With Autumn finally upon us in full force, the ashes of bonfire night still smouldering, it is perhaps ironic that national hedgehog day is just around the corner, on the 21st November. I say it’s ironic, because each year, an unknown number of hedgehogs perish in bonfires thinking that they have found an ideal safe and warm environment to shelter in! Certainly now seems like a very good time to talk about one of the nation’s favourite native animals and how we, the public, can help the hedgehog on its road to recovery.
The European hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, has gone from a rough estimate of 30 million in the 1950s to just over a million and still declining. Its common name is derived from the habitat that it often frequents in search of food and the delightful squeals and grunts that are produced when it feeds on all manner of prey including beetles, worms, slugs and snails.
There is no sole reason attributed to the decline of the hedgehog but rather a combination of factors all adding to the trials and tribulations of Britain’s spiny mammal. Habitat loss and fragmentation create smaller areas of safety that lack connectivity to each other. This in turn increases the likelihood of hedgehogs running the gauntlet of our roads. The use of pesticides both commercially and locally in gardens can cause direct harm and reduce the amount of prey available. Badgers and foxes, now prevalent throughout the UK, are the main predators of hedgehogs and where once they could live alongside one another, now there is intense competition for space and food, a competition that hedgehogs cannot hope to win.
The ‘British Hedgehog Preservation Society’ (BHPS) and the ‘People’s Trust for Endangered Species’ (PTES) are leading the fight to save the hedgehog by encouraging whole streets to make their gardens not only accessible but attractive to their local hedgehogs. This can be done by making a small 5 x 5 inch hole in the bottom of your fence and by transforming your garden into a wildlife haven.
Features that will attract hedgehogs to a garden are log piles, compost heaps and piles of leaf litter. Once established care must be taken when moving such features as there may be a spiny creature at the bottom. These features should be left alone during the winter when they will be utilised for hibernation. In addition, pick a corner of your garden and leave it to grow wild, providing a high value habitat for insects, which in turn will provide food for your hedgehog.
From our view point as ecologists a wildflower patch will provide a greater diversity of plant-life and therefore invertebrate life than an over-grown section of your garden but there are obvious costs involved. Make sure you source your seeds from British companies and try to match with your soil type.
If you want to take your wildlife garden to the next level, consider constructing a small wildlife pond. Ponds can provide a year-long source of water for hedgehogs as well as attract an abundant array of invertebrate life for them to feed on. Hedgehogs can swim but make sure there is a gentle slope at one end for them to escape from.
The hedgehog is in trouble and while wild habitats are continually being shrunken or splintered, our gardens at home can remain a constant for the hedgehog and we should do all we can to make them into a hedgehog haven, perhaps we could also reconsider burning all that biodegradable garden waste – it may just make the difference.