Make your gar­den a haven for hedge­hogs

There is a strong link be­tween the chang­ing ways that we use our gar­dens and the alarm­ing de­cline of one the na­tion’s favourite an­i­mals, says Kate Brad­bury

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

Hedge­hog de­cline is big news. De­spite vot­ing it the na­tion’s favourite mam­mal in a BBC Wildlife Mag­a­zine sur­vey in 2013, we Bri­tons are let­ting it dis­ap­pear on our watch. The State of Bri­tish Hedge­hogs re­port 2015 sug­gests hedge­hog pop­u­la­tions have halved in ru­ral ar­eas and de­clined by a third in ur­ban dis­tricts since 2000. Rea­sons for their demise in­clude habi­tat loss and frag­men­ta­tion, caused by the loss of hedgerows and field mar­gins in the coun­try­side, and gar­dens and other green spa­ces in towns.

The loss of gar­den habi­tats is so sig­nif­i­cant that War­wick­shire Wildlife Trust set up Bri­tain’s first Hedge­hog Im­prove­ment Area (HIA) in Soli­hull, West Mid­lands.

Launched just over a year ago and funded by the Bri­tish Hedge­hog Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety, the HIA is a con­ser­va­tion project de­vel­oped to bol­ster lo­cal hedge­hog pop­u­la­tions and in­spire lo­cal peo­ple and or­gan­i­sa­tions to help the species – start­ing in their gar­dens. I met Si­mon Thomp­son, the HIA’s se­nior hedge­hog of­fi­cer, in Brue­ton Park, Soli­hull, home to one of War­wick­shire Wildlife Trust’s na­ture reserves.

It’s a sunny au­tumn day, dog walk­ers abound and nuthatches call to each other in the trees.

“Hedge­hogs ac­tu­ally pre­fer gar­dens,” says Si­mon, “par­tic­u­larly if they’re man­aged well for wildlife.” He shows me around the re­serve within the park, demon­strat­ing hedge­hogfriendly fenc­ing, log piles and a pond he and his team have put in place since the HIA was launched. Typ­i­cally, Si­mon ex­plains, gar­dens have a range of habi­tats and bio­di­ver­sity within a small space – from hedges and shrubs to ar­eas of long grass and com­post heaps – all per­fect habi­tats for hedge­hogs. But there’s a prob­lem:

“There’s a strong link be­tween the chang­ing ways we use our gar­dens and hedge­hog de­cline,” says Si­mon. “Gar­dens these days are of­ten seen as an ad­di­tional ‘out­door room’. They might have large ar­eas of pa­tio or deck­ing, even AstroTurf, and fewer plants, par­tic­u­larly na­tive ones which at­tract more egg-lay­ing moths and there­fore cater­pil­lars, an im­por­tant food source for hedge­hogs.”

On top of that, in­creas­ingly gar­dens are grubbed up by de­vel­op­ers to squeeze in an ex­tra house or two, while new­build es­tates have small, un­con­nected gar­dens with few plants. We are lit­er­ally stop­ping hedge­hogs in their tracks. But it doesn’t have to be like that. If we man­age our gar­dens dif­fer­ently, hedge­hogs will thrive once more. And that’s where Si­mon and the HIA come in.

“It’s a long process,” he says, “but we’re see­ing great re­sults.”

Through a co­or­di­na­tion of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, sci­en­tific study and sim­ple habi­tat im­prove­ment, Si­mon hopes to make Soli­hull much bet­ter for hedge­hogs. The HIA stretches across the bor­ough, tak­ing in a di­verse range of habi­tats from large gar­dens and parks to schools, in­dus­trial ar­eas and smaller hous­ing es­tates. It also in­cludes a fair stretch of al­lot­ments, which Si­mon de­scribes as bril­liant for hedge­hogs: “They are what gar­dens were like 60 years ago.” Food for thought in our cul­ture of tidi­ness and or­der.

Build­ing on the suc­cess of the Hedge­hog Street cam­paign, which was launched in 2011 and has led to

thou­sands of com­mu­ni­ties join­ing forces to link gar­dens and help hedge­hogs, Si­mon gives talks to Wildlife Trusts, groups and schools. He en­cour­ages peo­ple to try sim­ple reme­dies: to cut a hole in the bot­tom of the fence on ei­ther side of their gar­den, en­abling hedge­hogs to travel be­tween them in search of food; leave ar­eas of long grass; build open com­post heaps; and make leaf and stick piles in which hedge­hogs can nest, shel­ter and hi­ber­nate. Avoid­ing use of slug pel­lets is also key. Per­haps most im­por­tantly, Si­mon en­cour­ages peo­ple to keep an eye out for hedge­hogs. He makes this easy for HIA par­tic­i­pants by mak­ing and dis­tribut­ing foot­print tun­nels. These are baited with food, which the hogs can reach only by walk­ing over a harm­less ink and pa­per, leav­ing prints in the process. Par­tic­i­pants bor­row the tun­nels and check the foot­prints – hedge­hog prints are un­mis­tak­able. All of this, while fun, helps map hedge­hogs across the bor­ough.

“We now have in­for­ma­tion where there was none,” says Si­mon, “and we can build on that.” By record­ing hedge­hogs, his team can im­prove con­di­tions: “If we know hedge­hogs are in one group of gar­dens, and there’s an­other hotspot a few miles down the road, we can work on the area be­tween the two habi­tats to cre­ate a cor­ri­dor from one to the other.”

Essen­tially, Si­mon and his team are in­creas­ing the size of hedge­hog habi­tats and mak­ing it eas­ier for hedge­hogs to travel. This is vi­tal to the suc­cess of the HIA and the fu­ture of our hedge­hogs.

This au­tumn Si­mon is knock­ing on doors in tar­geted ar­eas, hop­ing to en­cour­age more peo­ple to cut holes in their fences, make nest­ing habi­tats and map sight­ings of hedge­hogs in their gar­dens. He hopes to reach more peo­ple like Gary and Lynn Welsher in nearby Elm­don, where he takes me af­ter my tour of the na­ture re­serve. Gary and Lynn have an av­er­a­ge­sized sub­ur­ban gar­den on a hous­ing es­tate built in the Eight­ies. They have two hedge­hog vis­i­tors, which feast on meal­worms at night and shel­ter in the gap be­tween the green­house and the fence by day. When we ar­rive, Gary is repo­si­tion­ing the wildlife-friendly cat scarer he bought to de­ter lo­cal cats from eat­ing food he puts out for hedge­hogs.

On the lawn are two home-made hedge­hog nest boxes. In­side, a wildlife cam­era trap lies open, as 16 bat­ter­ies recharge. This is a story of con­ser­va­tion, yes, but it’s also one of love. “It’s amaz­ing how hedge­hogs are caus­ing such a stir these days,” says Gary, as he puts his fin­ger to his lips and points in the di­rec­tion of two sleep­ing hedge­hogs in the dis­tance. “Some­times you can see their spines as

‘It’s amaz­ing how hedge­hogs are caus­ing such a stir these days’

they sleep, but they’ve cov­ered them­selves up well to­day.” We take it in turns to peer, as qui­etly as pos­si­ble, at the un­promis­ing pile of leaves that lies be­tween Gary’s green­house and fence, in which he as­sures us are sleep­ing hogs. We take his word for it and move on to de­cid­ing where he should put his nest boxes.

“It’s a good ex­cuse not to dis­turb that corner now,” says Gary. “We don’t want to up­set them.” These hogs, with their sup­ply of meal­worms and be­spoke ac­com­mo­da­tion, are well cared for by Gary and Lynn, but it’s the neigh­bour­ing gar­dens that Si­mon is in­ter­ested in. The es­tate com­prises a cul-de-sac of homes, with many joined by garages and ex­ten­sions, pre­vent­ing easy ac­cess. And are the gar­dens good habi­tats or is there room to im­prove?

Si­mon sets up a foot­print tun­nel and leaves it with Gary, sug­gest­ing he pass it on to his neigh­bours af­ter he has used it. This small act could open up a com­mu­nity to car­ing for hedge­hogs and, ul­ti­mately, save the species.

PS… Bon­fire night

Be­fore you light your bon­fire this week­end, do check for hedge­hogs and other wildlife, in­clud­ing toads. An un­lit bon­fire makes the per­fect shel­ter for small mam­mals and am­phib­ians, of­ten lead­ing to cat­a­strophic re­sults. The Bri­tish Hedge­hog Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety rec­om­mends ei­ther build­ing the pile at the last minute or dis­man­tling and re­assem­bling it be­fore light­ing. For fur­ther ad­vice, visit help­forhedge­hogs.co.uk.

Tra­di­tional en­e­mies?

Badgers and hedge­hogs are of­ten men­tioned in the same breath, with the grow­ing badger pop­u­la­tion blamed for the de­cline in hedge­hogs.

The in­crease in badger num­bers is prob­a­bly not help­ing, but it’s only in the past 30-50 years that hedge­hogs have been de­clin­ing, and con­ser­va­tion­ists at­tribute this to re­duced habi­tat and lack of food.

The mod­ern farm­ing trend for larger fields with re­duced mar­gins makes hedge­hogs much eas­ier to tar­get. The rise in ur­ban foxes is also thought to have had an ef­fect. While foxes can’t un­roll hedge­hogs as badgers can, they can bite at a leg or two. This, over a pe­riod of sev­eral days, is enough to kill a hedge­hog.

Be­fore you light your bon­fire, check for wildlife

Help­ing hand: cut­ting a hole at the base of a fence, be­low, al­lows hedge­hogs to wan­der from gar­den to gar­den in search of food

Sight­ings: Si­mon Thomp­son, left and top, makes a tun­nel with Gary Welsher and Kate Brad­bury; right, in­frared im­ages of a hog at night taken on a wildlife cam­era

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