Be untidy for hedgehogs

PUBLISHED: 15:08 30 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:08 30 September 2016

The hedgehog in Rupert Evershed's garden

The hedgehog in Rupert Evershed's garden

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A couple of weeks ago I walked out into the garden, on what must have been one of the first warm nights this year, and encountered a hedgehog! Five or six years ago this would not have been much to report as they were familiar residents of our garden, turning up in bonfire heaps (thankfully discovered before lighting!), under the chicken house and generally making their presence known with their snuffling ‘hog’ noises on summer’s nights. However, they have been absent from my garden for at least four or five years – something that only dawned on me a few years ago as I realized that I too was experiencing the national trend of hedgehog population decline.

It was a very sad thought that these familiar little animals – perhaps the ultimate non-cuddly cuddly creature – might not actually ever visit our garden again. In my mind, I began to relegate it to the archives of ‘lost flora and fauna’ over the years, that included the spotted flycatchers that nested every year above our porch and the Swallow that nested under the roof. Both these birds disappeared during the 1980s and have not been back since. It felt that maybe the hedgehog was to go the same way too.

So you can imagine my joy when all of a sudden a snuffling ball of spikes bumbled across my path in the dark as I went out to shut the chickens and ducks in! I wished him or her well and suggested that he or she might find a mate and get on with saving the hedgehog population. And, sure enough, a few nights later, the snuffling had increased and there, by the potting shed, were not just one but two hedgehogs, nose to nose, making each others’ acquaintance. Hopefully, they will find a suitable home and raise some young and keep the hedgehogs hopes alive a bit longer, for the forecast is dismal. It has been estimated that hedgehogs, without a concerted conservation effort on our part, could die out in the UK within the next 20 years.

That conservation effort is best carried out by each one of us who happen to be the guardians of the hedgehogs’ greatest hope for survival: the garden. Hedgehogs love gardens but over the last few decades have encountered an increasing number of barriers: impenetrable fences instead of hedges, patio and gravel-covered areas instead of rough grass and plastic compost bins instead of compost heaps. This urge to tidy our gardens has been spurred on by garden-makeover programs on TV but in reality, we are all apt to want to tidy, especially at this time of year with our gardens springing back to life.

However, nature is not tidy and the result of an over-tidied garden can be catastrophic for the hedgehog. Without any ‘rough’ areas of decaying leaves and wood the hedgehogs cannot find a home or the insects and grubs they need to feed on. Although hedgehogs eat a wide variety of scavenged morsels they are known to be partial to slugs – not a bad thing for gardeners – but with the increased use of slug pellets comes an increased risk of poisoning for the hedgehog too. The charity, Buglife, has recently warned gardeners that we could experience a population explosion of ‘giant slugs’ this year thanks to the wet and mild weather over the winter. What better way to combat such an invasion than to encourage hedgehogs back as a natural control rather than using chemicals hazardous to wildlife.

It is not easy resisting the urge to tidy every square inch of the garden but even a little bit of ‘planned untidiness’ can go a long way. Leaving an area of lawn uncut and creating a pile of dead wood and leaves could provide a vital home for a hedgehog. You could even go as far as building a hedgehog house – really just a box accessed via a five-inch square tunnel and filled with leaves and straw. Of course, like bird boxes, you can buy purpose-made hedgehog houses but making one can be fun. In addition, make sure your garden fences have hedgehog-sized holes somewhere along the base – it is estimated that hedgehogs travel between 1-2 km every night!

With Hedgehog Awareness Week this month and hedgehogs entering their busy breeding season, it is a great time to give a little thought to these unassuming animals of Beatrix Potter fame. Why not get involved in helping make your neighbourhood a hedgehog haven and sign up at: www.hedgehogstreet.org where you can become a ‘Hedgehog Champion’ and learn a lot more about how to help Britain’s favourite mammal!

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