Photograph: Nacivet/Getty Images
For the last two nights I have sat in my mum’s garden, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for a hedgehog. It comes at around 10.30, snuffling through the border to eat the leftover cat food my mum puts out.
It’s a tiny little thing. I want to weigh it to see if it will survive hibernation but, so far, I’ve failed. The first night it came and ran away as soon as I dashed inside to get the scales, and the second night it didn’t show up – perhaps because it was raining, or maybe because there was a strange figure sitting on the garden bench in the rain, wrapped in a blanket.
Recently voted Britain’s national species in a BBC Wildlife poll, the hedgehog is declining rapidly (a 2011 report suggested a decline of 25% in 10 years). There are numerous factors linked to its demise, including a loss of habitat in the countryside and use of pesticides. Many are killed by motorists each year, and others drown in ponds, burn in bonfires, are injured by strimmers or poisoned by slug pellets in our gardens.
Yet, with a little effort, our gardens can be real refuges for hedgehogs. As long as there are holes under fences for them to travel through, and ponds are made safe, bonfires are checked before lighting and long grass is checked before strimming, they have every chance of survival. A leaf pile, log pile or compost heap can make the perfect nest site or hibernaculum, and wildlife-friendly slug pellets (or, preferably, no slug pellets at all), can ensure hedgehogs aren’t poisoned while they eat our slugs.
It’s also worth keeping an eye out for small ones in the run-up to winter, especially if you see any outside during the day. Hedgehogs typically hibernate between October and March, and before entering hibernation they build up their fat stores so they have enough reserves to keep them going without food until spring. Sometimes they have difficulty putting on enough fat in time – there can be many reasons for this, including bad weather – but a few are born so late in the year that by the time they leave the nest there is no natural food available for them to eat.
I don’t think the one visiting my mum’s garden is a baby, but I’ll weigh it anyway and then if it still looks small in a month I’ll weigh it again and check in with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) to see if it needs help. It’s only September, so in the meantime I’ll make sure mum keeps leaving food out until it’s no longer taken, but if it’s injured or looks unwell then I’ll call the BHPS for advice.
If hedgehogs visit your garden regularly, now is the time to give them an extra helping hand. Providing supplementary food and water can dramatically increase their chances of surviving hibernation, especially if you feed them again in spring, when their fat reserves are low and they have little energy to find food.
Meaty dog or cat food is readily taken (apparently hedgehogs prefer chicken or turkey flavour), and don’t forget a dish of water. Never give them bread and milk as this can make them ill.
Why not team up with your neighbours and become a Hedgehog Champion as part of the Hedgehog Street campaign? And if you do see a hedgehog out in the day, or find one that appears injured or is still very small, then call the BHPS for advice. You could save its life.