Hedgehogs are small, brown mammals with a spiny back and fluffy underbelly. They have long pointed snouts and emerge at dusk for a night of foraging.
This might sound obvious to you, but fewer hedgehogs are being spotted by the public. In fact, their numbers are dropping dramatically. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species believes that since the year 2000 we’ve lost 1 in 3 of the hedgehog population.
In the Middle Ages hedgehogs were called urchins, hedgepigs or furze-pigs, and a group of hedgehogs was called an array, but despite this description hedgehogs live solitary lives with females producing a litter of 4-5 hoglets on average in the summer months. They live around 2-5 years in their natural environment, and their spines are made from keratin.
There are 14 species of hedgehog in the world, but the British native hedgehog Erinaceus Europaeus is the one you might spot in your garden at night or at the side of a road. Other types of hedgehog in the UK are pet species such as the African pygmy hedgehog. These are indoor pets that can’t survive in the wild and need a different care set up to our wild native nomads.
So there you have a quick rundown on our native hedgehogs, but don’t stop here because there’s so much more to learn and your knowledge can help save the fast-decreasing population.
Where do Hedgehogs live?
The name gives it away – they like to sleep, breed and forage in woodland edge environments with hedges, greenery, compost heaps, and plenty of garden leaves. They are extremely good at tracking down warm, dry spaces such as beneath your shed which is ideal. Sometimes hedgehogs will bunk in with your outdoor pets or nest under decking too.
Hedgehogs are attracted to gardens with a good food supply. Native insects are their natural diet, but supplemental feeding is very welcome. Native shrubs, low growing foliage and flowers will pull in the insects and hedgehogs will follow for a meal.
Hogs can cover up to two kilometres a night and have established routes but they are not territorial. Often they’ll have several nests across their patch, so your hedgehog won’t always come home before sunrise.
What do Hedgehogs Eat?
Firstly, you should never, ever give a hedgehog milk because they are lactose intolerant and will develop diarrhoea which can be fatal.
A hedgehog’s natural diet includes insects, slugs, snails, beetles, caterpillars, millipedes, worms, and even an occasional frog, plus anything else they find along the way. One of the problems hedgehogs face is a lack of available food due to their reduced habitats.
A tidy garden full of slug pellets means no food and well meaning gardeners who put out piles of mealworms, cakes, pastries and other bits don’t really help because the hogs fill up on fat, sugar and all things bad. Obesity and rotten teeth means a hog will struggle to survive.
The best food to feed a hedgehog is cat or dog food because this is a balanced diet for small mammals. It can be dry or wet the choice is yours, but make the food meat-based not fish and avoid gravy versions.
A shallow, heavy bowl of fresh water is important too because hedgehogs tend to put their front feet on the rim which results in a drenching and all that precious water is wasted. In hot months a simple bowl of fresh water saves lives.
Do Hedgehogs Have Any Predators?
Yes, in the UK badgers can prey on hedgehogs because they are strong enough to uncurl a tightly rolled hog with their big paws.
Dogs can cause injuries as well especially to babies and juvenille hogs, so don’t let your dog play with a hedgehog. Your pooch may end up with a bleeding tongue, and it’s likely the hedgehog will die from shock if not infection. Cats and foxes don’t cause much of a problem for older hogs but hoglets may get in trouble.
Magpies, crows and other large birds will eat juvenile hedgehogs that are out in the day, and flies can kill when they lay eggs in open wounds. Fly strike is a common problem and it’s a nasty affliction. The hedgehog will eventually die as the maggots breed and then eat into their skin and muscles. If you find a hedgehog with white flecks or blobs please take it to a vet straight away. They don’t recover from fly strike without medication.
Do Hedgehogs Hibernate?
Yes they do, because their food source dries up in winter, but they need to be at least 600g in late autumn to survive a winter of hibernation.
Hedgehogs will hibernate in the cold months from around November to mid March, but the odd warm day will wake them up and they’ll be looking for food. Keep an eye on the forecast and pop some cat biscuits and fresh water outside if it’s looking warm. Recently woken hedgehogs will be extremely hungry and thirsty.
Hogs will hibernate in dry places that are free from damp and frosts. Compost heaps, bonfires and flower borders are popular, so when you begin that early spring garden clean-up be aware of hibernating hedgehogs.
How Hogs Help The Garden
Hedgehogs are generally happy and friendly chaps that don’t hurt or bite. You shouldn’t try to tame them or interfere with their lives, but they are great fun to watch and provide for. When hedgehogs visit your garden it’s a sign that you are in balance with nature and you’re doing the right things.
Hogs will help you with snail control so please don’t use pellets. Hedgehogs don’t eat the pellets but they do eat the snails that have ingested the poison, and this can kill them. It also leaves them with no food supply. It’s no wonder hogs are dying out.
Hedgehogs can bring immense pleasure and they do no damage what so ever, even an occasional hedgehog poo is so tiny you’re likely to miss it. If you feed hogs you might find hedgehog poo near the bowl because they are messy eaters and don’t mind where they relieve themselves!
Many people don’t have a clue they have nocturnal visitors, but if you leave out food, and it’s gone in the morning, keep your eyes peeled at night for a garden visitor. If you suspect hogs but can’t ever spot them put a CCTV kit on your Christmas list.
What You Can Do to Help Hedgehogs
Hedgehogs really need our help because it’s human behaviour causing their decline.
One of the biggest issues for hedgehogs is the fencing epidemic. Hedgehogs are small mammals and although their legs are surprisingly long, they cannot climb over six foot fence panels nor can they burrow through concrete footers.
Hogs need to cover a lot of space each night to find food and with our tendency to block them off, they struggle. Adult hedgehogs travel between 1-2km per night and this means they travel over entire housing estates.
You can make a big difference by creating a hedgehog highway into your garden. A 15cm x 15cm hole in the bottom of your fencing is enough to invite hogs to your insect and slug banquet. If you have concrete footers dig a tunnel beneath the concrete or consider removing the bottom slats of your garden gate for access.
Once you have hedgehog visitors, don’t trap them in your garden as a free snail killer, they need to roam and one garden won’t provide enough variety even if you give extra foods.
We’ve talked about slug pellets already, so here are 9 other problems native hogs are facing in the UK.
1) The Wrong Foods
Milk is extremely bad for hedgehogs, in many cases it causes fatal diarrhoea because they are lactose intolerant, but being hedgehogs they drink it anyway. All wildlife rescues are pleading with people to stop giving bread and milk and put out fresh water and cat biscuits instead.
Mealworms are like sweets for hogs. They love them without exception, but they are devoid of any useful nutrients, are high in phosphorous and low in calcium. Scientists have discovered hogs are getting metabolic bone disease (soft bendy bones) and loosing their teeth from the amount of mealworms they are consuming. The same goes for peanuts and sunflower seeds.
You can help by leaving out cat food and fresh water each night particularly when the weather is colder, and hogs are struggling to find food. They are usually hungry bods and will munch up your offering with gusto.
Another problem is our tendency to landscape our gardens, inspired as we are by TV programs.
Hogs like a natural garden with messy corners. Decking, paving, and hard landscaping means less natural habitat for hedgehogs. Consider leaving some rugged areas for hedgehogs to enjoy with leaves, logs and longer grass.
Hedgehogs rarely have fleas, but if they do, it’s usually a sign of a poorly hog. You must never use spot on treatment for hedgehogs.
You may also see hogs with ticks. This is normal and they drop off before long BUT if your hog has lots, take it to a rescue centre as it may become anaemic and need help. Never try to pull ticks with your hands or burn them off. If you must, use tick-twisters, which are very cheap from pet stores.
If you find a flea-infested hedgehog take it to a wildlife rescue, or phone them and find out what can be safely used. Hedgehog fleas are host-specific so they won’t infest your cat or dog. In fact, it’s highly unlikely they will have fleas at all.
4) Gardening Tools
Gardening is an enjoyable but never-ending job, so it’s easy to reach for the strimmer, unfortunately these machines cause horrific injuries to wildlife. Hogs are constantly brought into rescues centres missing limbs and swathes of skin. Often these injuries are life-ending.
Please poke around in long grass before using a strimmer to give hedgehogs and other wildlife a chance to escape. Go gently using clippers first because a ball of curled spines won’t protect against a blade and hogs do like to sleep in long grass during the warmer months.
Bonfire heaps are ideal accommodation for all kinds of wildlife, and a hedgehog will be delighted to find yours. Before you light the heap turn it over, or better still, build and burn it on the same day. Hogs won’t try to run from the flames, they will curl up and burn to death.
Ponds are a great way to attract wildlife to your garden and hedgehogs can swim if they accidently fall in when reaching for a drink, but they can’t climb steep slippery edges to get out. Eventually they will become exhausted and drown.
Use some planting baskets, large rocks or whatever you can to create a way out. If you are thinking about creating a pond, choose wildlife pond liners which are moulded into steps.
7) Holes and Drains
If a hedgehog can fit in a hole or drain it will get stuck there. Hedgehogs are masters of drain blockage, and while trapped there it’ll be covered in chemicals, get hypothermia and likely die without rescue. Cover your drains and holes at all times.
Wildlife gets hopelessly trapped in netting, particularly the discarded piles. Grass snakes, slow worms, frogs, foxes, your neighbour’s cat, birds and yes, hedgehogs, can all get tangled. Hedgehogs can even get tangled in football goal netting where their spines do them no favours at all.
If you find wildlife trapped in netting, cut the netting around it and take it all to a vet or wildlife rescue. If you cut the animal free entirely it is likely to die from infections that gather in the constriction injuries.
9) Disinterest and Lack of Knowledge
People are becoming removed from wildlife, especially in urban environments. It’s a real shame that many children have never seen a real life hedgehog going about its business and at the rate they are declining, many never will.
Spread the word about hedgehogs, in particular that they should never be fed milk and bread, and how to cut a highway in your fence line. Knowledge can make a massive difference to our native hedgehogs.
Feed And House A Hedgehog
If you’d like to do more to help, you can create or buy a hedgehog house and feeding station.
You may find that putting out a dish of food each night attracts cats and foxes that eat all your offerings before Mrs Prickles can arrive. This is a very common problem.
It is annoying when Tiddles helps himself to your hedgehog food, but you can prevent this by making a feeding station. A paving slab on bricks will do the trick, or you can use an upturned plastic storage box with a 15 x 15cm door cut out. Pop a brick on top to weigh it down so unwelcome visitors won’t be able to get in, but your spiky friend can munch away undisturbed.
They are available to buy in garden centres and online, but make sure you choose one with a tunnel on the entrance, as this prevents predators sticking in a paw and dragging out any babies. Place it somewhere cool to prevent heatstroke in the hot months such as a hedge, in the flower border, or under some evergreens.
Don’t be tempted to buy the cheap domes of wood and straw, they do look natural but in reality they let in damp and frosts. Anything with metal is no go too, as it will attract condensation. A wooden box with a decent floor, a roof and a tunnel is ideal. There are also some great eco-friendly nest boxes too. Pop in some dust-free hay or shredded newspaper and leave some bedding lying around so the hog can choose what they want to sleep in.
If you’d like more advice, check out our guide to the best hedgehog houses for your garden.
When To Rescue A Hedgehog
You’ve spotted a hedgehog, great! If it’s out at night, sunrise or early evening and moving purposefully then just admire and leave it alone. Don’t pick up a hedgehog for fun no matter how cute it looks.
If you disturb a nest, back off and keep an eye out. Mother hogs may kill or abandon their babies if disturbed. The mother may leave that night to find a better undisturbed place and if she doesn’t take the babies, call a rescue straight away.
That said there are times when hedgehogs need a hand and your help can mean they survive. Here are 8 times you should intervene:
1) Out in the day
Generally a hedgehog out in daylight is in trouble. They are nocturnal animals so pick up daylight hogs and take them to a vet or wildlife rescue for a check up even if you can’t see a problem. If it is early morning, evening or the hedgehog is carrying nesting material, keep watch before deciding what to do.
Obvious problems are wobbling, falling over ‘drunkenness’ or difficulties moving.
Hogs don’t sunbathe and they sleep in dark secret nests. If one is ‘asleep’ on your lawn pick it up straight away and seek help because it is in desperate trouble.
4) It has fly strike
A collection of tiny maggots that resemble a white blob or small grains of rice. This is an infected injury that needs immediate help from a vet.
5) Small hogs
Small hogs need help if they are out in the day time, but if it is purposefully foraging in the evening or early morning put out some food and water. Tiny babies need their mums so rescue and call a professional – if they are squeaking, that’s a sign of distress.
6) It is winter
Any hedgehog that weighs less than 600 grams in November isn’t likely to make it through hibernation. To help, you should weigh the hog with electronic scales and if it’s under 600g phone a rescue. They can advise on whether to bring it in for overwintering or if releasing with some supplemental feeding is a better option.
7) It is dead
If you’ve found a dead hedgehog in winter be very cautious and do not bury it unless you are absolutely sure because it may be hibernating. A hedgehog’s temperature drops during hibernation, so it’ll feel stone cold and you probably won’t spot any breathing either. It sounds strange, but contact an expert to find out for sure. Don’t bury it alive.
8) It looks ‘different’
Exotic hedgehogs are being found abandoned in the wild. These are pets bred for human pleasure and they can’t survive in the wilds of the UK. If you spot an unusually coloured hedgehog, paler than a native UK hog, all white, with large ears, big feet or a pinky- white belly, then it’s likely to be an exotic species. Take it to a vet to be sure. Of course, you may have found the very rare albino hedgehog in which case it can be released where you found it.
How To Pick Up A Hedgehog
But hedgehogs are spiky!
Yes, they are spiky and those spikes can hurt, but that’s not a reason to leave a suffering hedgehog.
They won’t bite, and you can easily pick one up with gardening gloves or a towel. Alternatively, smooth your hand down its back so the hog bristles and rolls into a ball, then roll it sideways on your palm as this stops you squeezing and getting spiked. Fully grown, healthy adults are very light and don’t usually weigh more than 600grams or so.
Once you have the hedgehog, don’t drop it because they don’t bounce well. Place it in a cat carrier or cardboard box with high sides, because they are masters of escape, and put it somewhere quiet and cool while you get professional advice.
If it is winter the hog will need some warmth. Wrap a hot water bottle in a towel or fill a plastic bottle with hot water and place it in with the hog making sure it can move away if it starts to overheat. There is little point rescuing a hedgehog only to cook it.
A Prickly Problem
Hedgehog numbers are dwindling at the same rate as tiger numbers. Without change they will become endangered and possibly disappear from our communities entirely.
This non-threatening, intelligent mammal is often the first point of contact people have with our native wildlife. What would a garden be without the romantic hedgehog? It’s so easy to help these struggling, endearing little creatures and your garden can mean life or death for them.
If you can’t physically help, consider donating to a wildlife rescue. Hedgehog rescues take in hundreds of patients each year and they get no funding.
Helping our wildlife survive means your grandchildren may have the opportunity to see a wild hedgehog. If we ignore the plight of our prickly friends, then it’s very likely we won’t be seeing them in the near future and that will be to the detriment of us all.