Probably the most easily recognisable of Britain’s wild mammals, hedgehog numbers are unfortunately in decline. Despite this, we see over 650 hedgehogs a year at Hamworthy Hedgehog Rescue, and they all seem to suffer from just about every infection going!
Hedgehogs are nocturnal creatures and if you find one out in the daytime it usually indicates a problem. In these cases dehydration is a big risk and can quickly kill an animal so it is important to get advice from your nearest wildlife centre as soon as possible. Before doing this, put the hedgehog into a high-sided box with a towel in the bottom and some meaty cat or dog food and water. It is likely that the hedgehog will disappear if you leave it in the garden while you make your phone call.
Every autumn hedgehogs seem to suffer from a massive increase in lungworm problems. This year is just the same, most of the hedgehogs coming in to us have a heavy burden & need treatment. Our treatment regime is working brilliantly, but people need to look out for underweight juveniles out in the day.
Hedgehogs go into hibernation when the weather is very cold although they do wake and forage for food if we have milder spells.
In order to survive the winter, hedgehogs need to have enough fat reserves to survive. If they have not reached 450-500gms by the end of October, they may need to be taken in to care – please contact your nearest wildlife rescue or hedgehog carer for advice.
The best food to give to a hedgehog is a good quality, meaty cat or dog food and cat complete biscuits. Fresh water should always be available.
The old ‘bread and milk’ advice is now known to be extremely harmful to hedgehogs. Cows milk can even be fatal to them as they cannot digest the high lactose (a natural sugar) found in it.
The European hedgehog at a glance
Size: Range from 24 to 35cm (9.5 – 14 in.) long; 2 to 5 cm (1 – 2 in.) is tail. Weigh between 500g (1 lb) and nearly 2 kg (4.5 lb); weight varies according to sex and season.
Colour: Spines (up to 7,000 on adult) on back, hair on underside. Generally brown in colour; spines have white/cream band. Leucistic individuals (white or pale yellow spines) known; partially leucistic and albino animals rare. No melanistic animals reported.
Distribution: Widespread (although perhaps declining) throughout lowlands of Britain (every county and most offshore islands), across much of western Europe north to southern Scandinavia and Finland, south to Mediterranean – found along treelines up to 2,000 m.
Longevity: Age determination difficult. Oldest captive specimen 15 yrs. Average age in wild widely cited as 5 or 6 yrs, although reality probably closer to 3 or 4 yrs, with maximum of about 8 yrs. New (unpublished) data from Denmark, however, suggest wild individuals can reach 16 yrs old.
Sexing: Impossible at distance; requires uncurling to assess distance between genitals and anus. Penis situated approx. medially (where one might expect to see a belly button).
Activity: Largely nocturnal and widely cited that hedgehog out in daylight is sick, although daytime and particularly crepuscular activity has been documented in otherwise healthy (esp. nursing) animals. Range up to 2km per night, with males moving further than females. Hibernate during winter if climate requires.
Dens: Build summer and winter (hibernacula) nests. Summer nests flimsy cf. hibernacula. May lie up in long grass during daytime in summer; typically exhibit low nest fidelity.
Territory: Solitary, with no evidence of territoriality. May range over relatively constant area (of up to 32 ha/79 ac. in males and 10 ha/25 ac. in females). Some scraps have been observed at feeding stations, but may be ‘unnatural’ situation; confrontation possibly avoided through scent-mediated mutual avoidance.
Diet: Adult beetles, earwigs and earthworms comprise bulk (~85%) of diet. Also take caterpillars, slugs, snails, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, centipedes, millipedes, flies and larvae. Plant material rare. Some evidence to suggest attacks on vertebrates (e.g. frogs, birds and small rodents) and raiding of bird nests for eggs. Readily takes carrion.
Reproduction: In UK breeding season (“rut”) runs from mid-May to late September. Peak births probably June/July, although some studies show peak courtship during August, leading to peak pregnancy during September. Mating usually preceded by aggressive courtship, involving circling, butting and grunting. Females polyoestrus; in favourable conditions can produce 2 litters. Ave. litter 4 or 5 (range = 2 to 11) after ~35 day gestation. Leave nest to forage with mother at 4 or 5 wks old (late-July); weaned by 6 to 8 wks and independent by 4 months. Late litters (“autumn juveniles”) may have insufficient time to fatten up prior to hibernation.
Behaviour and Sociality: Generally solitary; often intolerant of conspecifics, although may tolerate company at feeding stations. Intriguing behaviour reported includes self-anointing (covering spines in frothy saliva-stimulant mix), running in circles, and attacks on snakes.
Threats: Seemingly in decline throughout much of UK, although data are lacking. Many killed on roads. Strimmers, tidy gardens, bonfires and insecticides/molluscicides widely considered detrimental to population. High level of predation by badgers in some areas and some suggestion foxes may also take a toll locally, although evidence for the latter is lacking. Persecuted locally where implicated in bird declines. Protected by law in much of Europe.
We treated over 600 hedgehogs during 2019 at Hamworthy Hedgehog Rescue, and we overwintered 150+ throughout the winter, each one costing over £5 per week for food alone.
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