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Monday, July 15, 2024
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HomeNotes from the SticksNotes from the Sticks: Welcome back, hedgehogs

Notes from the Sticks: Welcome back, hedgehogs

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ONE bright midsummer morning a week or so ago I was up with the lark to feed the cat and as usual found myself staring at the bird feeders in the plum tree at the back of our garden. Even in my urban area, these can attract the wonderful occasional surprise – goldcrests, bullfinches, blackcaps, even great spotted woodpeckers. Sparrowhawks often fly through, sometimes crashing over the neighbours’ fences at high speed to snatch unwary goldfinches and dunnocks, or to sit defeated and alone on my bird table amid the perfect silence they create. It means I always look to see what is happening.

On this occasion, however, my attention was drawn to the patio outside the kitchen door where a baby hedgehog, or hoglet, was scurrying around. At some point in the night, it had fallen down the single step separating the lawn from the patio and was too small to climb back up.

After waking the family to show off the delightful little creature, I offered it a plate of hedgehog food – a selection of dried insects and nuts I keep in a cupboard with the supplies for the wild birds.

When it had had enough, I carried it up to the lawn where I let it go. I saw it again in the days that followed, snuffling around in the earth for woodlice, millipedes and beetles, too young to be scared of anything.

Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) mate as soon as they come out of hibernation (late March) with the first litter (usually four or five) born in spring or early summer. From about three weeks of age they look like tiny adults. Not being an expert, I’d say this this little lad (or lass) was somewhere between one and two months old.

It was a great joy to discover him because he is the first hedgehog I’ve seen in my garden in more than five years, though I had found their distinctive black sausage-shaped droppings earlier this year. (You can see some hints for identifying the droppings here.) We once had a bustling colony, and I’ve spent many a summer evening sitting watching the bats dive after moths as the darkness encroaches, knowing that when it fully arrives I might hear the rustle of hedgehogs toward the food I’d left out for them. Mine would almost always come via the same route – from a gap underneath the gate then on to the borders and underneath the shrubbery, dropping on to the flagged path from a bank of lady’s mantle, like this juvenile:

Here are a couple more of my pictures from that time.

It is easy to grow fond of these endearing creatures (not rodents, incidentally, but members of the family Erinaceidae, whose only other members are moonrats, shrew-like animals found in south-east Asia). Those devoted to them have included the late John Challis, the actor who played Boycie in Only Fools and Horses, who was a patron of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society along with Queen guitarist Brian May. They did much to encourage the public to make their gardens hedgehog-friendly as numbers of these indigenous mammals are in serious decline, in some areas by up to 75 per cent.

Part of the reason is changing agricultural practices. They are carnivorous, and while they will take the eggs of ground-nesting birds, or eat young mice and shrews, the bulk of their diet comes from earthworms and insects, mostly beetles and caterpillars. In farmland areas where invertebrates are controlled by pesticides hedgehogs are disappearing along with such birds as the grey partridge, the chicks of which starve to death when there are insufficient numbers of flies and grubs.

Suburban gardens have offered hedgehogs something of a lifeline but trendy decking, flagged patios and plastic grass are nearly as deadly to them as the cars that are crowding the roads.

There is no good reason why people should not welcome hedgehogs into their gardens as they are harmless to us and they are nature’s remedy for pests. Some would point out that they are flea-ridden but the hedgehog flea (Archaeopsylla erinacei) is species specific. It might bite you by mistake, but it certainly would not attempt to keep you as a host. Nor will it infest your pets.

One of the things Challis and his friends encouraged was small patches of gardens left deliberately a little wild, with spaces for rotting logs and long grass, flowerbeds stocked with plants attractive to British wildlife. Keep your gardens clean of dangerous refuse, cover grids and sheer-sided ponds to prevent drowning (though hedgehogs can swim) and establish corridors (a hole in a gate, for example) so that these mammals can rove and range. I have done all of these things, and it has been a joy to see these creatures come back.

Margaret Ashworth writes: Just this one item today but I hope to resume normal service next week.

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Simon Caldwell
Simon Caldwell
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist, formerly of the Daily Mail, whose debut novel ‘The Beast of Bethulia Park’ is out now.. Click on this link to learn more and to order your copy. The sequel is expected in 2024.

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