By Sarah Wilson
There’s so much that you can do in your garden to help hedgehogs in winter and beyond. They love to roam around looking for food but garden fences create barriers and stop them in their travels. One of the first things you can do to help is to cut a small hole in your fence so hedgehogs can wander freely in to the next garden whenever they want. Tidy gardens aren’t good for them either. Our hedgehog friends need piles of leaves and logs to create their preferred habitat of a quiet and secluded spot that’s warm and dry to see them through winter.
Gardens are the last refuge of the hedgehog, which is now on the Red List for British Mammals, because intensive farming has left them with no habitat and that’s exposed them to predatory badgers. The population of 35 million has fallen to 1.5 million today. Keep reading to discover other ways you can help the hedgehogs overcome their threatened species status, then check out our wildlife garden ideas for more ways to encourage creatures great and small to enjoy your outdoor space.
What to feed hedgehogs
Our climate is so much warmer than it used to be that it’s possible you’ll see a hedgehog still active now if there’s food around. Hedgehogs enjoy a varied diet, but it doesn’t include bread and milk because they’re lactose intolerant and it makes them ill. The best food supplement is protein-rich cat food. You’ll need to work out a way of protecting the food from other hungry creatures, such as a plastic storage box, fixed to the ground, with a hedgehog-sized hole cut into one side.
How to create a hedgehog shelter
If you see a hedgehog still out and about, and it’s a decent size, leave it to its own devices because it’s probably about to hibernate and looking for a sheltered space. They like clumps of ornamental grasses and leaf piles, which are warm and dry, and finding gaps behind and under sheds and greenhouses. They also hibernate under patches of brambles and in the bottom of hedges. You can buy hedgehog houses but the natural ones they create themselves have the advantage, as their favourite snacks of slugs, centipedes and beetles will also take shelter there.
What garden hazards can harm hedgehogs?
There might be hazards a-plenty in your garden. A deep pond with no access ramp is a death trap as any hedgehog that falls in will become exhausted paddling around with no way out. Discover more tips in our 5 ways to to prepare your garden pond for winter feature.
Slug pellets are toxic to hedgehogs as well as removing one of their key sources of food. Increase your hedgehog population and you won’t be needing slug pellets anyway. Front garden ideas that are mainly covered with paving are another menace as hedgehogs will wander out into the road in search of food and foraging spots.
How to help hedgehogs survive winter
It's not only food supplies that are important to hedgehogs. These small creatures lay down brown fat and white fat cells. The white fat powers the hedgehog’s movement when it’s out and about, but brown fat is stored around their shoulders and this is needed at the end of hibernation. If the hedgehog wakes up early and uses up its brown-fat reserves, he or she won’t wake up again. So make sure that wherever possible they're left undisturbed for their big winter snooze.
When do hedgehogs wake up?
It's not uncommon for hedgehogs to break their hibernation to go walkabout. They change their ‘nest’ at least once, on average, and possibly more. So if you see one out and about on a winter’s day, do not take it to a refuge unless it looks very small. Warmer winters are making it harder for hedgehogs to hibernate successfully, because their body temperature drops to match the environment. Their heart rate slows and breathing almost stops. If the climate warms up further, hedgehogs may abandon hibernation altogether because they will still be able to find food.
Create a hedgehog highway through garden fences
The conservation initiative Hedgehog Street is encouraging you to provide ‘Hedgehog Highways’ by making a hole in the fence to connect neighbouring gardens. This will hopefully reduce the number of hedgehogs being run over. So far, 4,500 Hedgehog Highways have been mapped, linking more than 9,000 gardens across the UK, and there are 85,000 hedgehog guardians.
Sarah Wilson has been a lifestyle journalist for many years, writing about gardens since 2015. She's written for Gardeningetc.com, Livingetc, Homes & Gardens, as well as Country Homes & Interiors and Modern Gardens magazines.
Her own (small urban) garden is a work in progress - so many ideas, not enough space to cram them in. Hero plants include her ever growing collection of ornamental grasses, black bamboo and ferns, and the perennials like salvias and penstemons that come back reliably year after year. All very restrained though when in fact she'd love to pack her garden with gaudy dahlias and giant cannas, so these are top of her wish list for what to grow next.
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