Hedgehogs are Britain’s most easily identified mammal: the only one with a thick coat of spines. In early spring they might still sleep through colder weather, but will wake up on warm nights to bumble across a lawn or field edge, snuffling for insects or earthworms to eat. This is a good time for us to emerge from winter too and consider how we can help hedgehogs.
The Claylands of Norfolk and Suffolk are a great place to spot these prickly creatures, which thrive in a landscape of thick hedgerows, scattered woods and grassy commons, as well as the many back gardens of our villages and market towns.
However, hedgehog numbers are sadly in rapid decline across Britain and there are many actions we can all take to help, what a friend of mine, calls ‘prickle pigs’. If you have a garden or a farm, or if you can influence the management of a local churchyard or playing field, the principles are roughly the same: hedgehogs need food, water, shelter and easy routes between the places where they forage.Water is the easiest of these. A shallow bowl in the garden, especially in dry weather, will always be welcome and if you have a pond of any size, then a gently sloping bank for access is essential.
Shelter for hibernation, daytime snoozing and nesting can be anything from the thick base of a hedge to a pile of leaves or a hedgehog house. Piles of sticks, compost bins and even pampas grass are popular places to sleep, so be careful when clearing these or having bonfires. Hedgehogs will get up and often move nests in warm winter spells, so having more than one place to shelter is essential.
Studies of hedgehog diets show they relish beetles, caterpillars, earthworms, earwigs and millipedes even more than slugs, so habitats for creepy-crawlies are vital. Wildflower meadows, native shrubs, pond edges and grassy field margins are and avoid types of slug pellets toxic to hedgehogs too!
Hedgehogs hunt for insects over wider areas connected by gardens and wildlife. In the future, Norfolk Wildlife Trust hopes to have more information available on helping hedgehogs in Norfolk, but for now, the Hedgehog Street website www.hedgehogstreet.org
has fabulous ideas on what to do in your own garden and how neighbours can work together to make sure gardens are accessible to hedgehogs. If we work together, whole streets or villages can provide everything hedgehogs need to survive.
Maintaining habitats and corridors for hedgehogs across farms is crucial and there is guidance on maintaining field margins and hedges, plus the importance of low scrub, modifying ploughing in key areas and how to use farm environment schemes to help hedgehogs.
The more I find out about hedgehogs the more fascinating I find them - there can be more than 5,000 prickles on their back, which not only give them protection, but cushion the impact if they fall; they hunt largely by smell and, as I found out one evening last summer, have a very noisy courtship ritual. I hope that this year, as spring turns to summer, you too can enjoy these wonderful creatures and help ensure their survival.