There are about 17 hedgehog species worldwide and the one we know in the UK, the west European hedgehog (scientific name Erinaceus europaeus) is lovely but not cuddly. They have highly specialised coats which contain around 6,000 creamy-brown spines and hangs around their body in a loose-ish ‘skirt’, concealing greyish fur on their underside, surprisingly long legs and a short tail.
Hedgehogs have a very keen sense of smell and can detect food under an inch of soil. So what do they eat? Hedgehogs are generalists and feed on a wide range of things, but the majority of their diet is made up of invertebrates (or creepy crawlies). We know what they eat from scientific studies that have analysed hedgehog poo or looked in the stomachs of hedgehogs killed on roads.
The most important invertebrates in their diet are worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and millipedes. Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so please do not give them milk. Bread is low in energy so fairly worthless to them.
Badgers are the principal natural predator of hedgehogs in the UK, as they are the only creature strong enough to overcome the spiny defences. Hedgehogs have been shown to actively avoid areas where badgers are present, and in areas where badger densities are high, hedgehogs are likely to be less common.
In 2015, The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs , by People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), outlined the findings of four surveys recording hedgehogs in urban and rural areas, which showed a worrying decline in hedgehog numbers.
Again in 2018, both PTES and the BHPS have produced another report which continues to show a worrying decline for this adorable creature. Surveys have shown regional differences in counts of hedgehogs and indicated an ongoing decline in the population. Hedgehogs are disappearing from our countryside according to the report.
Hedgehogs now appear to be declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers are globally – at around 5% a year, both in rural and urban habitats. (Hedgehog Street)
Reasons for this include:
Habitat loss and fragmentation – larger fields and the loss of hedges and copses result in fewer nesting sites and less protection for hedgehogs.
Prey availability – insect larvae and soil invertebrates such as earthworms and slugs make up a large part of hedgehogs’ diet but can be scarce in agricultural soils. A recent study in Germany measured the weight of flying insects trapped at around sixty nature reserves and found a decline of more than 75% since 1989. If Britain has seen a similar loss, fewer insect larvae, such as caterpillars and beetle grubs, might have impacted on hedgehogs and other species.
Hedgehogs continue to face pressures in the rural landscape and from urban development, but monitoring numbers, and actions such as Hedgehog Street and public efforts to improve garden habitats and connectivity, might be giving them a chance.
Below is a screenshot of Hedgehog sightings across our district. If you see a hedgehog you can add it to the Big Hedgehog map and help both PTES and BHPS better understand what is happening to our hedgehogs, across the UK.
Hedgehogs in suburban areas are in severe decline. The matrix of gardens and green spaces in suburban areas can support very high densities of hedgehogs – providing there is enough of an area over which they can roam freely. Radio-tracking studies have demonstrated that the average range size is between 10 and 20 hectares – far larger than the average garden. The fragmentation of these areas by new fences has been identified as a potentially major issue behind the hedgehog decline. Hedgehogs need networks of land, not just gardens.
So what can we do to help these adorable critters? Well The Wildlife Garden project have produced an excellent video setting out some simple things we can all do (if we have a garden).
Hedgehogs tend to hibernate between November and mid-March and may choose the stack of leaves or branches in your garden. For this reason if you have to get rid of such material, move it to a different spot before setting fire to it; a hedgehog may be sheltering or hibernating in it. They like to nest under things (e.g. sheds, hedges and brushwood) and need plenty of dry leaves to build their nest. So with the onset of Autumn not that far away people, please do remember we can all help these endangered creatures and help is what they need.
But it is not just us who can help these lovely but not cuddly creatures. Council officers who are responsible for our parks, cemeteries and planning can also play their part by educating themselves. Hedgehog Street offer a day long Hedgehog Ecology and Management for Practitioners training course at the cost of £50. Every little helps, as they say. So we’d ask you to contact your local councillor and also the Head of Paid Services, Dr Susan Priest (firstname.lastname@example.org) requesting officers responsible for planning and the land owned by the Council attend this course. Anything we can do together, will be better than doing nothing at all.
The Shepwayvox Team
We are grateful to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society for allowing us to reproduce, their images and words.