netting or drains, leave it and watch it from a safe distance.

“They don’t have a fight or flight reflex like we do. If they are feeling threatened they will curl up into a ball. They can bite, they are wild animals who will try to protect themselves if they need to.

“If you need to handle an injured hedgehog, wear thick gardening gloves to protect yourself and the hedgehog. Bring it inside and put it in a high sided box lined with an old towel or fleece that it can hide under, because it will be scared. Also put a hot water bottle filled with just warm water in there so the hedgehog can warm up if it needs to,” says Grace.

Hedgehogs can get stressed if they are handled unnecessarily

It can be tempting to move a hedgehog which is precariously close to a road, but doing so may disorientate the creature.

“In the summer months, that might be a mother who now can’t get back to her nest because she’s been moved away from it.”

“Sometimes people might put them in a garden, but if that garden doesn’t have good access to other gardens and to their original nesting site, it can be dangerous. You could maybe steer it a little way from the road but not too far.”

Seeing a hedgehog out and about during the day is usually a sign that something is wrong.If you see one out and about in the day, it can be a warning sign and it often means there’s something wrong with it.

“As a guide, we say, if hedgehogs are moving quickly and look like they know where they are going, keep an eye on them from a distance.

“It could be a disturbed nest or a mum gathering nesting materials. But if it looks like it’s sunbathing or is wobbling on its legs, or if it has flies around it and looks injured, call the BHPS to check.

“Seeing a hedgehog scratching is completely normal. But if it’s scratching loads and has lots of tics on itand you think they are potentially affecting its behaviour, again, call the BHPS for advice,” explains Grace.

One of the common myths surrounding hedgehogs is that you should give them bread and milk, but this can be dangerous for them.

Grace said: “We don’t recommend bread or milk or any human food. Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant, so the milk will upset their tummies.

“Bread doesn’t provide any nutritional value for them. Feeding hedgehogs is a good idea – we recommend meaty cat or dog food – but try to avoid fishy flavours because they can sometimes upset the hedgehogs’ tummy. Dried kitten biscuits and things like that are fine. You can get hedgehog mixes – but some are padded out with wheat and rice. Go for a high meat content in mixes. And leave water for them too.”

This year the charity is asking people create their very own hedgehog haven in their garden.

“Our gardens take up such a lot of habitat, and by each making our own plot more hedgehog friendly, we can improve a huge amount of habitat for them. If you don’t have a garden yourself, you can still help by contacting public space managers, neighbours, family and friends to ensure they are all doing their bit,” says BHPS chief executive, Fay Vass.

Joan Lockley has nursed thousands of these spiny mammals back to health from her home in Cheslyn Hay since setting up her West Midlands Hedgehog Rescue almost 20 years ago. Since the start of the year, she’s taken in more than 100 injured, sick and distressed hedgehogs and, after some TLC, the vast majority have been successfully released back into the wild. Joan was recently called upon to help a poor hedgehog that had become completely wrapped up in garden netting. She managed to remove the twine which had cut deeply into the skin around its throat. The animal was checked over by a vet and thankfully it hadn’t suffered any serious injuries.

To help make gardens more hedgehog friendly, Joan says it’s important to remove any kind of netting from your garden when it’s not in use to prevent animals from becoming trapped.

“If you use it for beans or peas, keep it about a foot from the ground so that the hedgehogs can walk underneath it. If you have football nets, try to raise these off the ground or take them in at night,” she adds.

Other tips from the BHPS include making sure hedgehogs can access your garden with a ‘hedgehog highway’ – a 13 x 13cm square gap in the bottom of fences or walls. Creating a log pile will provide them with shelter and natural food. If you have a pond or pool, make sure there is an easy way out of it and cover any drains or deep holes.

Always ensure any netting in your garden is kept at a height that allows hedgehogs to pass safely under it and always check areas carefully before mowing or strimming.

Other things you can do in the garden include leaving a ‘wild patch’ and avoiding the use of chemicals.

For more advice, people can also sign up to become a Hedgehog Champion.

“We urge everyone to become a Hedgehog Champion for their area at Hedgehog Street – a project run by BHPS and our partners People’s Trust for Endangered Species. Join more than 93,000 Champions by signing up for free at: www.hedgehogstreet.org – you will get an email with top tips on how you can help hedgehogs each month and there’s even a Hedgehog Street app you can download from The App Store or Google Play,” says Fay.

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