In the UK, our hedgehogs spend the winter hibernating. For months, they curl up under the shed, in that hedgehog box you made, or in a pile of leaves gathered in a sheltered corner. During hibernation a hedgehog lowers it’s heart rate from 190 to 20 beats per minute. It’s temperature will drop from 35oC to 10oC and it will only take a breath every few minutes.
Once your local hedgehogs wake up from hibernation, they will need to search for food and build their strength up for breeding. In your garden they eat slugs and other invertebrates, protecting your plants for you. If you want to give hedgehogs a helping hand, don’t offer bread and milk. They find bread difficult to digest and are lactose intolerant. Give them dog or cat food (the biscuits are fine) and a saucer of water. Some people worry about hedgehogs giving their pets fleas, but although hedgehogs do sometimes have fleas, they are species specific, so they won’t transfer to your pets.
While on the search for food and mates, hedgehogs travel up to 3km a night. They can only get in and out of your garden if there are ‘hedgehog highways’ provided. If you can cut holes in the bottom of the fence, remove a brick from the bottom of a wall, or leave a gap under the gate, please do. You can even add your hedgehog highway and sightings to The Big Hedgehog Map on the internet. If you have a pond, or water feature, make sure there are shallow areas so that animals can easily climb out if they fall in. Avoid putting down slug pellets. Anything eating a poisoned slug will be poisoned as well, and without predators, the slug population will have free reign!
Hedgehogs are promiscuous little mammals, and hoglets in the same litter may have different fathers. There will be between 2 and 5 of them in a litter, and they will be independent at about eight weeks old. The female, who has done all the parenting, may then have a second litter.
Because they are nocturnal, we aren’t often lucky enough to see these mammals. A good way to catch sight of them is to listen first. Try standing quietly in the garden after dark – they make a lot of noise rummaging in the undergrowth for food and during the spring, as males compete for females, they may charge each other aggressively and push rivals away. The male then circles around the female while she huffs noisily. All this activity is easy to hear if you are in the garden at the right time. My son spotted three last spring when he accompanied the dog outside one evening! During the day, hedgehogs sleep in one of several nest areas. These will be similar to the areas they hibernate in, so try creating a rough pile of sticks and leaves or install a hedgehog home and watch from a distance at dusk.
Finally, did you know that hedgehogs used to be called urchins, and that’s how sea urchins got their name?