hedgehog1Hedgehogs: European wild hedgehog

European hedgehogs are favourite inhabitants of our gardens in Britain and many other European countries. They perform useful duties in eating slugs and other pests, and provide amusement turning on security lights and waking up the neighbourhood with their grunts in the mating season.

These are wild animals, so should not be kept as pets, but you can still encourage them to visit you by putting food out for them, and building them little hog shelters, and you can help them to stay alive by making your garden safe for hogs, and training any dogs you have to respect them. You may also find sick, injured, or orphan hedgehogs, or little hogs wandering around on frosty nights, that haven't fattened up enough to survive the winter. Here is a brief guide on how to help our wild hog friends.

Making your garden hedgehog-friendly

The first thing that attracts hedgehogs to your garden is food. They will eat cat and dog food, which is better for them than bread and milk (hedgehogs are not vegetarians, and are also lactose-intolerant). Cat and dog food is not a good diet on its own, but the hogs also have all your garden slugs to eat. Mother hedgehogs need to eat a lot, to be able to suckle their hoglets, and they start having litters from June onwards. There are two mating seasons, in summer and autumn, so mothers may have hoglets at any time from June to October. It's also especially important for all hogs to eat a lot from October onwards, because they have to build up reserves to hibernate, so this is also a good time to feed them.

Hedgehogs are vulnerable to pesticides, especially slug bait, so you will have to choose between natural pest control provided by hogs, or buying nasty things in packets...! Other risks to hedgehogs include garden pools, that they can drown in, unless it's easy for them to get out. The plastic rings from packs of beer have been known to kill hogs, which for some reason put their heads through them and then get caught. Hogs can also get their heads stuck in plastic cups and yoghurt pots, get tangled in garden netting, fall down (and block) uncovered drains, have their quills strimmed and worse if they hide in the long grass when you are trying to cut it. They also curl up in bonfire heaps and get roasted on November 5th. Perhaps it's just as well that we like hedgehogs so much, and are prepared to try to help them survive our human world!

Hogs are especially vulnerable when they are fast asleep, and you may unknowingly create a little den for them with your bonfire heap. Always check heaps that have been standing in the autumn for sleeping hedgehogs - better still, build them a proper den, and only burn fresh heaps of garden waste, rather than letting heaps stand.

You can find a quiet spot in your garden alongside a hedgerow, shed, garage, or other hedgehog route, and dig a shallow hole. Then find some spare pieces of wood, and build a little cave with a roof. You may be able to beg a wooden box from a greengrocer or other shop, and have a ready-made structure. You can saw a little entrance and use the box upside down. The cave should have an entrance that hogs can get through, but not bigger animals like dogs. Use straw or leaves to provide plenty of bedding inside, and insulation on top. It's surprising how warm these dens can be with a hog inside, even in winter. It's better not to use plastic containers, because they don't allow enough ventilation, though you may want to use a plastic bag or sheet on the roof. Just make sure the box is big enough to give good ventilation, and only cover the roof, leaving the front with the wood slats covered by leaves or straw.

If you build your hog house early in the autumn, the chances are good that a visitor will find it deluxe accommodation, and decide to spend the winter there. Hedgehogs usually hibernate from December or January until March, though this depends a lot how cold it is, how much food there is, and how fat the hedgehog is. Watch for signs of life from March onwards, and put some food out for your friend when he wakes up.

Keeping hedgehogs safe from dogs

Many dogs do not attempt to bite hedgehogs, especially once they have rolled into a ball, but large-breed dogs can inflict serious injuries on hedgehogs, especially babies which have softer spines. It is well worth training dogs that hedgehogs are not prey, and the best time to do this is when they are puppies. It takes longer with adults, but is still possible. Use every meeting with a hedgehog as an opportunity to get your message across. Keep the dog on a leash at first and say 'leave', 'chsst', or 'tssk' every time the dog gets too close, and then give the dog something more interesting to do. Hog training is a good way of 'proofing' stays - in other words, making sure your dog will hold a stay despite a temptation that makes him or her want to move. Let the dog know that you are aware of the hog, or the dog's response to a 'stay' command may be a bark to tell you 'but you can't see that the strange creature is uncurling and walking away'. If you  really can't trust your dog to respect hedgehogs, and you know there are some in your garden, then it can help to fence off places where you know the hedgehogs sleep, and supervise all canine outings into the garden.

Caring for injured and orphan hedgehogs

Injured hedgehogs are often found wandering in daylight, with dreadful wounds due to strimmers, dog attacks, or after having been hit by a car. You can take them to a vet, or contact a hedgehog rescue organization. Vets tend not to charge for tending to injured wild hedgehogs, though you can ring up and ask first. Often the only thing the vet can do is to put the hedgehog to sleep, which is sad, but at least you have ended the little creature's suffering. Sometimes hogs just have minor injuries. If these injuries are permanent, but not life-threatening, ask at a wildlife rescue centre what chance of survival the hedgehog has in the wild, and what your best course of action is.

Long-term convalescing or invalid hog guests can live in a pen in your garden in summer, so long as it is dog and badger-proof and has a den. They need supplements to dog or cat food, if they don't have the freedom to catch their own food. Try to give them a big enough pen with heaped leaves to attract slugs and worms, so that they can at least catch some food. You can find them more food by looking under stones and flower pots for earthworms, slugs and beetles, which you can find even when it's icy in winter. You can also buy them mealworms from pet stores. How much hogs eat depends on how big they are, and how warm it is. A hedgehog weighing 400g to 500g can get through at least 200g of canned food every night, in addition to mealworms and other live supplements. They eat more when they are warmer. They like solid, non-fishy cat or dog food without a lot of jelly. Hedgehogs will eat more than once a night, and may defecate in their food bowls. It helps if you are also nocturnal and can feed them at around 10pm, then after midnight, but you could also feed them at your bedtime, then first thing in the morning, if you go to bed early and are up before a winter dawn.

Lively, fit, hedgehogs should be encouraged to catch their own food, even if they are disabled. You can find a baking tray, and fill it with earth, in which you can hide worms and slugs for the hedgehog to forage. There are concerns that slugs could harbour parasites, so just feed mealworms to convalescing hogs. Disabled healthy hogs, such as hogs that have lost a leg or an eye, should be fit enough to eat slugs without being susceptible to parasites.

Clean water should always be available, preferably using a guinea-pig bottle, since hogs tend to poo in water saucers. You can mash a little water in their food if you are worried about them being dehydrated, especially if they are in the warm. Put your guest somewhere warmer when autumn comes. A greenhouse can be a good guest-house for a hog, so long as you haven't used any pesticides in it, and make it safe by removing anything that hogs could get caught up in, like netting, or fall on and hurt themselves, like blades of open shears. Leave a box in the greenhouse, and lots of nesting material such as straw or leaves, for the hog to make a den.

Hogs will need to be taken indoors during early December if they aren't well enough to hibernate, or don't have the fat reserves for a long sleep. Don't put them in a garage if it's in use, because they are very susceptible to exhaust fumes, and do get your vet's advice on how to deal with parasites, which most hogs carry, especially sick hogs. Ticks, fleas and mites are common, as are maggots if hogs have open wounds. Clean your hog's home every day, and change the bedding regularly as part of parasite control. Try to give the hog natural daylight hours, even if he is indoors, so his body clock isn't too disrupted, and don't try taming him if you want him to return to the wild. It's a good defensive reaction for a wild hog to try to hide when he hears you coming - out in the wild an approaching human may not be as friendly as you are.

'Orphaned' hedgehogs are often just waiting for mum. Caring for baby hedgehogs is difficult, and not all survive, while if you give mum a chance, she may come back to collect her little one, so don't be too hasty in collecting any little hoglet you find wandering in the daytime. Give the mother at least a day to come back, and only start feeding the youngster if the hoglet looks very weak.

Caring for orphaned hoglets is not easy, and you should try to get help from a hedgehog rescue organization or a wildlife hospital, unless you are prepared to lose a lot of sleep and will not be too upset if the hoglet dies. Weigh your hoglet, and ask for advice on amounts of food, and give the hoglet a vet check-up, if you are determined to do the job yourself. You can try hoglets on adult food, cat or dog food and chopped worms, though younger hogs will need goat's milk into which you can beat a raw egg. You may have to syringe-feed them at first, but they should start to eat from a saucer from around three weeks' old. You can use milk designed for puppies or kittens if you cannot find goat's milk.

Hoglets do need help to wee and poo after you feed them, a bit like burping a human baby, but you have to get their bladders and bowels working. The mother hog licks her babies, but you don't have to do this! Just give the little one a gentle stroke with your finger along the tum, moving down towards the hoglet's anus, very, very gently a few times, and repeat until the little one has performed. Then wash your hands.

Overwintering juvenile hedgehogs

Hedgehogs born in autumn don't have very long to put on fat for their first winter hibernation. They may be born as late as October, and the nights may already be frosty before they are weaned. Young hedgehogs often don't survive the winter because they have been born too late to put on enough fat to hibernate. This applies especially to hedgehogs weighing under 500g from late October - unless the winter is mild, they are likely to die before spring. Very small hedgehogs which can't eat solids, and sick hedgehogs, can be taken to a rescue centre, but you can care for larger, healthy juveniles at home if you have the space and time.

The aim should be to return these hogs to the wild, so don't mollycoddle them and try to tame them, or you could affect their chances of survival. They should be kept warm enough to stay lively at night, but don't need the full blast of central heating, in fact it could harm a hog if you put him in a very warm place, then suddenly boot him out in the cold. An unheated spare room, or an unused garage are usually warm enough, unless the juveniles are sick, for example with respiratory problems, in which case take advice from a vet as to what temperature they need, and reduce the temperature gradually once they get well. Try to give overwintered hogs as much space as possible, so they stay fit, and give them live food to catch, and a den to hide in. Feed them the same way you would a healthy adult disabled hog, except that smaller hogs will need to be fed more often, at least twice a night. Once they near the 500g mark they can be moved to a cooler area. An unheated greenhouse or an outside shed, are fine if the winter is mild. Fatter hogs you have moved to a cool place only need to be fed once a night. Over-wintered hedgehogs can be allowed to hibernate once they reach the 600g mark. Give them plenty of nesting materials in and near their dens, and they make cosy little insulated homes to sleep in. They usually start to wake up in March or April, depending on temperature and the availability of food, and they tend to wake up hungry. You can put them for a few days in a pen in the garden, come the spring time, so that they gradually get used to being in the outside world, before you release them in time to go looking for a mate.

See also:

Further reading:

Hedgehogs, by Sally Morgan published by Franklin Watts (24 July 2008) (A short book, which gives basic scientific information on hedgehogs, and is written for children)

The New Hedgehogs Book by Pat Morris and Guy Troughton, published by Whittet Books Ltd (2010) (An updated classic, which is the most useful 'how to' book around for people wanting to encourage hedgehogs in their gardens.)
A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog by Hugh Warwick, published by Penguin (2010) (Great fun, lots of interesting facts and anecdotes about hedgehogs. A nice present for someone who loves hogs)