Heart-warming hedgehog tales: Caring for orphaned litters, protecting them from cars and providing food

By Sean Butters

Winter has well and truly arrived with Manchester enduring stormy weather, gale force winds but no snow… yet.

But while most of us will be tucked under blankets on the couch with our friends and family, spare a thought for hedgehog families who will be viewing the cold nights very differently.

For them it is a matter of survival, and the hedgehogs of Manchester need your help.

From the Stop, Look and Listen campaign to Gurkha soldiers in Iraq bringing up their own clan, hedgehogs and humans are more interactive than you might think.

Anyone who has memories of staying up late to watch hedgehogs do their nightly patrol or played Sonic on Sega until their eyes glazed over has a soft spot for the road-crossing experts.

For Fay Vass, 36, catching night time glimpses of one of her spiny neighbours as a child sparked a lifelong interest in wildlife, leading to a career in the preservation of hedgehogs.

“My brother and I were allowed to stay up late to catch a glimpse of a visiting hedgehog my mother had been feeding,” she says. 

“We were cold and waited a long time, but were rewarded with a visit and delighted in seeing the little hedgehog work his way through the bowl of food.”

Fay has been the chief executive of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) for 14 years, a Shropshire-based organisation which aims to educate people and raise awareness of hedgehogs, and is one of many around the country.

The society is the brainchild of Major Adrian Coles MBE, who in 1982 rescued a hedgehog that was stuck in a cattle grid.

TREASURED: Hedgehogs were named readers’ ‘National Species’ BBC Wildlife Magazine

Major Coles then used his role as county councillor to campaign for hedgehog escape ramps to be fitted in cattle grids across the authority’s area.

The ensuing publicity was enough to convince him to do more for his local critters – BHPS celebrated its 30th anniversary in April 2012 having managed to get along with only two full-time and three part-time staff, and currently have more than 11,000 members.

“We maintain contact with organisations and individuals that rescue hedgehogs by keeping a directory of rehabilitators nationwide,” said Fay, who is the go-to person for members of the public that have hedgehog concerns.

“One of my favourite stories was from a group of Ghurkha soldiers in Iraq who were hand-rearing a nest of orphaned hedgehogs,” she revealed.

“We hear lots of heart-warming stories about people helping hedgehogs. People can be so kind and I get to hear of so many good hedgehoggy deeds!”

HEDGEHOG HELP: Meaty cat or dog food can help them out when food is scarce

Unfortunately for hedgehog lovers and sympathisers, the most common sighting of one nowadays is flattened on the roadside – hedgehogs make up the second-highest proportion of wildlife road deaths at 16.1% (up to 100,000 per year) with Fay warning that, unsurprisingly, the biggest threat to hedgehogs is man.

“We have taken away huge amounts of suitable habitat and carved the bit that is left up into fragmented islands of areas for hedgehogs to exist in,” she explained. 

“Brick walls and high fences, decking, paving and car ports cause major problems for hedgehogs – they need foraging areas and for gardens to be connected.”

With its sprawling estates and back-to-back gardens Manchester is a great urban setting for hedgehogs to thrive in, but there are other hazards that threaten their prosperity.

Fay highlighted dogs, garden tools and pesticides as the main dangers, which only serve to hinder a species which can struggle to survive inclement conditions even without human intervention.

BEAUTIFUL: A happy and healthy hedgehog

“I would say disturbances and injury by dogs or garden tools are quite common,” she said.

“Poisons and pesticides can also cause problems for hedgehogs – even if not directly ingested, the poisons destroy an important part of the food chain.

“In autumn we get a lot of calls about hedgehogs that are too young to survive hibernation and are found struggling to stay alive.”

But there is hope for these endearing creatures – in spite of us encroaching further and further into their natural habitat, fortunately for the hedgehogs their destructive colonisers are at least trying to do some good.

“On the whole I think people have a very positive relationship with hedgehogs,” Fays said. “They were recently voted as the readers’ ‘National Species’ in BBC Wildlife Magazine.

“While hedgehog numbers are in decline, we are working with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species on a project called Hedgehog Street to do all we can to combat the decline.”

Hedgehog Street will fund three years of research into hedgehog movement and populations, as well as investigating which types of land they prefer and developing new methods of hedgehog detection and monitoring – all part of efforts to curb the population drop.

Fay said: “We are campaigning for that to happen as part of Hedgehog Street – opening up these ‘wildlife corridors’ could make a huge difference to local population numbers.”

So we know that the people behind the desks are keeping active but how can you, the public, do your bit to give hedgehogs the help they need?

Well, hedgehogs’ diets usually consist of beetles, caterpillars and worms, but as three-quarters of them die in their first year, Fay explained that people can give them a helping hand when food is scarce.

TUCKING IN: This little fella enjoys a dish of food

“Supplementary food can really help hedgehogs, especially if they are struggling to find enough natural food,” she explained.

“Meaty cat or dog food is fine or specially-produced hedgehog food, while the best drink to offer is plain water.”

She also gave some guidelines to follow in the event of a stumbling upon a hedgehog but advised against attempting to move them away from the area where you find them.

“If it is night and the hedgehog appears healthy, just enjoy the encounter and let the hedgehog go about its business,” said Fay.

“If it is out in the day or looks poorly contain it somewhere safe, use gloves or a folded towel to handle it, then please call the BHPS as soon as possible.

“If the hedgehog is out at night and healthy but on a busy road, it could be moved to the edge of the road in the direction it is travelling in, but never take a healthy hedgehog from the wild to somewhere you perceive to be ‘safer’.

“As well as taking it from its home range and known food and water sources, you could leave a nest of dependant young to starve to death.”

So the next time you see hedgehogs in your garden enjoy your encounter with these prickly treasures and if you have any concerns contact the BHPS.

After all, our friendly neighbourhood hedgehogs are Mancunians too.

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Pictures courtesy of British Hedgehog Preservation Society, with thanks

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