Caring for Wild Hedgehogs in Winter
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is a charity that was established in 1982 to help Britain’s wild hedgehog population (erinaceus europaeus). Hedgehogs are an important part of Britain’s wildlife and instantly recognisable with their spiky coat made up of thousands of prickles which are actually modified hairs.
Which hedgehogs need help?
Most of the hedgehogs seen at this time of year (December) are small ones that aren’t big enough to hibernate successfully and need help – there may be some regular visitors that decide to keep eating because there is a regular supply of food, but these will be in the minority. Having said that, hedgehogs will wake from time to time in milder spells during hibernation and even move nests.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal and should only be out during night time hours, if they are seen in daylight they will need help. The only exception to this rule is a ‘busy’ mum collecting leaves for a nest or gathering food while her young sleep, but that won’t be happening in winter. The very first babies (hoglets) aren’t usually seen until April and if the weather stays mild they can be born as late as October. Sadly, these late born babies have little chance of building up enough weight to hibernate successfully.
What should I do if I spot a hedgehog that needs help?
If you see any out and about at this time of year, especially in the day, it is best to give the BHPS a call for advice (contact details below). Basic first aid for small hedgehogs in winter is to throw a towel over it to pick it up. It needs to go into a high-sided box – they are good climbers – that is lined with newspaper. Cover a hot water bottle (warm not hot) with a towel and place the hedgehog on this with the cloth you used to pick it up covering it. It can have some meat based dog or cat food and a dish of water – but never milk.
Don’t forget to keep changing the water in the bottle, if allowed to go cold it will do more harm than good. If you don’t have a hot water bottle use a plastic milk carton or drinks bottle and wrap a towel around the hedgehog and bottle to keep them together. Make the bottle hand hot so as not to burn or make the hedgehog uncomfortable. Providing this heat can be a lifesaver so please do not think that it is a wild animal and does not need this warmth.
It is better to pass them on to someone used to caring for them, as they can need a lot of care at this time of year. They will be emaciated and probably have a heavy worm burden (these worms often affect the lungs). They often need fluids administered by injection and need to be kept at a constant heat – a hot water bottle is OK for a short spell by an electric heat mat provides a constant temperature 24 hours a day.
How can I help the hedgehogs in my garden?
For hedgehogs that are in the garden, it is always helpful to leave some food out, but in the cold weather, when it is less likely to be taken, you can put out dry cat biscuits, these will not go off so quickly and will be less wasteful. Leave a dish of water out as well not just for the hedgehogs but for all the wildlife in your garden. At other times of year you can offer meaty cat or dog food, hedgehog food, chopped unsalted peanuts, sunflower hearts and mealworms.
If you are tempted out to do some gardening in winter remember that there could be hedgehogs hibernating in your garden. An unusually large pile of leaves could well be ahibernaculum (hedgehog’s winter nest) as could any piles of vegetation, so do take care when raking or forking over any suspect areas. If you should discover a hedgehog then pile the leaves etc. back over it and perhaps check the pile the next morning – it is likely the hedgehog will have woken properly and moved to a new nest. Provide some fresh water and some food as it will be very thirsty and hungry; the food will also help replace some of the fat it had to burn up when rousing.
How do I contact BHPS?
If you see any hedgehog out and about at this time of year it is best to contact the British Hedgehog Preservation Society on 01584 890801 (if you can weigh the hedgehog first that is always helpful).
Out of hours you will be directed to other numbers but whatever the time, with patience, you should be able to speak to a real person.
For more information about hedgehogs and how to help them visit The BHPS web site at www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk.