Thursday, 31 December 2009

Giving Hedgehogs a Helping Hand

You would be forgiven for thinking that I had gone into hibernation with my lack of recent blogging activity. But, I haven't, just as the little hedgehog that I found scurrying about in the open air this morning hadn't.

A hedgehog was really the last thing that I was expecting to see a few days after Christmas in the middle of the day and I had to take a closer look before I could quite believe my eyes. I crept up to it, as it snuffled for food over a small triangle of grass. Then, as though suddenly sensing my presence towering above it, it froze and fixed me with a sparkly, black eye. Its long nose twitched, as though it suspected that I was up to something. As I reached down to pick it up, it slowly rolled itself into a ball. I held the spiny bundle gently in my gloved hands and it felt as light as a feather. Knowing that hedgehogs should be tucked up asleep during December days and that there was obviously something wrong with this one, I took it home. Carrying it at arm’s length, I scanned it for the fleas that I was sure it would be crawling with, but could see none. Once home, I placed it in a cardboard box with a towel, a jam jar lid of water and a spoon of dog food, then left it alone in a quiet room. I peered inside a few minutes later to find that it had unfurled and stuck its head into the folds of the towel, leaving just a spiny rump and the tip of a black tail on show.

To give my hedgehog the best chance of survival, I did a quick internet search and found my nearest hedgehog hospital, just a few miles down the road. At the Help the Hedgehog Hospital I was greeted by the founder, Annie Parfitt, who has devoted herself to caring for injured, sick and orphaned hogs. She was currently caring for eleven other hedgehogs, in a variety of sheds, cages and rabbit hutches throughout her house and garden. She took one look at my hedgehog and told me that it was a juvenile from a second brood this autumn. Weighing it in her hands, she estimated that it was about 300g – nowhere near the 600g that it should be if it was to survive the winter in the wild. She told me that climate change was leading to fewer second brood hedgehogs surviving the winter. She placed my hedgehog in a cage and within minutes, it was munching its way through a dish full of meal worms. This hedgehog was the lucky one. Its litter mates, on the other hand, would not make it through the winter in the wild without help. My little hedgehog though, had a good chance of survival. There were no signs of lungworm or other illnesses. It was simply a case of feeding it up and releasing it in the spring, close to where it was found and perhaps with a mate. I left the hedgehog hospital feeling happy. For a declining species like the hedgehog, every individual that can be saved and released to breed is a success story.

Now you do it
Keep your eyes peeled for hedgehogs out and about during the day through the winter. If you find any, their best chance of survival is being looked after by somebody who knows what they are doing. Put the hedgehog in a box with a warm hot water bottle wrapped in a towel, then when it has warmed up (after about an hour), provide it with some water in a saucer and dog or cat food. Then get it to a hedgehog carer as soon as possible - To find your nearest check out The British Hedgehog Preservation Society website.

Conservation Status
The hedgehog has recently been added to the UK BAP as a Priority Species. There are an estimated 1,555,000 hedgehogs in the UK, although this is thought to be decreasing in parts of England and Wales. Possible reasons for a drop in numbers are agricultural intensification, loss of habitat, an increase in the number of badgers, more road traffic, drier summers and changing gardening practices. Climate change has also been highlighted as a potential factor in the decline. Hedgehogs do not need to hibernate and do well in warmer climates, but unpredictable weather is a problem. Mild, wet weather during winter may cause hedgehogs to arouse from hibernation, potentially at a time when there is not enough food to sustain them. For more information on hedgehogs, check out Wildlife Online