The hedgehog is a well-recognised spiny mammal, native to the UK. Most people are familiar with or have had a close interaction with these loveable little mammals. Be it a glimpse of a pointed face through fallen autumn leaves, hearing the munching of slugs on our garden lawns or stories of the motherly Mrs Tiggywinkle from the classic tales of Beatrix Potter.
Unfortunately, our beloved spiny friends have faced some tough times in the last few years. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) have uncovered, through their own mammal surveys, that since the last millennium over a third of all hedgehogs across the UK have been lost. That has left us with less than 1 million individuals across the entirety of the UK. This loss has not gone unnoticed here at Aigas with rangers pulling together to organise multiple onsite releases of rehabilitated individuals.
As we know, the largest threat to our prickly friends is the loss of suitable habitat. The shift to arable crops has meant the expansion of field size with the removal of the dividing hedgerows and their associated ditches and banks. Hedgerows are a safe-haven, not just for hedgehogs, but for all wildlife; a habitat, a food source, a corridor for movement. Modern agricultural techniques are leaving monocultures of crop, hazed with fertilizer and pesticides, blanketing our much-loved countryside. The intensive chemical usage is directly detrimental to foraging wildlife and kills off or bioaccumulates within food sources leaving the habitat unsuitable and somewhat dangerous. Therefore, it was our mission to create the perfect home for our arriving hedgehogs here at the Field Centre.
Brash piles of vegetation were constructed along with wooden ‘hedgehog homes’ in preparation for the arrival of our new residents. Around November time hibernation begins, so it’s important for us to have created cosy spots for them to build their winter nest! Hedgehogs are extremely busy throughout the Autumn months collecting building materials; fallen leaves, grasses, bracken and reeds, in preparation for the cold winter weather. Brash piles are a brilliant source of refuge not only for hedgehogs but for reptiles, amphibians, other small mammals and invertebrates. They improve the habitat structure and are so easy to make! Using logs as a base, form a criss-crossed pile of fallen or cut branches a few feet high. Towards the top of the pile add in some smaller branches and ferns, finally covering with a layer of coniferous evergreen branches to help conceal the underneath. Give it a go in your garden and see what beasties become your new neighbour! We’d love to hear how it goes!
With the help of Polly Pullar, wildlife rehabilitator and Aigas Trustee, who nurtured our hedgehogs to full health, we have made several successful releases this year. For the latest release, in early September, three keen Aigas rangers, including myself, set about freeing four individuals onto the estate. I was thrilled to gently scoop up one of the hedgehogs and watch him slowly uncurl in my gloved hands. His face of brown, soft and kind, peering from beneath his spiny fringe. His bright eyes looking out into his new world of silver birch lamp posts, bracken door mats and an understorey of restaurants serving delicious earthworms and beetles for dinner. His glassy gaze gracing his now home, he sniffed the air. It was a crisp evening, full of new smells for a young hedgehog. I wondered what he thought of me and the other rangers as I placed him onto the ground. Cautiously he snuffled and grunted, pottering slowly through the leaves. A shuffle and a snort later he vanished into the thicket. He didn’t look back. The other releases that day went in a similar manner, our hedgehogs quietly treading the new earth before disappearing into the evening light.
Our camera traps are set daily to monitor our local wildlife and now to keep an eye on how our new residents are getting on. Every time a hedgehog appears on a camera or we hear that distinct snorting sound coming from the undergrowth, there is a wave of excitement amongst the staff!