From town to countryside, British hedgehogs need our help

Hedgehogs are a much loved species. Their distinctive and unique appearance makes them a favourite of many wildlife lovers across the country. Considered by many to be the British national animal, hedgehog numbers have declined rapidly in recent years. In the mid 1950’s it is believed that 36.5 million hedgehogs lived in Britain. The number today sits at just under a million. Most startling of all is that a third of this loss has occurred in the last ten years.

The biggest threat to hedgehogs is habitat loss, mostly brought on by the change from pastoral farming to arable crops over the last 30 years. Most arable farmland is unsuitable for hedgehogs, with limited availability of foraging or nesting sites. In addition, the increase in building developments in rural areas has led to a further reduction of habitat. These factors combined not only make it harder for hedgehogs to survive the long winters, but also force them to share limited space and resources with predatory badgers.

The harsh chemicals increasingly used in farming are also a threat as they kill the animals hedgehogs rely on for food, and in many instances can poison the hedgehogs themselves. An analysis by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species in 2015 showed that rural hedgehog populations had dropped by at least a half since 2000. Increased road traffic has also had a huge impact on hedgehog numbers, with an estimated 50,000 killed on our roads each year.

In urban areas there are many issues too. The “State of Britain’s Hedgehogs” survey found that urban hedgehog numbers dropped by a third from 2000 to 2015. An annual survey by BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine found that 51% of people did not see a hedgehog at all in 2016, up from 48% in 2015. Just 12% saw a hedgehog regularly. These numbers make for depressing reading when you consider that hedgehogs were once considered a common sight in British gardens.

The main threats to urban hedgehogs, other than roads, are mostly found within our own gardens. Chemicals found in pesticides and slug pellets can be fatal to hedgehogs, as well as other wildlife, and should be replaced by natural, humane alternatives. Wild gardens and messy areas can be havens for hedgehogs, but it is vital that gardeners check compost heaps before turning them over, and piles of logs, leaves and other similar materials before burning them. The same consideration should be given to strimming tall grass as hedgehogs often rest there during the day. If you have a pond in your garden then this could be a hazard too and will need to be made hedgehog friendly. This can be achieved by making it easy for a hedgehog to climb out of the water using stones, a climbing net or even a makeshift hedgehog ladder!

Another important and effective way of helping hedgehogs in built up areas is to create a “Hedgehog Highway“; a series of holes in garden fences to create easy access for hedgehogs across neighbouring properties. According to online campaigners Hedgehog Street, “we now know that one of the main reasons why hedgehogs are declining in Britain is because our fences and walls are becoming more and more secure, reducing the amount of land available to them…ensuring hedgehogs can pass freely through your garden is the most important thing you can do to help them“. Because hedgehogs are nocturnal and travel up to a mile each night looking for food, it’s important that you make it easy for them to make their nightly commutes. Even if you don’t have a hedgehog in your garden, working with your neighbours to create a clear access across several gardens is really important.

As well as making your garden generally safer for hedgehogs, you may wish to make it an inviting haven for them to stay in. Turning all or part of your garden into a suitable habitat for hedgehogs is easy, and is a great way to do your part for the survival of the species. Neat and tidy gardens do not make good hedgehog homes, so consider letting an area of your garden grow wild, or creating a log pile or overgrown area for them. You can also supplement their existing diet by leaving out a small amount of good quality dog or cat food for them each evening. This not only makes your garden a more inviting place to stay, but helps the hedgehog get the much needed calories it needs in order to hibernate. Make sure not to give them fish-based foods, bread or milk though, as these are not good for hedgehogs and can cause sickness. It’s also important to leave some drinking water for them too, especially during spells of hot weather.

If you are lucky enough to see a hedgehog in your garden then you shouldn’t pick it up unless you suspect it being sick or injured. Any hedgehog out in the open during the day is likely to be in poor health or injured, and should be taken to your nearest wildlife rescue centre. If a hedgehog looks particularly thin, especially in the months leading up to winter, then it may need to be treated by a professional. In any situation it is generally best to contact a wildlife rescue centre before handling the animal, in order to get professional advice.

If you don’t have a garden, or are unable to create a hedgehog haven, there are still several ways you can help. By supporting groups such as The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Hedgehog Street you can help others make a difference. Hedgehogs are a much beloved species in Britain, and one that we can all do our bit to protect. By working together to educate, spread awareness and increase direct action we can do exactly that.

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