Like many species, hedgehog populations have declined in recent years, but they are still doing quite well in urban areas. They are certainly present in Crediton and if your garden is not too isolated nor tidy, it is quite likely that you too have a spiny nocturnal visitor, as ecologist Paul Chanin discovered.
In October 2012, when I went to collect some dried firewood from the pile at the bottom of my garden I was surprised and delighted to find that a familiar prickly character had taken up residence. What is more it had even built a nest.
Over the next couple of months, I recorded its coming and goings with camera traps, trying to find out which parts of the garden it was using and how often. The presence of a nest implied that it had taken up residence and during October I recorded it on nine out of seventeen nights. This tailed off in November, perhaps because it was using a neighbour’s garden or slowing down for hibernation, but I still recorded it on ten out of thirty nights in November.
From March to May in 2013 and March to June 2014, I put the cameras out again and recorded at least one hedgehog on about half of the 157 nights when they were set. Sometimes we had two hedgehogs and in May 2013, what at first looked like mild aggression turned into courtship a few weeks later. The hedgehogs were suitably discrete about this and actual mating occurred just off the edge of the picture. This left the vexed question “How do spine-covered hedgehogs mate?” unanswered although the unofficial answer - ‘very carefully’ is still true. I also discovered that despite their short legs, hedgehogs could climb up the steps to get to our garden from the A377, though with some difficulty.
This shows that if you go out at the right time of night, you might encounter one trundling down the pavement in Crediton!
It is encouraging to know that we still have hedgehogs here because they are having a hard time of it nationally. It has been estimated that over a period of about 20 years from 1995, the population declined by two thirds. Of course, it is difficult to count hedgehogs so we can’t be very sure but there are certainly fewer around these days. They are doing better in towns than the countryside perhaps due to increased intensification of agriculture, though it has also been realised that quite a few are killed and eaten by badgers. However, badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed for several thousand years so the impact of this is hard to assess. Cars are a newer risk, however, and increased road traffic may have played a part.
One thing is certain, people do like hedgehogs and many put out food and shelters to encourage them into their gardens. I have reservations about artificial feeding, we don’t do it and have plenty of hedgehog activity, but one thing is certain, bread and milk are not suitable. They can’t digest the milk and it may make them ill. It is also worth bearing in mind that food may attract other, less desirable visitors such as brown rats. Don’t forget that your garden is already a food source for hedgehogs whose normal diet includes beetles, caterpillars, slugs, earthworms and millipedes and the more food you put out, the fewer of these they will eat.
My records started with a chance encounter with a hedgehog in the garden and over the course of the next two years, when I know we had hedgehogs visiting the garden most of the time, we never saw another. In fact, in the 35 years we have lived here, chance encounters with hedgehogs have occurred no more than about half a dozen times, and two of those were only their droppings.
I recently noticed that many people who regularly use camera traps were posting pictures of hedgehogs on Facebook, probably because they were restricted to camera trapping in their own gardens during lockdown. I carried out a small survey and altogether, 63 people reported that they had put camera traps in their garden between March and May this year. A remarkable two thirds of them had captured pictures of hedgehogs. The sample may be biased because people who have camera traps and belong to the Mammal Society’s Facebook group are more likely to have wildlife friendly gardens. Even so, that seems surprisingly high.
Who knows, you too might have a hedgehog at the bottom of your garden but not know it.