Hedgehogs are a much-loved character in the British countryside and they were once a familiar sight. However, you might have noticed that you don’t see hedgehogs as often as you did in your childhood.
In fact, hedgehogs had an estimated population of 30 million in Britain in the 1950s. By 1995, the population was estimated to have fallen to just 1.5 million*, and in the last ten years they have declined by a further 30% - a startling drop in numbers.
The cause of hedgehog decline is unclear, but it is likely to be down to a number of reasons. More intensive agriculture, loss of hedgerows and grassland, pesticide use, habitat loss and smaller, tidier gardens may have all played a role in the species’ falling numbers.
The good news is that now that we are aware of the problems faced by hedgehogs there are steps we can take to help our spiny friends, and everyone with a garden can do their bit. As one of the main predators of slugs and snails, it’s in a gardener’s interest to provide a safe place for hedgehogs in their garden.
For more ways to help wildlife, see our six tips for making a wildlife-friendly garden.
Here are eight easy things you can do to help your local hedgehog population…
Connect your garden
By far the simplest thing you can do is to make sure that any fences or walls in your garden have a 13cm by 13cm hole at ground level to act as a hedgehog highway.
Hedgehogs are predators and will roam large areas looking for food – up to two miles a night. Unfortunately, rows of terraced houses with fenced gardens stop hedgehogs travelling freely, massively reducing the amount of habitat they have access to and forcing them onto roads.
If you can’t make a hole in your fence you could dig a ditch underneath so that hedgehogs can squeeze under. Encourage your neighbours to do the same so that hedgehogs can roam between the gardens – the British Hedgehog Preservation Society have provided a poster you can print our and display in your window or share with neighbours. Download a PDF of the 'Find the Gap' poster here.
Once you have made your hole, add it to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s Hedgehog Street map.
Don’t use chemical slug pellets or pesticides
Slugs poisoned by chemicals will end up in the food chain, and even though the amount of slug poison needed to kill a hedgehog is extremely high there have been several cases of dead hedgehogs found with very high levels of metaldehyde (the active ingredient in most commercial slug pellets) in their system.
Research has also found that the poison could be affecting their reproductive ability. Play it safe and find alternative methods of controlling your slugs.
Other pesticides could also pose a problem to hedgehogs by killing off their main food sources. Although people like to encourage hedgehogs into the garden to eat slugs a hedgehog cannot thrive on slugs alone, and in fact is unlikely to survive. This is partly because slugs can carry deadly lungworm (also a danger to pets). Hedgehogs will eat earthworms, caterpillars, beetles and other insects, so a garden lacking insect life is not beneficial to hedgehogs.
Read our guide to controlling slugs and snails here
Give a hedgehog a home
Many animals overwinter in untidy areas of the garden and a garden with areas that have been left to go a little wild will encourage biodiversity. Log piles, leaf piles, long grass and even compost heaps can provide excellent habitats for many animals, including hedgehogs. Take care when clearing these areas or turning your compost over with a fork. Not only do these untidy areas make great homes for hedgehogs, they also encourage their all-important food source – insects. A hedgehog will eat about 200g of insects a night.
Hedgehogs will also use special hedgehog homes, called hibernacula. You can buy hedgehog homes or make your own – Hedgehog Street has some plans for homemade hibernacula.
Read our guide to encouraging biodiversity in your garden
Provide a water source (not milk!) and food
It was once common to leave a bowl of milk out for hedgehogs, but this is unnecessary and can be bad for their health. Instead, provide a supply of clean water such as a shallow dish of water on the ground or, even better, a wildlife-friendly pond. If you have a pond already or are planning on building one make sure the sides are not too steep to prevent hedgehogs and other animals drowning.
Hedgehogs also greatly benefit from a food source, particularly in urban areas that lack enough biodiversity to provide them with a balanced diet. A bowl of dried cat food will go down a treat.
For more information, read our guide to designing and building a wildlife pond
Don’t use rat poison
In a 2009 study of 120 dead hedgehogs by Bristol University, around 66% were found to have anticoagulants in their system, the chemicals used to kill rats and mice by stopping their blood clotting. It is unknown how the hedgehogs came into contact with the poison, it could be that they ate the poison themselves or scavenged on the bodies of poisoned rodents, but the results came as a surprise. In fact, the impact of rat and mouse poison on non-target animals such as birds of prey and scavengers across the world has seen some countries ban its use outdoors.
If you have a problem with rats or mice it is better to tackle the cause and make sure that food is out of reach and potential nesting areas are cleared away.
Find out how to stop rats and squirrels eating bird food
Take care with bonfires
A pile of wood waiting to be set alight makes a tempting hiding place for hedgehogs and other animals. Always check your bonfire before you light it, and to be safe store your pile of wood away from where you plan to burn it. That way, when you carry the wood over to the bonfire site you can be certain your bonfire is free from snoozing animals.
Worried about pets on Bonfire Night? Read our guide to caring for pets during firework season.
When we’re helping our wildlife it’s important to know what the numbers are across the country, as well as regional differences. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species has an annual Living with Mammals survey which invites members of the public to choose an ‘urban’ site (within 200 metres of a building) and make a note of any mammals they see during the survey period. For more information, see the Living with Mammals page.
If you find sick or dead hedgehogs please report them to Garden Wildlife Health, a charity that monitors sickness and death in wildlife to spot emerging trends that could be a threat to our wildlife.
Help sick hedgehogs
You should limit your contact with hedgehogs as much as possible - they can become stressed by too much human intervention. However, if you find a hedgehog awake during winter or staggering around during the day it could be that the animal is sick and is in need of help. Hedgehog Street has some useful tips for taking care of a hedgehog until you are able to contact the Hedgehog Preservation Society for further advice and to find help locally.
* For more on declining hedgehog numbers see the report from the People's Trust for Endangered Species.
For information about the wildlife you might see in your garden, visit our Garden Wildlife section