Wildlife

Garden Hedgehogs – How To Protect Them In The Wild

headgehog amongst garden foliage
Written by Chris Lee

Hedgehogs are a centrepiece of British wildlife.

They are an instantly recognisable part of our cultural heritage, from Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle right through to Sonic the Hedgehog.

If you’re wondering how to attract hedgehogs to your garden, how to help them find food and shelter, and how to protect them in the wild, then this guide is for you.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Hedgehog life-cycles
  • Risks to hedgehogs
  • Things you can do to help injured hedgehogs
  • How to prevent hedgehog injury
  • Making your garden safer for hedgehogs
  • Making your neighbourhood safer for hedgehogs

Let’s start with a look at what hedgehogs get up to.

What are hedgehogs?

If you’re not familiar, hedgehogs are spiky, nocturnal mammals. They’re quite small, and their spiny presence is quite rare because of their night-time habits.

Hedgehog in overturned plant pot
Overturned plant pots can make for a welcoming home

During autumn and early winter they’re building up fat reserves to survive the winter.

Then, in the winter, they hibernate. They take shelter in a specially built nest and hang out over winter.

In late March and early April hedgehogs wake up from their hibernation, and begin to search for food.

Then in May and June hedgehogs give birth to their litters, before repeating the cycle.

Why do hedgehogs need to be protected?

While hedgehogs are considered to be at least concern of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they are struggling.

There are thought to be fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK, with 30% of populations disappearing since 2002 according to the Wildlife Trusts.

Their favourite habitats – quiet, grassy places like gardens, parks hedgerows, woodlands, and grasslands – are often under threat from climate change, development, and intensive agriculture.

These are the same factors we saw in our bees and butterflies guides: hedgehogs are another animal that, sadly, just can’t keep up.

Despite dwindling populations overall, urban populations have actually increased. As natural habitats change, hedgehogs are relying more and more on gardens in urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully they are considered “a species of ‘principal importance’ under the NERC Act, which is meant to confer a ‘duty of responsibility’ to public bodies”, according to Hedgehog Street. Legal protection isn’t a quick fix for the things that hedgehogs find problematic, though, so in the meantime we need to step in.

What can we do to help hedgehogs?

Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to help, both in your garden and beyond.

The next section contains 14 things you can do to help hedgehogs, many of which are quick and easy. They are centred around helping hedgehogs to:

  • Heal quickly if they are injured
  • Find enough food and drink
  • Find somewhere safe to sleep
  • Travel freely
  • Avoid injury

In exchange, they will help you too! Hedgehogs are known as Gardner’s Friends for good reason: “diet of common garden pests such as slugs, snails and caterpillars”.

(Not that we help them with the expectation of something in return!)

1. Help injured hedgehogs to get out of harm’s way

Because hedgehogs are nocturnal, if you see one in the daytime it usually means something’s not right. If you come across a hedgehog laying on the grass or by the side of the road, there’s a strong likelihood that it is injured or in distress.

St Tiggywinkles, the renowned and adorably named wildlife hospital, give this advice for helping an injured hedgehog:

“If your hedgehog is very poorly or is cold, you can also give it a hot water bottle or a drinks bottle filled with warm water and wrapped in a tea towel, to snuggle up to.”

While you’re looking after an injured hedgehog, keep them sheltered in a cardboard box. Keep in mind they’re keen climbers, though: you’ll want to make sure the box has high edges.

Lining the box with newspaper will give them somewhere cosy to recover. A tea towel draped over the box gives the hedgehog somewhere to hide and feel safe.

Feeding them a little bit of dog or cat food will go down well, but bear in mind that they do not like bread and milk.

How to pick up a hedgehog

It’s important to know how to pick up a hedgehog in a way that won’t injure you or it.

To avoid getting pricked, you can wear thick gardening gloves or use a towel. Put your hands flat either side of the hedgehog, and gently scoop them up.

Holding a hedgehog with gloves
Handle with care

Please bear in mind that you should only pick up injured hedgehogs. You’re not picking them up to pet them, you’re trying to help them.

2. Find the best course of action to help injured hedgehogs heal

Talking to a wildlife hospital or specialist hedgehog care organisation can help you find out the best course of action. Here are some people you could talk to:

You may find yourself looking after a hedgehog for just a short time, or you may have to care for an overwintered hedgehog until it is strong enough to go back out in the wild.

If this is the case, it’s important to stop weak hedgehogs from hibernating. A weight of below 600 grams by the end of December is considered risky for hibernation, as their fat reserves may not be enough to last them through the winter months.

It’s good to try to encourage them to forage for their food and to expose them to natural light patterns, so that they don’t get too comfortable or complacent to survive when they go back outside.

3. Take an injured hedgehog to hospital if necessary

Some hedgehogs may have injuries that are too severe to heal in a home environment. If this is the case, they need to be taken to a specialist hospital.

Speaking to the organisations in step 2 should give you the information you need to make this decision.

If you do have to take your hedgehog to hospital, transport them in their cardboard box with newspaper lining, tea towel, and a bit of food and drink.

4. Don’t try to remove fleas or ticks from a hedgehog

You and your pets can’t catch fleas from hedgehogs, so don’t be tempted to spray them flea sprays if one is staying with you for a while.

Fleas may go onto cats or dogs but they will not feed or infest them.

Attempting to remove ticks can often do more harm than good, unless you know what you’re doing. Pulling a tick can cause their mouthparts to come off, and get into the hedgehog’s bloodstream. If this happens it can lead to serious health problems.

Ticks on a hedgehog
Ticks can look unsightly but sometimes it’s best to leave them be

Similarly, trying to coax ticks away can distress them and cause them to regurgitate half-digested blood back into the bloodstream. Again: highly dangerous.

The consensus is that a couple of ticks aren’t a problem, and that if there are more, it’s probably best to let a professional deal with it.

5. Be careful not to cause injuries to hedgehogs

Strimmers and lawn mowers are two common causes of hedgehogs getting seriously injured, and having to be put down.

When you fire them up, be careful that the areas you’re strimming or mowing are free of hedgehogs!

Hedgehogs can also be injured while taking shelter in compost piles. If you have a compost pile in your garden and you plan to turn it with a pitchfork or similar, check underneath first.

They can also become trapped in barbed wire, so if you use any in your garden, have it at a minimum height of 30cm.

6. Leave some wild areas in your garden

Hedgehogs like to snuffle for insects to eat, and insects are more likely to be found in wild and overgrown areas.

By leaving a dedicated wild patch, you give insects somewhere to hang out in your garden. Because hedgehogs are insectivores – meaning they eat insects – they will be attracted to a garden with wild, insected areas.

Insects are drawn to overgrown areas, bee hotels, log piles, and freshwater sources.

If your freshwater source is a pond, make sure there is a net over the top or an exit ramp at one side. This means that a hedgehog will not drown if it falls in: because despite being good swimmers, they will get tired out and exhausted if they can’t get out.

7. Give hedgehogs something to eat

The foods mentioned above (cat food, dog food) can be left outside in a bowl around dusk, as can water. But remember: no bread or milk!

Hedgehogs travel far and wide searching for food, and making their search easier will reduce the amount of roads they need to cross.

8. Build a wooden hedgehog home

If you want to go a step further in making your garden a safe space for hedgehogs, you can build them somewhere to live.

The Wildlife Trusts have some great instructions for building a hedgehog home, which will look something like this:

Image courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts

All you need to build a hedgehog home is a hammer and nails, some wood, a bit of sheeting, newspaper, and some leaves and soil for insulation.

By cleaning your hedgehog home once a year in spring – after hibernation and before they start looking for a mate – you provide a safe, clean shelter for visiting hogs.

Make sure the resident hedgehog has moved on before cleaning. If you clean while they’re just out hunting or exploring, they may abandon the home.

9. Build a more simple hedgehog home

You can also make a simpler home from a plastic container if you don’t fancy getting the tools out. Again, great instructions are provided by the Wildlife Trust.

The same cleaning tips apply for a plastic hedgehog home: fresh bedding once a year in springtime.

They can also live in compost piles: check out our guide to composting for tips on building a pile.

10. Don’t disturb nesting hedgehogs

Mother hedgehogs feed their hoglets for around eight weeks after birth. If their nest is disturbed in this time, the mother may abandon the hoglets, or even eat them.

To avoid this gnarly fate, take very careful efforts not to touch or otherwise interfere with the nest.

A nesting hedgehog
A nesting hedgehog – home, sweet home

You can leave food nearby to reduce the distance mum has to travel when hunting, but again, be careful not to get your scent too close to the nest.

11. Don’t return stray babies to their nest

Human scent will mean the mother does not recognise the baby, and they will most likely eat the perceived intruder.

If you find a stray hoglet, refer to steps 1 to 3 above. You may have to look after it indoors, or take it to a trained professional for proper care.

12. Connect gardens with hedgehog holes

Hedgehogs need to travel to find food, friends, and somewhere to sleep. Fences between gardens are a huge hindrance to their night-time wanderings.

The average hedgehog roams up to 2 kilometres a night, which is a long way considering their small size!

By giving them a way to move around the neighbourhood more easily, you help to keep them out of harm’s way. If they’re able to travel through gardens and hedges and undergrowth, they don’t have to expose themselves to busy roads.

By putting hedgehog holes in your fences you’re becoming part of something bigger than yourself. Over 60,000 people are currently registered on Hedgehog Street – a campaign for connecting gardens in Britain!

13. Avoid slug pellets and other poisonous substances

Remember what we said earlier: if you attract hedgehogs to your garden, they can help to control levels of slugs and various other pests that they feed on.

If they eat a poisoned slug, they will suffer ill effects.

Wood preservers on fences can be poisonous for hedgehogs too, so try to avoid these on fences near areas where hedgehogs will be.

And keep in mind that hedgehogs can fall into other substances – like paint, sump oil, and chemicals in drains – if they are left uncovered. Make sure to cover anything that an inquisitive hedgehog might investigate.

14. Check bonfires carefully before lighting

Hedgehogs find the stacked wood of a bonfire particularly alluring, so if you build a bonfire pile over time, check for any nesting hedgehogs before lighting it.

This will help protect them against being incinerated.

In conclusion…

Hedgehogs are gentle, curious creatures that spend their time snuffling for food, exploring, and finding comfortable places to hibernate.

Their traditional habitats are at risk, and they have turned to urban areas as a result. This puts them in the way of risks they are not familiar with, but there are a few things we can do to make their lives easier.

The steps in this guide will give visiting hedgehogs their best chance at staying safe, well fed, and sheltered in your garden.

About the author

Chris Lee

Chris is interested in nature and the good things that happen when people are in it. He is a freelance writer, with writing published about cycling, green living, and ways to make a difference without fundamentally restructuring your lifestyle.

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