It’s not only birds that RSPB NI is working hard to protect, we want to ensure that all wildlife in Northern Ireland has a home, including one of our ‘pricklier’ inhabitants:  hedgehogs.

Seldom seen during the day, hedgehogs are one of only three species of mammals that hibernate in the UK, emerging in spring to breed and build up their body fat before lying dormant over winter again.

In celebration of Hedgehog Awareness Week (3 – 9 May 2020), let’s take a look at what makes the humble hedgehog so special.

Hedgehog in garden
Hedgehog in garden. Photo credit: Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)

Small, spikey and mighty
With 5,000 spines and counting, hedgehogs raise and lower their spines to respond to threatening situations. And what they lack in sight, they make up for in hearing and smell, using their tiny but powerful snout to forage for a for a feast of snails, slugs, beetles and worms. Plus, a fact that surprises most people, hedgehogs are pretty skilful at climbing, swimming and running too, travelling up to two miles at night as they forage.

But that’s not what makes hedgehogs so special (or important). Our prickly pals are called an indicator species in the conservation world. Because hedgehogs feed on soil invertebrates, a decline in hedgehogs also indicates a decline in the quality of our environment and the health of the natural world.

European hedgehog

European hedgehog. Photo credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Spikey sightings 
Once a frequent garden visitor, spikey sightings are becoming rarer. Hedgehogs, like many of the UK’s native mammals, are in trouble with numbers having declined by 30% in Northern Ireland over the last 10 years. In fact, in the 1950s there were around 30 million hedgehogs in the UK, but now there is thought to be fewer than one million!

In the countryside, this has been attributed to:

• Use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in farming, which reduces the number of invertebrates for hedgehogs to eat
• Lack of wildlife corridors for hedgehogs to safely move around the landscape
• Flailing of hedgerows which leads to poor habitats for nesting
• Increase in natural predators

And in urban environments:

• Impenetrable walls and fencing that reduce the area of connected land
• Reduction of biodiverse green spaces
• Lack of foraging habitat due to over-zealous gardening
• Use of pesticides which can limit food supply and poison a hedgehog when ingested
• Unintentional encounters with lawnmowers, strimmers and bonfires
• Busy roads

European hedgehog

European hedgehog. Photo credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com) 

Build a hog-itat and more ways to help!
But the plight of hedgehogs doesn’t have to end there. You can help! To mark Hedgehog Awareness Week (3 – 9 May 2020), we are sharing some tips on how to make your garden a hog-haven, so that even in lockdown we can all play our part in protecting our environment and giving nature a home.

Reduce hog hazards
Hedgehogs love to lurk in the undergrowth, but this means that gardening activities such as mowing the lawn and burning garden rubbish can be dangerous for hedgehogs. Easy steps to take to avoid these potential hazards include moving piles of garden debris to a new site before burning; checking areas carefully before mowing or strimming; and inspecting compost heaps before digging in a fork or spade.

Create a nature highway
Make it easier (and safer) for hedgehogs to find good foraging ground by creating nature routes between gardens. If you have solid fencing, cut a small 10cm doorway at ground level so hogs can pass through, or if you have brick walls, create a space under the gate. Find all the details on building a nature byway here.

Hedgehog tunnel

Hedgehog tunnel. Photo credit: Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)

Banish slug pellets
Hedgehogs are a gardener’s personal pest removal service; hoovering up slugs, snails and other unwanted pests from vegetable patches. While slug pellets are known as the move convenient control method, the pellets will also inadvertently poison a hedgehog too if it ingests the slug. Safer physical deterrents include eggshells, used ground coffee and squashed garlic.

Build a hedgehog home
Would you love to see a litter of hoglets (baby hedgehogs) in your garden? By building a cosy, safe shelter, you can encourage hedgehogs to rest, raise their young and hibernate in your garden. You can either create a safe shelter from piling up blocks of dead wood and fallen leaves, or get creative and build your own hog-itat using our step-by-step guide. 

Hedgehog home
Hedgehog home. Photo credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
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