Spring is one of my favourite times of year. I love seeing the buds returning to the trees, flowers starting to bloom and birds gathering nesting material (as well as singing vociferously in the mornings). I’m not much of a winter person so these signs of spring all really lift my spirits when I see them.
I’m lucky to have an abundance of wildlife in my Darlington garden – little wood mice, a variety of different birds, a family of squirrels and my favourite visitors of all, the hedgehogs. For me, hedgehogs returning to our garden after their winter slumber has got to be one of the best things about spring and I look forward to it every year.
As you might know, hedgehogs usually hibernate during winter. Hibernation is not an exact science however, and hedgehogs may wake up on mild days during winter and then go back to sleep again. Their decision about whether or not to hunker down somewhere safe, is dependent on the weather as much as the time of year. Whenever the temperature drops and food becomes harder to find, that’s when they’ll find somewhere suitable to spend the winter months.
Many hedgehogs will already be out and about, as most wake up around March or April. One especially large hedgehog (who I affectionately call Big Beautiful Hedgehog or BBH for short) has been coming to the feeding stations in our garden for a few weeks now. He or she must have built up decent fat reserves during last summer to be in such good condition by now.
Hedgehogs can lose about a third of their body weight during hibernation, so getting adequate fat stores in summer is a life or death matter for them. Their priority upon waking up will be to seek out food so they can start to replace the weight they’ve lost.
Unfortunately hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined rapidly over the last ten years and it is estimated that there are now less than a million left here. This is because of things like loss of habitat, the use of pesticides and slug pellets, as well as many, many road deaths.
So what can we do to help our spiky little friends? Here are some simple steps you can take to make your garden more welcoming to hedgehogs.
Access holes in fences – about 5 inches square is big enough. Try encouraging your neighbours to do the same, so they can visit several gardens.
Places to shelter, nest and hibernate – for example, some areas of longer grass, a log-pile and a compost heap. You can also buy or make special hedgehog boxes.
Food and water – hedgehogs are currently waking from hibernation hungry and thirsty, so now is a great time to start leaving food and water out for them! A shallow dish of water and a bowl of cat or dog biscuits is a perfect way to help supplement their natural diet. Hedgehog boxes can also be used to put the food in if you are worried about local cats taking advantage of the free food! Avoid Bread and Milk! Despite what I was told when I was a child, hedgehogs are lactose intolerant. Mealworms and peanuts are also bad for them and lead to an incurable condition called Metabolic Bone Disease. A simple bowl of kibble and a dish of water is perfectly adequate.
Be careful while gardening – piles of leaves are perfect nesting spots for Hedgehogs and many are fatally injured each year during ‘garden-spring-cleaning activities’. Strimmers are also potentially lethal for them, so check areas where our spiky friends could be snoozing!
Escape routes in ponds – hedgehogs can swim but will tire eventually if they can’t find a way out. In our garden we have made a simple ramp for our pond, with a plank of wood.
Hedgehog Rescue Centres – there are many of these around, such as Hedgehog Helpers Darlington. They are mostly voluntary organisations and rely on donations to keep going. As well as cash to pay for things like medicines and vets’ bills, gifts of newspapers and cat food are gratefully received.
Before I wish you (and all our hedgehogs) a happy and healthy spring, I want to tell you about my little foster-hedgehog, Autumn. I found her as a little underweight baby, snuffling about my lawn, last October. I knew straight away that she wouldn’t survive the winter without help so I called Hedgehog Helpers Darlington. I’m lucky enough to be one of their trusted ‘Hedgehog Fosterers’, so after being treated for internal parasites, Autumn came back to us, so that we could feed her up and give her luxury hibernation quarters – so luxurious in fact that she is still asleep. When she eventually deigns to wake up, we will release her into our garden and hopefully she will live a long and happy life.
Find Hedgehog Helpers Darlington online at https://www.facebook.com/hedgehoghelpersdarlington/