Do you have a hog in your hedge?
With 2nd - 8th May being Hedgehog Awareness week it seemed fitting to shine a light on these garden friendly hoggies. Because hedgehogs are only active at night you might not know if you have one visiting your garden but if your hostas don't resemble lace petticoats there's a high chance that you do. Or you have a resident toad. (Incidentally, if you do see a hedgehog pottering about during the day, phone your local vet or wildlife animal hospital for advice. It's not normal behaviour and it may need help. And for those of you close to the Buckinghamshire border you might be interested to know that Tiggywinkles (their website says they are the world's busiest wildlife hospital!) is in Haddenham).
Hedgehogs will eat almost anything, including slugs and snails so if you want beautiful hostas or prize-winning lettuces, you want a hedgehog. Or a toad. Hedgehogs roam between 2-3km every night so if you think you might have one passing through there are a few things you can do to encourage it to hang around. To return briefly to the Destroyer of All Things Green and Leafy (the slug) if you have any feelings at all towards the wildlife that shares your garden you either need to learn to live with the slimy menaces and their munchy faces, or take the multi-pronged approach of beer traps, cat litter, coffee grinds, copper tape, and physical removal. DO NOT USE SLUG PELLETS. Just don't. Ever. Yes, you'll kill the slugs but you'll also kill anything that eats the poisoned slug. Don't do that. It's not nice. Honestly killing the slugs isn't exactly nice either and that's why there are ways to deter them and point them in another direction, away from your lovely hostas and lettuces.
We're all agreed that hedgehogs are kinda adorable right? I mean, who doesn't love the snuffly little things, bustling around in the undergrowth, being all busy and industrious? And then there's the fact that they just snooze and snore their way through winter. Totes adorbz. So it's also kinda amazing that us humans have let them get into trouble. Back in 2018 hedgehog numbers were reported as being 50% down in less than 20 years and last year they were put on the Red List of Britain's mammals. Despite being a native species to the UK, and beloved by many, they are at risk; and it's largely due to habitat loss and restrictions which is where creating a hedgehog-friendly garden can really help.
Hedgehogs like to ramble to find food (2-3km a night, remember?) and if they can't do this safely they will either starve or get squished on the roads. One of the best things you can do for your local hoggy population is to cut a hole in your garden fence (and encourage your neighbours to do the same). About 6" square will be enough (they're not big animals) and they'll be able to run through unhindered. If you want to, you can add your new hedgehog gap to the 'hedgehog highway'. Not that hedgehogs use the internet to plot their routes around town, but it is a helpful resource for humans and you'll be helping hedgehogs in another way. You can also buy a sign to put over the gap. Again, I'm pretty sure that hedgehogs can't read, but the next people who move into your house can and will know that this is a deliberate hole and won't mend it.
Once in your garden your hedgehog need hotel accommodation and a restaurant. Both are super easy to provide as long as you are willing to put up with a small amount of untidyness. Stick in a log pile somewhere (see what I did there? stick in? stick? in a log pile? no? oh well, I thought it was quite good...). Logs provide homes for all sorts of bugs, insects, and creepy-crawlies and it will be like Le Manoir for your hedgehog. You might even get the hedgehogs settling in and hibernating in your log pile too so you'll need to be careful if you're moving things around over the winter or during the breeding season. Compost heaps (always a good thing for the garden) and leaf piles also make fab homes for hedgehogs and their dinner. As with the log piles, just be careful when turning over with a fork or digging in with a spade. And always (I can't stress this enough) ALWAYS check your bonfires before lighting them. Almost everyone has an unloved corner in their garden where nothing really grows and it tends to get a bit unsightly. Now is your opportunity to make this unsightliness a feature. Declare it your 'overgrown corner' in which all sorts of delights can make their home all through the year but especially overwinter where it will be a bit warmer amongst the knitted mess of sticks, moss, leaves, stones, and general garden detritus that collects together. Much biodiversity loss is because gardeners have a tendency to be just a bit too tidy and lack of available food isn't helping the hoggies.
I've written about the biodiversity value of ponds before. They are the one single thing that will attract the greatest variety of wildlife. It doesn't even need to be very big (word of warning, the larger the water volume, the easier it is to look after itself. Small volumes are more likely to clog up a bit and need more attention. It's the same with fish tanks but that's maybe a story for another day). If you do have a pond it is important to have a ramp so anything that falls in can get out. Hedgehogs are surprisingly good swimmers but can't climb a vertical bank. You don't have to stock your pond with wildlife. Ponds really are a case of 'build it and they will come'. You might get lucky and attract newts (the protected ones are the Great Crested variety and once they move in you can't move them out. You can recognise them because they have bright orange tummies). And in case you thought I'd forgotten about that toad you might have, now is a good time to say that they like a damp environment but don't live in water as much as frogs do. Toads will eat up to 10,000 slugs and snails in a single summer so if you can accommodate a few in your garden you'll have resident pest control that's much better than anything you can do. Like hedgehogs, toads will happily live in piles of leaves and under stones. Toads are also unbelievably sensitive to chemicals so if you want them around you need to stop spraying. Let your natural predators deal with your bugs instead.
While you're waiting for things your hedgehog will find yummy to make themselves at home in your new, lovely heap of mess you can set up a hedgehog cafe. You can buy special hedgehog food. They'll also eat (wet) dog or cat food, or cat biscuits. I'm not sure why dog biscuits aren't recommended but they're not. You will also need to provide water. Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so whilst many of you may remember putting out mushy bread and milk for hedgehogs back in the 80s we shouldn't have been doing this and may have inadvertently done a bit more harm than good. If you have larger animals visiting your garden (foxes or badgers maybe, or your own daft dog) you can protect your hedgehog dinner by putting it inside a feeding station that is difficult for anything bigger to enter. No promises though. Foxes and badgers (and the domestic dog) aren't stupid and are also quite insistent when they put their minds to something. Although hedgehogs are solitary you might be visited by more than one so if you're providing food and water it's a good idea to clean the bowls/surfaces regularly so you minimise the chances of them spreading diseases between each other. And it should be obvious, but wash the animal stuff separately from yours as there are things that they can spread to us too.
You can make (or buy) a bug hotel, a toad home, or a hedgehog house but you really don't need to. The 'Bug Ben' of the accompanying photo is a particularly ambitious offering that you can find at [http://zsl%20london%20zoo]London Zoo (hopefully on a sunnier day than when I went…). It's probably worth knowing that not all "purpose built" wildlife homes are fit for purpose, and some will need cleaning out every year. If this sounds like too much trouble or too risky for you, just provide your little friends with the right mix of materials and a way in, and they will find and make their own homes without you doing anything more strenuous than remembering to forget to tidy up.