The light evenings of summer are a perfect time to look out for hedgehogs in UK gardens. This adapted extract from June’s Wild Wild Life newsletter explains what we know about this popular animal and what you can do to help it. To receive the free New Scientist wildlife newsletter in your inbox every month, sign up here.
What species of hedgehog lives in the UK?
There are 17 different species of hedgehog living across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. The West European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) is the only species in the UK and has a broad range across Europe, from Portugal to Russia. It was also introduced by 19th-century English colonists to New Zealand, where they are a threat to native wildlife.
Depending on where in the world you live – and perhaps your knowledge of children’s books by Beatrix Potter – the species you might be most familiar with is the African pygmy hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris), which is much-loved on YouTube. This hedgehog is kept as a pet, and you can tell it apart from the West European hedgehog by its white fur.
Are hedgehogs endangered?
The West European hedgehog is common on mainland Europe, but this isn’t the case in the UK. The hedgehog is classed as vulnerable by the Red List for Britain’s Mammals, and while it is difficult to reliably estimate hedgehog numbers, it’s thought that since 2000, hedgehog numbers in rural areas have declined by between 30 and 75 per cent.
Why are hedgehogs declining in the UK?
There are several possible reasons. It’s clear that thousands of hedgehogs are killed on roads every year, and that these roads, plus modern farming methods and fewer hedgerows, contribute to fragmentation of hedgehog habitats.
But there seems to be better news in urban areas, where about a fifth of Great Britain’s hedgehogs are thought to live. Urban hedgehogs are thought to have declined in number by 25 per cent between 2000 and 2010, but despite the high incidence of hedgehog road deaths in towns and cities, this decline seems to have now stabilised, and urban populations may even be starting to recover.
What makes cities hedgehog-friendly?
Urban green spaces play a critical role. A study of London published in 2021 found that hedgehogs were more likely to be present in areas with gardens, parks, allotments and terraced housing, and less likely to be present in places with a high density of humans and where roads and buildings accounted for more than 31 per cent of land use. The study concluded that much of Greater London is a suitable habitat for hedgehogs. There are around 30 to 40 living in Regent’s Park, towards the centre of the city, for example.
A 2022 study found that gardens in Braunschweig, Germany, are important for connecting hedgehog habitats together – which is necessary because hedgehogs can travel up to 3 kilometres per night.
How can you attract hedgehogs to your garden?
If you have a garden, possibly the best thing you can do is to make sure you have gaps in your fences. Hedgehogs can climb surprisingly high, but you might as well make it easy for them. You can give hedgehogs a place to stay by having a compost heap (although be careful not to hurt any hedgehogs when turning your heap) or providing a specially made hedgehog house.
Hedgehogs also like access to fresh water, so digging a pond is a good idea, but make sure there’s a sloped side or a carefully placed log so that any hedgehogs that fall in can get out again.
To make sure you don’t injure any hedgehogs, you might want to avoid using a robotic lawnmower and take care when trimming long grass and under hedges (better yet, leave them be).
A ban on the outdoor use of metaldehyde slug pellets in the UK came into effect in April, so if you have any of these leftover don’t use them. It’s probably a good idea to avoid all garden chemicals and pesticides for the sake of hedgehogs (and your garden biodiversity in general).
When are you most likely to see a hedgehog in your garden?
A GPS tracking study found that hedgehogs in the UK spend more time in gardens when it has rained overnight, during the summer when nights are short, and if foxes aren’t common visitors. Hedgehogs particularly spend time in gardens where people put out food for them.
What do hedgehogs eat and drink?
Hedgehogs eat a variety of foods, but invertebrates such as worms, beetles, slugs and millipedes make up the bulk of their diet. If you’re keen to put out food for hedgehogs, it’s worth knowing that not all commercially available hedgehog feeds are nutritionally suitable and you may be better off offering wet, meat-based dog or cat foods, or dry cat or kitten foods.
Hedgehogs drink water, which is why it’s a good idea to have a pond in your garden. But if that isn’t possible, you can put out a clean dish of water for them in the evening.
Resist any advice to put out bread and milk, though – bread is too low in energy, and hedgehogs are lactose intolerant.
How can you tell if a hedgehog is sick or injured and needs help?
If you see a hedgehog out during the day, it might be unwell. If it is active and moves quickly away then it’s probably okay, but if it’s lying still (but not in a nest), staggering around or has flies around it, it needs urgent help and may need admitting to a rescue centre. In the UK you can call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society or call the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Do rescued hedgehogs survive?
A 2021 study found that over half of hedgehogs admitted to RSPCA centres are alive 80 days later.
Is a hedgehog good for a pet?
West European hedgehogs are wild animals in the UK and should not be kept as pets. The African pygmy hedgehog is sometimes kept as a pet, but the RSPCA does not recommend it. That’s because the species is difficult to care for, naturally nocturnal and solitary by nature.
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