Helping Hedgehogs at Christmas

December was a super busy month – as shown by the distinct lack of blog posts! Moving house, work, another trip to Germany, driving home for Christmas (with my two degus in the car) and then of course Christmas itself with my Dad’s family and Boxing Day with my Mum’s family meant I’ve been rushing around all over the place. In between all of this however, I’ve had the chance to spend time with some special little creatures.

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A hedgehog has between 4000 and 7000 spines which usually stay flat on it’s back but when threatened the hedgehog contracts it’s muscles and rolls into a ball making the spines stick out in all directions.

According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, hedgehogs are dying out in Britain at a rate equal to that of tigers worldwide and could be extinct within 10 years. It’s really important that we do everything we can to protect Britain’s ‘national animal‘! I’ve been very lucky growing up in rural Suffolk but I’m still surprised when one of the kids in my wildlife groups, or someone at work tells me they’ve never seen a wild hedgehog!

For the last few years, a family friend called Jill has been caring for sick and underweight hedgehogs over winter at her home in Suffolk. This year my mum has been helping her out with the daily cleaning routine and administering medication and over the Christmas holidays I also got involved!

There are currently 15 European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) living in Jill’s shed; brought to her by concerned members of the community who may have found them out in daylight or just extremely small and underweight. On arrival the hedgehogs are deflea-ed, deticked and treated with deworming medication if necessary. One particular hedgehog called Lilac had over 100 ticks removed by Jill, earning her the nickname Miss Tick. In cases like this parasites could easily overwhelm the animal, causing anaemia and eventually death. In a recent episode of Autumnwatch Unsprung (2015, episode 2), TV veterinarian Matt Brash advised against defleaing wild hedgehogs unless they are obviously completely infested and overwhelmed. He said it can upset parasite balance in the ecosystem of the hedgehogs skin and allow space for nastier, more dangerous parasites to take over which is certainly true. However, in this case I think that it is perfectly reasonable to want to keep that space flea free, especially as Jill is caring for wild animals in close contact with each other and in a secure indoors environment  Hedgehog fleas are host specific and will not bite humans or pet dogs/cats but they’re still not particularly pleasant to have around – and this is coming from someone who loves insects. Jill’s hedgehogs are weighed and she ends off samples of their droppings to be tested for worms if the animals are off their food or losing weight (much to our local post-mistress’ bemusement). 

I spent a few mornings in Jill’s shed cleaning out the hedgehog cages. Each hog lives separately in small guinea pig indoor style cages lined with newspaper, which are labelled with the name of the inhabitant.. They spend most of their day in a wooden house at one end. At the other end there are three bowls; one for water which is refreshed morning and night; one for hard food (IAMS cat biscuits) which is given every morning; and one for soft food (pedigree chum) which is filled at night.

Once a week the hedgehogs are weighed and Jill maps their progress from the time they enter her care until they leave. Any negative changes in weight, or failure to gain weight could signify illnesses such as liver fluke. A couple of the hedgehogs are currently trying to hibernate so haven’t been eating or putting on weight but the food is always available should they get hungry. In the wild a hedgehog under 600g does not have the fat reserves to survive hibernation and and needs to be taken inside to overwinter. Most of Jill’s hedgehogs have gained a reasonable weight but she will keep them overwinter anyway as normally they would have begun hibernation in November. In March when spring has sprung, Jill will release the hedgehogs back to the gardens they were found in. At the moment each hedgehog has a small amount of nail varnish painted onto their spines to help identify them, and this is where some of their names come from (i.e. Blue, Fuschia, Peach).

I was privileged to be in charge of weighing the hedgehogs on two occasions over Christmas. The difference in weight between animals was quite substantial. The smallest, Mikey, weighed in at just shy of 500g – still far too small to survive hibernation even though he’d been in Jill’s care for a couple of months. Speedy is the largest hedgehog – more than double Mikey’s weight – at over 1kg. Mary has made the most substantial progress: increasing from just 180g at the end of October to 842g on last weigh in before Christmas – that’s a 467% weight gain!

Mikey had stopped putting on weight and Jill & Mum had decided to treat him for worms in case internal parasites were stopping him from gaining weight. Jill is in regular contact with her local vet who provides the medication, needles and syringes for a small fee. My mother was a specialist oncology nurse before she retired so is very used to various medical procedures and has been charged with some of the hedgehog’s medical care. On the advice of the vet; she is currently injecting Mikey with tiny daily doses of levacide (usually used to control nematode infections in cattle and sheep).  I was expecting noisy protests but Mikey didn’t really seem that bothered by the injection and just crawled back into his wooden house when he was released. He did seem to be splaying his feet a little when he walked though and the three of us were a bit concerned that this multitude of symptoms could mean bad news.

Another poorly hedgehog is Charlie who had a nasty case of ringworm and had lost quite a few spines. Jill had been giving him daily medicated baths which I don’t think he was particularly keen on but they have definitely helped with his skin condition. I’m not sure if it’s because of this daily handling or whether he was like this before, but he seems quite habituated in that unlike the other hogs he doesn’t curl up straight away and he was quite active in our presence. He certainly wouldn’t keep still for a photo!

It was really interesting to learn more about hedgehogs while helping out at Jill’s, and so funny to see all their individual personalities shining through. Some, like Charlie and Speedy, were confident and curious and keen to make quick a quick getaway if you weren’t looking, while others were very shy and quiet. Fred (aka. The Shred) was infamous for making a huge mess with his newspaper, including by soaking it in the water dish, whereas other hedgehogs kept their cages pretty immaculate. Jill does an amazing job caring for these hedgehogs and the vast majority survive in her care through to their release in Spring. Any who still pose concern in Spring are released into Jill’s own garden where they are regularly fed and she can keep an eye on them. My mum also feeds her hedgehogs throughout the year and you can read more about this in one of my previous 30 Days Wild blog posts.

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to find out a bit more about hedgehogs in the UK, and maybe look for some in your garden at home. I just want to finish up with a few tips – maybe together we can turn around the depressing rate at which these charismatic creatures are dying out.

  • Compost heaps are a perfect habitat for nesting, hibernating and foraging hedgehogs. Be very careful if you want to use a pitchfork or spade to turn your compost as this is a big cause of hedgehog injuries!
  • Create a hedgehog highway by making a hole the size of a CD at the bottom of your garden fence, and asking your neighbours to do the same.  This will give your hedgehogs a greater range for finding food and mates. Read more about this campaign here.
  • Do not use slug pellets or toxic pesticides in your garden! These chemicals mean less food for hedgehogs and could even poison them if ingested.
  • If you have a pond or pool, make sure the edges are sloped so that any animals that fall in will be able to climb out easily.
  • Make or buy a hedgehog house to provide a safe spot for your hedgehog to hibernate. Here’s a quick guide on making your own!
  • If you do see a hedgehog out in the daytime it is likely to be very ill. Please call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society helpline (also lots of useful info on their website) or take it to your local wildlife vet or sanctuary as soon as possible to give it the best change of survival.

If we could all do one or two of these things, it could make a difference. My final suggestion is that you submit any hedgehog sightings. There are a few different places to do this – a quick google search has brought up two recording websites: bighedgehogmap and Centre for Environmental Data & Recording. Another option is finding out whether your local Wildlife Trust are recording hedgehog sightings, or contacting your local county mammal recorder. Remember that it’s important to report both live and dead sightings and any roadkill hedgehogs can be recorded here.

Hedgehog Update: Since writing this blog post I have received the unfortunate news that Mikey (who was off his food and having injections over Christmas) has had to be put to sleep by the local vet. He was still struggling to gain weight so Jill took him to the vet who took X-rays and discovered that Mikey had some internal injuries. It appears whilst living in the wild Mikey had been walking through some type of bleach (or similar) that had caused sores on his feet. The poor thing had been licking his feet to make them better but ingested the bleach in the process which meant sores then developed in his mouth and further inside his body. Obviously this is the reason he was finding it difficult to eat. The vet advised that Mikey was put to sleep and Mum & Jill are mortified at the thought that they could have been prolonging his suffering by trying to care for him. However, they were unaware of the extent of Mikey’s problems and although they do the best they can – neither are wildlife vets. The remaining hedgehogs (and those from previous years) are testament to the fact that the two of them and their associates do a fantastic job.

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RIP Mikey.

All images subject to copyright. All opinions expressed on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the view of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust for whom I volunteer, or any other organisation

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