Sandy’s Garden

Let Sleeping Hogs Lie

I think that everyone will know what a hedgehog looks like and many people will know something of its habits. It’s small, about 25cm long when it’s fully grown; it has a long, rather pointed nose; its most distinctive feature is its coat of spines; and it can roll up into a ball, protected by these sharp, hard spikes if it is attacked. It hunts for its food during the dark; it emits a clear snuffling sound when it is on the prowl, and the easiest way of finding one is to listen. It is found throughout most of the continents of Europe and Asia; and the population of hedgehogs in the United Kingdom is, apparently, in steady decline.

Younger people who have seen a hedgehog are more likely to have seen a dead one lying by the side of the road, for its ability to protect itself from natural enemies means that is a pretty fearless animal, which is not an advantage when crossing any road, let alone a busy one with fast-moving traffic … and many of the roads in central Scotland are busy round the clock and are as unsafe for hedgehogs at night as they would be during the daylight hours. I have to say that I have seen fewer dead hedgehogs in recent years than used to be the case, suggesting … but not proving … that there really are fewer of them around in these parts; and I have not had a live one visit my garden for quite a few years, to the best of my knowledge, although there was a time when it was possible to find two or three there simultaneously.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is one of many organisations, both official and quasi-official, that believe that the hedgehog population of our islands is declining at an alarming rate. No-one seems to be entirely clear about the reasons for this; some people suggest that the increasing numbers of foxes is to blame, alleging that the sly fox will wait patiently by the side of a curled-up hedgehog until its intended prey thinks that the potential predator has gone away and will pounce when the hedgehog uncurls itself. I have doubts about the accuracy of such speculation, for even a dead hedgehog would be tricky for a fox to eat and any dog-owner who has ever had to comfort a dog which has become too curious about a hedgehog and has had its nose pricked by the needle-sharp spines will know that one such encounter usually teaches the dog a long-remembered lesson! Other people blame badgers, which can …and do … catch, kill and eat hedgehogs: but I doubt whether badger activity seriously affects hedgehog numbers. It is much more likely that more intensive farming practice, with larger fields and the loss of hedgerows and permanent grassland, is partly responsible; the increasing use of pesticides by farmers and gardeners is playing a part, reducing the hedgehog’s food supplies; increasing urbanisation, with better roads carving up the habitats of small populations of hedgehogs, may be leading to the loss of these small groups of the creatures; and vehicles kill many thousands of hedgehogs every year.

A hedgehog eats slugs, snails, insects and even mice, for its legs are surprisingly long and it can easily run fast enough to catch a mouse; they have been know to eat their own bodyweight of their preferred food in a single night; and you should welcome one to your garden if you are lucky enough to have it visit you. Don’t give it bread or milk, as this will upset its stomach, but offer it non-fish-based dog or cat food. If it decides you are a soft mark, it may soon call regularly about the same time each night looking for food. When the really cold weather kicks in, hedgehogs burrow into a pile of dead vegetation and hibernate for much of the time between November and March, so don’t have a bonfire or clear up piles of dead leaves without checking there’s not a hedgehog hibernating there; and if there is, replace its covers and let sleeping hogs lie!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society