The UK’s iconic hedgehog is in trouble and those of us living in suburban areas have a real opportunity to help. Hedgehog population data shows we have lost over half of our rural hedgehogs and up to a third of our urban hedgehogs in the past decade alone. This decline is unsustainable and if we do not make changes to reverse the trend we could lose the hedgehog altogether. Work is being done to encourage farmers across the UK to manage their land more sensitively but suburban areas have the potential to be an invaluable safe haven for the hedgehog. In addition, protecting hedgehogs and their habitat will have a positive wider impact on wildlife conservation for many other species.

About

Wildlife conservation

Hedgehogs are the UK’s only spiny mammal, around 20-28cm long and up to 1.5kg in weight.  They live in a variety of habitats including the edges of woodland, in hedgerows and in parks and gardens, and are nocturnal, roaming over an area of approximately two kilometres during the course of a night. Invertebrates are their favourite food, most commonly slugs, beetles, earthworms and caterpillars. Hedgehogs hibernate from around November to March, making a nest of fallen leaves in a sheltered spot and usually moving nests at least once during the winter. Their young, known as hoglets, are born between May and September in litters of up to seven. Hedgehogs have been known to live for seven years but two to three is a more typical lifespan and sadly many will not make their first birthday.

Factors affecting hedgehogs in urban and suburban areas

Many of the hazards behind the decline of hedgehogs in urban and suburban areas can be eliminated or reduced with some simple changes.  Hedgehogs are completely dependent on access to inter-connected areas of habitat where they can forage and nest. Impermeable walls or fences which have no gaps at ground level block off the hedgehog’s highway, preventing it from accessing an area large enough to sustain it. Building developments, paving front gardens and decking have reduced green spaces and gardens have generally become more manicured. Very tidy gardens do not provide refuge for the hedgehog, who prefers long grass, compost heaps and wood piles for foraging and nesting. Slug pellets, pesticides and rodenticides are extremely hazardous for hedgehogs as they enter the food chain and also reduce the number of invertebrates available for food. Hedgehogs can swim but often drown in ponds or swimming pools but the simple addition of a hedgehog friendly ramp can enable it to climb out. Busy roads cause mortalities and also disrupt hedgehog highways.

Ways you can help

Make hedgehog highways
Hedgehogs need to roam for food, nesting and mating. Get together with your neighbours to cut a hole in your fence or dig an underground tunnel between gardens. The gap only needs to be 13cm by 13cm, sufficient for a hedgehog to pass through but too small for almost all pets. See www.hedgehogstreet.org for more information. This helps other kinds of wildlife too, including frogs, toads and newts who, together with the hedgehog, will help control the population of slugs in the gardens.

Know the hazards
Check for hedgehogs before lighting bonfires, strimming and mowing the lawn. Keep plant netting, tennis nets, etc. above ground level so they do not get entangled. Promptly clear harmful litter such as cans and plastics. Let light into your garden for ten minutes before you put your dog out at night; hedgehogs avoid light and it will give it time to hide.

Wildlife Conservation HedgehogsFeed appropriately
Hedgehogs eat beetles, worms, slugs and caterpillars. In cold or dry weather hedgehogs will benefit from a dish of shallow water and meat-based dog or cat food. Do not give them bread or milk, which they cannot digest.

Do not use slug pellets or pesticides
Hedgehogs need invertebrates for food, including slugs and caterpillars. Slug pellets can also kill hedgehogs if they are ingested, regardless of whether the pellets are organic or non-organic. The website Wild About Gardens is useful for details of natural pest control methods such as nematodes for slugs. Hedgehogs can also be harmed if they eat rodents that have been killed by poisoning.

Make water safe
Hedgehogs are good swimmers but need an escape route from pools and ponds. Make a ramp from a plank covered in chicken wire or create shallow areas at the edge so they can scramble out.

Make a place to nest
Log and leaf piles and wilderness areas are good for nesting and hibernation as well as habitats for the hedgehogs' food. Do not over tidy the garden. Do not clear all the fallen leaves away in winter as these make the perfect nesting material.

Keep areas wildlife-friendly
Grow a wide variety of plants in your garden, preferably single flowered plants which are best for pollinators. If you have paved areas, grow plants in containers.  If you grow plants that flower in the different seasons of the year this will help bees and other insects as well. The Wildlife Trust and the RHS website Wild About Gardens has lots of useful information on gardening with wildlife in mind.

Make paved areas greener
Paved areas are inhospitable for hedgehogs. Rubber car parking grids are an eco-friendly alternative for a driveway as they allow for drainage and provide a greener area for hedgehogs to move over and forage. Even paved areas can be made a little more wildlife-friendly and provide some food sources for the hedgehog with the addition of planted containers. In domestic gardens planting hedgerows instead of using walls and fencing is extremely beneficial, providing both food sources and nesting sites.  See the Royal Horticultural Society campaign Greening Grey Britain for more information. 

Seen a hedgehog?

Mark it on Environment Trust’s interactive map and follow sightings in your area, www.environmenttrust.co.uk/hedgehogs. Please include the date that you saw the hedgehog(s) and whether the hedgehog was alive and well or in difficulty or even dead. This information is valuable to help protect hedgehogs and their habitats.

Found a hedgehog in trouble?

Get advice and help from British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Hedgehog Bottom has details of rescue centres.

View our video on hedgehogs curated by our Patron Gordon Buchanan and produced by Tom Hooker