Did you know that you might have a prehistoric creature living in your garden? Hedgehogs are one of our oldest native species – they shared the earth with sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths 15 million years ago, and now they snuffle about in our gardens helpfully eating the slugs and snails that damage our plants. Sadly, hedgehog numbers have declined sharply over the last 50 years, with the estimated population dropping from 36.5 million to just 1.5 million. Habitat loss has played a big role in their decline as the hedgerows they call home are destroyed.
Despite their reduced numbers we still see plenty of hedgehogs here in the practice, particularly as autumn turns to winter and those which are too small or unwell to hibernate are often found wandering about in daylight, a common sign of illness in this nocturnal species. When a hedgehog is brought to us, our first task after examining it for injuries is to warm it up as they are often hypothermic. We weigh the hedgehog – they need to weigh around 550-600g to survive hibernation, and many of the youngsters found at the beginning of winter are barely halfway to this goal. We will also often take a faecal sample to examine under the microscope – wild hedgehogs almost always have some internal worms which don’t usually bother healthy adults, but if the number of worms becomes too high the infestation can make the hedgehog very ill and is sometimes fatal. We examine the sample to check how many worm eggs and larvae are present and to identify the species so that we can begin the appropriate course of treatment, which usually involves daily injections for 2 weeks.
Signs that a hedgehog may be unwell include disorientation (being out in daylight, walking in circles or staggering, not noticing when humans approach), excessive parasites such as ticks, noisy laboured breathing, leaving food uneaten and not curling into a ball when touched. If unsure, it’s best to leave it where it is and call your vets for advice before moving it. If you are going to handle a wild hedgehog, put on gloves or use a towel – not only are they prickly but they are also often carrying fleas and ticks! Place the poorly hedgehog in a box with a hot water bottle wrapped in a thick towel, and call your vet to arrange to bring it in.
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society website has lots of tips for making your garden hedgehog-friendly, and instructions for making a hedgehog feeding station so that you can put out food for your garden visitors without it being eaten by neighbourhood cats or foxes (cat food is a favourite among hedgehogs, although steer clear of any containing fish, and dried mealworms are also popular). Avoid using slug pellets or other poison, as this can be lethal to the hedgehogs that eat the slugs. If you are looking for a more hands-on way to help, we do have details of local hedgehog charities that may be in need of volunteers to look after baby hedgehogs until the spring arrives and they can be released.