Hedgehogs need our help to survive

This year we have a continuous stream of hedgehogs being admitted to the hospital. We are in no doubt that at least one hedgehog will be brought to us every day, sometimes we have 10 admitted into the hospital in one day. The main piece of advice surrounding hedgehogs is that if you see one out during the day then it requires specialist help as soon as possible. If you have any of the following concerns regarding the health and wellbeing of a hedgehog please follow our advice and seek appropriate help. 

Out During Daylight

Hedgehogs are nocturnal so being active during the day is not a good sign and will indicate that something is wrong. Pain and discomfort are common reasons for seeing hedgehogs roaming about during the daytime. Wounds and parasites can cause pain and discomfort resulting in the hedgehog being restless, and in other cases if these wounds or parasite burdens are particularly bad, the hedgehog can be found cold, dehydrated and weak. Most of the hedgehogs brought in to us have one or more internal parasite and often these require treatment for the hedgehog to thrive and breed successfully. We also have hedgehogs brought to us that have been injured by garden strimmers, cars, or caught by curious dogs or cats.

Fly Strike

During the warmer seasons, we receive a high amount of calls concerning hedgehogs that are out in the daylight with flies around them. They need to be taken to a vet, or brought to us for immediate attention in case they have fly strike. This is when flies lay their eggs and these will hatch into maggots. Once this happens the eggs / maggots needs to be removed as soon as possible for the hedgehog to have any chance of surviving. We have dealt with many fly stricken hogs during the last year and thankfully, if they receive our help before the eggs hatch, we can remove the eggs and save them from a horrible fate.

Nest Disturbance

Between May and August we receive phone calls from worried members of the public after accidentally disturbing hedgehog nests (containing mother and babies). If you find a nest of hedgehogs the most important thing to remember is to not handle them to avoid putting your scent on them and their nest as this will deter the mother from coming back. The babies’ best chances of survival are with their mother so we do try to advise people to give the mother a chance to attend and monitor the situation for a while. If the mother does abandon her babies once disturbed then we have to step in hand rear the little hoglets. In these cases it does mean the young hedgehogs miss out on important nutrients from their mothers’ milk and also miss out on learning some vital life skills as the opportunity to go foraging with mum isn’t available.

Wounded

If you find a hedgehog with wounds than it will need to be assessed by a wildlife specialist or a wildlife friendly vet. At the very least the wounds will probably need to be cleaned up and in many cases these wounds need to be treated with antibiotics and sometimes even pain relief is required. It is vital that any hedgehog found with wounds gets the right help a.s.a.p. to avoid unnecessary infection taking hold and to prevent the animal being in any unnecessary stress or pain.

Underweight

Hedgehogs need to be a reasonable weight to be able to survive the winter months in hibernation; the recommended weight is 600g. If you see a hedgehog during the winter which you suspect is underweight you should carefully pick the hedgehog up and weigh him or her and seek further advice from a wildlife specialist.

Dehydrated

When hedgehogs are very poorly, they become dehydrated. Dehydration is a very serious issue if it is not corrected a.s.a.p. A dehydrated hedgehog will often appear to be walking slowing and sometimes they even have a wobbly walk. If you find a hedgehog that appears to be weak, lethargic and/or is wobbly when it walks it requires specialist help immediately. You can supply it with a bowl of water to drink but this will usually not be enough to rectify the problem. Dehydration is often an issue resulting from other problems going on so examination and treatment will usually be necessary to help ensure the survival of that hog.

Wounded

If you find a hedgehog with wounds than it will need to be assessed by a wildlife specialist or a wildlife friendly vet. At the very least the wounds will probably need to be cleaned up and in many cases these wounds need to be treated with antibiotics and sometimes even pain relief is required. It is vital that any hedgehog found with wounds gets the right help a.s.a.p. to avoid unnecessary infection taking hold and to prevent the animal being in any unnecessary stress or pain.

Underweight

Hedgehogs need to be a reasonable weight to be able to survive the winter months in hibernation; the recommended weight is 600g. If you see a hedgehog during the winter which you suspect is underweight you should carefully pick the hedgehog up and weigh him or her and seek further advice from a wildlife specialist.

Dehydrated

When hedgehogs are very poorly, they become dehydrated. Dehydration is a very serious issue if it is not corrected a.s.a.p. A dehydrated hedgehog will often appear to be walking slowing and sometimes they even have a wobbly walk. If you find a hedgehog that appears to be weak, lethargic and/or is wobbly when it walks it requires specialist help immediately. You can supply it with a bowl of water to drink but this will usually not be enough to rectify the problem. Dehydration is often an issue resulting from other problems going on so examination and treatment will usually be necessary to help ensure the survival of that hog.

Hedgehogs in Decline

Hedgehogs are the most common animal we get in at HART. With their population in rapid decline, getting these hogs back to the wild is particularly important now more than ever. If we can get healthy hedgehogs back to the suitable locations in the wild then they have a good chance of breeding and increasing hedgehog numbers which will help to secure their future.

Click here for a video of one of our fostered hedgehogs up and about at night, and here for a video of some of the small hoglets we had during 2015.

If you would like to help the hedgehogs in your area, you can encourage them by:

  • Keeping a wild corner for them as a safe place for them to nest and forage
  • Accumulating materials - garden rubbish, leaves, brushwood, etc. suitable for hedgehog nests (hibernacula) and supplementing their natural diet of slugs, snails, beetles, worms, caterpillars and suchlike with some protein (e.g. meat based pet food, minced meat, crunchy hedgehog/cat biscuits or mealworms), particularly in periods of unseasonable weather. A bowl of drinking water should also be available at several sites around the garden.
  • Driving carefully at night - curling into a ball is no defence against a car
  • Avoid using pesticides and slug pellets - there are plenty of natural alternatives
  • Make sure they can get out of your pond with a small ramp or sloping side
  • Remove any litter such as yogurt pots which hedgehogs can get stuck in, or elastic bands and beer can plastic rings that can cause nasty injuries as hedgehogs get entangled.

Most people are probably aware by now that hedgehogs are in decline. Conservationists believe that hedgehogs are on their way to becoming extinct unless we actively do what we can to prevent this outcome. We need to limit/prevent the damage done by extensive farming, urbanisation and the population fragmentation. Initiatives such as Hedgehog Street, have done a lot to raise awareness of their plight, but given that HART only sees a proportion of the many hedgehogs that are in need there is going to be an uphill struggle to try and save this species. Hopefully, together hedgehog lovers, conservationists and rescuers can help protect this unique animal that has been around for about 28 million years.

Hedgehog nest disturbance - how to avoid it and what to do if it happens

Hedgehogs are mammals that can produce two litters of young each year; the first are born around May/June and the second litters are born during August/September. Litter size is generally between two and six young. Babies are born defenceless with eyes and ears closed; no fur and initially no spines making them totally dependent on their mum and very vulnerable. They stay in a family group for approximately 2 months after birth; for the first month they are reliant solely on their mothers’ milk but by about 4 weeks old they start to wean and grow rapidly. Female hedgehogs take their babies on foraging trips to show them how to hunt for food and to familiarise them with the local area. Once they can feed independently they disperse and start living separate lives.

During 2015 we took in four family groups; four nursing mothers with 19 babies between them. These nest disturbances happened for a variety of reasons including gardening activities. One of the mums was caught by a strimmer and arrived with a nasty wound on her head, one family was displaced from a compost heap, one group was found in an air raid shelter that was being cleared out and another was hit by a lawn mower. Luckily they have all survived the trauma of being disturbed/injured, picked-up and moved into the hospital and all did amazingly well and were later released back to the wild. These babies were fortunate to have been kept with their mother. Sometimes if a hedgehog mother feels threatened she can reject or eat her own babies.

We have also taken in many babies either found with no mum or where the mum has been disturbed and abandoned her young. We care for many youngsters at the hospital and these orphans, have a much lower chance of survival if they are very young on arrival. At the hospital they are fed formula milk with added probiotics which offers adequate nutrition but lacks the vital colostrum present in mother’s milk. Colostrum provides a degree of immunity to the common diseases the babies are likely to encounter in the first few weeks of life giving them protection from illness until their own immune system matures. The formula is obviously different in makeup from the mother’s milk and can cause digestive problems, however the hardest aspect of hand rearing baby hedgehogs is making sure they don’t succumb to aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia can occur if the baby inhales the milk leading to fluid pooling in the lungs. If this happens they develop breathing problems, become lethargic, stop eating and often do not recovery from this leading to death. At HART we have been looking into developing extra small teats to try and combat this problem. Newly born hoglets may need feeding every two to three hours to ensure they are hydrated and fed enough. As they grow the intervals between feeds can be extended and the quantity of milk increased – it is always a relief when they reach the weaning stage and can start to feed themselves as they are past the critical stage.

Female hedgehogs will nest in some very strange places but generally in areas that have been undisturbed for a good length of time. Nesting sites can include un-used sheds, thick undergrowth, Pampas grass, under tarpaulin or log piles etc. These areas are classically the ones which people start to clear out as the summer progresses so it is vital to check that a nest isn’t present before starting work. If you do disturb a nest and have no opportunity to repair the damage and leave well alone, then the next best option is to gather the whole family up together and bring them into a centre such as HART. It is very important not to touch the babies with your bare hands as the scent may lead the mother to reject the babies, or in the worst case scenario eat them. If the babies are under ten days old then they have very little chance of defending themselves as they don’t have the ability to curl up into a ball and this is when they could be eaten by their mother. If you have to gather them up keep them in any nesting material the mother has collected, place everything into a box and keep them as dark and quiet as possible. It may be tempting to keep peeking at the babies but resist the urge as you are putting their lives in danger. Once they are all safely contained contact your local rescue and arrange for them to be brought in.

If you disturb a nest and there is no mother present then initially try putting everything back as it was and wait to see if mum arrives. If the babies are very young i.e. have white spines and are only a couple of inches long or smaller, then there is a chance that something has happened to mum and the babies have been truly orphaned; mothers usually stay with their young constantly for the first couple of weeks. In this instance it may be necessary to act quickly and pick up the babies but please ring for advice before taking this course of action.