Bed, Breakfast and the Hedgehog Highway – part 2

This winter, we’re asking you to spare a thought for your garden hedgehogs. In our modern gardens it’s getting increasingly difficult for hedgehogs to find a good meal and a place to rest their weary heads. They might be hibernating at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t set your garden up to be a true hedgehog oasis come springtime. In a 3 part blog series, Hedgehog Officer Simon Thompson explains exactly what our spiky friends are looking for:

My first blog in this series covered the problems of the hedgehog highway: the struggle that hedgehogs have navigating and travelling through the urban environment to find their perfect Bed and Breakfast.  In this blog I’d like to move on to think about the gardens themselves, we know that hedgehogs need to get to them, but what do like once they’re there? Well, if you’re anything like me then when you walk into a bed and breakfast room for the very first time there is one of two very specific things to be done.

The first option, and undoubtedly my personal preference, is to dive headlong onto the bed, arms and legs akimbo. Naturally this is the most comprehensive and scientific test of the bed’s springiness, too firm? Not firm enough? This is the only (satisfying) way to find out. The bed is an essential part of any overnight stay. This is of course also true for the hedgehog because hedgehogs build nests.

Hedgehog_c_Tom_Marshall (WildNET)
Hedgehog copyright Tom Marshall 2015.

Naturally living the bed and breakfast lifestyle means that hedgehogs don’t have just one nest; studies in which hedgehogs have been tracked through successive days show that they move around and regularly change their nest sites. Some nests are even used by different hedgehogs. So clearly a garden that has the opportunity to build nests in is an excellent place for hedgehogs. But what does this garden look like? And more to the point what does a hedgehog nest look like?

Summer nests

During the warm summer months hedgehogs will happily snooze the day away in a relatively simple and thin structure, as little as a few leaves or some tufts of grass. Providing this environment is remarkably easy. Not being super tidy gardeners; having some longer patches of grass; more wild areas and leaving a few leaves to flutter about in the breeze are just a few simple things that we can all do to help our hedgehogs get a good day’s kip.

It should be noted that this thin, unstructured nest does have its problems. Imagine it is the end of summer and still nice and warm, and you’ve decided not to spend that extra few quid on a fancy B&B but to sleep under canvas; quite rightly helping you and your family to become a little bit more wild. You have, however, made a mistake: you haven’t booked a campsite but have pitched up your four-man-nylon-des-res in a lovely looking strip of grass at the edge of a tall arable field. You wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a fast approaching horror. The crop is being cut and your tent is in the path of the blades – aluminium poles and brightly coloured guide rope spew out all over as the flail blindly sweeps through. Swap out the tent for a nest, you for a sleepy hedgehog and the tractor for a strimmer and the potential consequences are only too clear to see. This can be easily avoided.  A conscientious walk through any areas of long grass before it gets cut will save a hedgehog’s life in your garden. If there is a hog snoozing in the grass you’ll trip over it, wake it up and off it will trot. A simple solution that prevents both injury and loss of life.

DSC_0251
Help to protect your garden hedgehogs by checking before doing garden maintenance such as strimming. Image copyright Jim Hill 2015.

Winter nests

Winter nests have a fancy name – hibernacula – and a fancy structure to match. Just like the winter duvets at the B&B, a hedgehog’s winter blanket is made up from lots and lots of layers, trapping the air inside and keeping the temperature and humidity stable. Hedgehogs use lots of leaves which they take into a suitably woody structure such as the bottom of a hedge; a hollow in a tree; or even underneath an old potting shed. This stable structure allows the ‘hogs to roll the leaves into the perfect hollow nest, whilst also providing shelter and protection from the winter weather outside.

In our gardens and green spaces this woody nest building space is something that is often missing. Scrubby areas of bramble and traditional hedgerow species like Hawthorn and Blackthorn are simply absent; traditional green boundaries time and again have been replaced with fences and walls. This garden problem is seemingly less straight forward than the first. We can of course improve our gardens by planting these kinds of woody plants. And it’s easy to leave some leaves on the ground in autumn rather than sweeping or garden-hoovering them up and taking them away.

Bramble 3 - leaf litter
Bramble catches leaves and provides protection, which makes it perfect for hedgehogs, but it is often absent from our  parks and gardens. Image copyright Emma Richmond (WWT) 2015.

However, not everyone has enough space to plant a traditional hedge or large trees to provide an abundance of leafy nest material. This is where we think back to the hedgehog highway. Your garden doesn’t have to be an all-in-one hedgehog solution; instead you can team up with your neighbours to create the kind of habitat that many ‘hogs can only dream of. In an environment that is well connected, hedgehogs can just move around, they can go between gardens collecting grass and leaves for their hibernaculum; they can keep on keeping on until they find that little secure space that they need to bed down for the winter. Gaps and holes in boundaries really are the hedgehog’s lifeline.

Hedgehog (c) Jacksons Fencing
Hedgehog friendly gravel board fencing from Jacksons Fencing. Image copyright Jacksons Fencing 2015.

The second, very British, option when first entering your B+B room for the night is, of course, to make a beeline for the miniature kettle and selection of complimentary sachets and tiny pots of UHT milk. Thirst needs quenching after a long journey. Hedgehogs are less partial to the steamy caffeinated comfort that we find in a good brew. But water is most definitely on their wish list. A bowl of fresh water to drink can really help hedgehogs along. [Insert drinking hog photo Berni]. Because they like a drink, we should pay attention to our garden ponds. Hedgehogs will readily wander in for a dip and to quench their thirst. Just like me after one too many lengths, hedgehogs can really struggle to haul themselves out again. Some ponds have very steep or even over-hanging edges, impossible for the hedgehogs to get a grip on. Another very simple remedy is build yourself a ladder or a ramp, something that the ‘hog can get a bit of purchase on. Even a pile of bricks just below the surface will quite nicely turn into a purpose built hedgehog staircase. Another simple and very effective measure to help  your hedgehogs once they make it to your garden.

In my final blog of the series I’ll be considering the real draw for hedgehogs: the B&B’s menu. What is there to dine out on and how can us garden owners provide the right kind of grub to get hedgehogs coming back time and time again?

Next week, Simon returns to discuss the perfect hedgehog dinner, and how you can help to provide it.

Simon Thompson runs the Hedgehog Improvement Area project for Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. The project is funded by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

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