This tale starts with poo (well, what better way to start a story).
A couple of years ago I found some poo in our back yard. While this isn’t really a treat for most people, I was unbelievably excited about it. This wasn’t any old poo, this was hedgehog poo. Ever stupidly optimistic, of course I decided I needed to get a hedgehog house. We live in a terraced house and don’t even have a garden, just a small yard, so what were the chances of anybody actually taking residence? Didn’t deter me, I was determined to try.
Well as you’d expect, for a good long while the hedgehog house was nothing more than a garden ornament. But one evening a few months ago I walked into the yard to find a big hedgehog out there. The next night I set up my wildlife camera and was delighted to catch a video of said hedgehog actually going into the house. A couple of nights later it was taking nesting materials in. I shared the video on Twitter and the general consensus was that it was a mum looking for somewhere to have her babies, even though it was pretty late in the year for her to be doing so.
Mummy Pig the night we first spotted her
We’d watch her go out on her nightly foraging trips, and after a couple of weeks we heard scratching and scuffling in the house after she had left. One night I went to have a listen once she’d gone and was surprised by a teeny tiny baby hedgehog wandering out of the house to explore. We had a family!
We’ve rescued a few poorly hedgehogs over the years and have always taken them to a wonderful hedgehog carer called Katrina, who we think the absolute world of. Well of course we had to phone her to tell her the news. Having seen so many autumn juveniles, who are already so poorly by the time they reach her, Katrina wondered if we’d be prepared to take a preventative (and pretty unorthodox) approach with this family. She asked if we’d keep them in our yard so that we could feed them up, and bring them into the warmth over winter if they don’t get up to a safe hibernation weight.
Katrina holding a tiny rescue hoglet
I’ll be honest, it felt pretty wrong. The first night we closed the gap under the gate I cried. But Mummy Pig had been going out for up to seven hours a night foraging to find enough food to sustain her and her babies (ignoring the very expensive hedgehog food we were leaving out for her) and I really wouldn’t have been surprised if she had abandoned her litter early so that she could fatten herself up for winter, the unfortunate fate of many litters born later in the year. We trusted in Katrina’s experience, and seeing them all pile the weight on has reassured us that intervention will mean they all have a better chance.
Until we were confident that they were fully weaned we kept our distance, trusting in Mummy Pig to care for her young. We’d sit out there quietly trying to count babies, but they can move pretty quickly when they want to and found plenty of places to hide from view. One night we were pretty sure we’d counted five all huddled by the door, but after that the most we’d see out together was just four so thought that one may have not made it. Once we were sure they had reached eight weeks we brought each hoglet in to mark them (a few blobs of coloured nail varnish on their spines), check them over and weigh them. There were five after all! They all looked bright and healthy, although there was a clear runt of the litter (little Pink).
One of our hoglets exploring outside the nest
We’ve had a slight scare with green poo, meaning we had to separate them for a few days while the vet checked the samples I’d scooped into tiny jam jars. Thankfully she wasn’t too concerned, and said just to keep a close eye on them. They’re putting on weight at a good rate, and little Pink has even caught up with the rest of the litter. If they carry on as they are they’ll reach a safe hibernation weight by the end of the month, which is incredible and almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t intervened. We have weighed Mummy Pig once and she’s almost 1.2kg! Amazing after raising five healthy babies. We actually have to weigh her again in a couple of weeks to make sure she isn’t overweight, as hedgehogs over about 1.3kg can struggle to curl up properly meaning they can’t protect their vulnerable underside from predators.
I have to admit though, it is a lot of hard work and is proving to be pretty expensive too. We’ve converted our outhouse, with the help of our wonderful friends Eddie and Neil, lining the floor and walls with pallets to insulate it. They’re eating up to a kilogram of dog food and a good few handfuls of kitten biscuits a night. We have two feeding stations, with two huge water bowls and eight food bowls that need cleaning and filling daily. And I’ll conclude this chapter of the story in the same way it began, with poo in our back yard. You could not imagine the amount of mess six tiny creatures can create, and my fella has the delightful job of poop scooping and scrubbing down the yard each day (which he does without complaint and I’m so very grateful). Lovely as they are, hedgehogs are very smelly, very dirty little creatures indeed. It will be absolutely worth it if we can release six healthy hedgehogs though, the species needs all the help it can possibly get. Watch this space for more updates on this little family.
A hoglet found out in the day
Don’t forget, this is the time of year you are most likely to find hedgehogs in need. Any hedgehog out in the day at any time of year (that isn’t a lactating mum) is likely to have something wrong and needs checking over by an experienced wildlife rescuer. Pop it into a high sided box on a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel (they are often hypothermic so need their body temperature to be brought up gently), with room to escape the heat if it needs. Put another towel over the top and give it a shallow dish of water but no food initially and call a wildlife rescue for advice. Small hedgehogs out at night at this time of year could also do with gently being picked up and weighed to check they have enough body fat to hibernate. Recommended weights vary from one source to another, it seems to depend on how late in the year and whereabout in the country you are, but certainly anything under 450g will need bringing in and feeding up. We have been told by our nearest rescue centre that 700g is a safe hibernation weight.
A rescue hedgehog waiting to be taken to the carer
I’d love to hear about your hedgehog encounters, and if you have any advice you can give us (as we’re pretty new to this) it would be greatly appreciated too. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me your tales.