Snuffle, snuffle; grunt, grunt. Any animal noises you hear lying in bed these spring nights might come not from your slumbering partner but from a real little animal outside your window. Hedgehogs, those potential stars of the European wildlife garden, are emerging from their winter hibernation beneath woodpiles, compost heaps and, yes, hedges – and preparing to breed.
Curiously, you are now almost as likely to see these creatures – or, perhaps, given their nocturnal nature, hear their characteristic miniaturised porcine sounds – in the city as in the country. Studies based, somewhat gruesomely, on roadkill counts show hedgehog numbers to be declining by close to 10 per cent a year in the UK. Agricultural intensification is eating up the beasts’ natural habitat, while badgers, themselves proliferating and among the hedgehog’s few predators, are actually eating them. As a result, urban gardens have become a hedgehog haven.
Not that you would notice any decline from a visit to Tiggywinkles, an animal hospital in Buckinghamshire, southern England. No native creature is turned away here and current residents include a blind hog, a lame heron, palsied badgers, a brain-damaged deer and a three-legged fox. But hedgehogs have been its mainstay as, over the past 30 years, relying entirely on donations, it has become one of the largest such facilities in the world.
As I arrive, a member of the public rushes in a stricken, quivering deer, along with, mysteriously wounded in the same incident – a bleeding goose. Then another hedgehog is dropped off, to join the 400 or so of its fellow prickly patients. Defying its reflexive curl, Fran, a Tiggywinkles nurse for 10 years, inserts a drip to rehydrate the animal, found caught on a back fence, before injecting it, again, with antibiotics. Next she unfurls it, to check for injuries, and it is at this point, when I see its strokeable belly, tickleable little feet and almost nibbleable (no wonder badgers like them) extended button nose, my animal-cuteness radar threatens to explode.
Unlike, say, slugs, hedgehogs have anthropomorphism on their side, but their real nature is, for me, even more endearing than the cartoon version. They are, for a start, decidedly solitary, tolerating the company of other hogs only when mating. And they are intensely curious but indiscriminatingly so and are for ever getting into scrapes, frequently related to man.
The garden can be a hazard for them, as well as a potential oasis. Avoid pesticides, for one thing, advises Tina Swindle, one of the Tiggywinkles nurses: they kill not only hedgehogs but their crawly food sources, too. Turn compost over gently and inspect leaf piles before burning them: both are favourite hedgehog nesting places during the day. Stride though long grass before mowing or strimming – the consequences otherwise are unpleasant to think about – and remember that garden netting evolved long after hedgehogs did. Hedgehogs swim well, including in ponds, but they will eventually drown in one without a ramp to enable them to regain dry ground.
Not only nature benefits from a hedgehog-friendly garden; the creatures are fascinating to watch and there are ways to tempt them and other wild creatures into your lair. “During very dry or very cold times particularly, hedgehogs struggle for food because the ground is so hard they can’t dig for slugs, snails or worms,” says Fay Vass of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. A tray of cat or dog food left outside can be a lifesaver or, if pets steal that, chopped unsalted peanuts.
“Fresh water is also very important, especially, again, in the dry weather when hedgehogs have trouble finding natural resources,” Vass says. Moreover, the society sells hedgehog houses that, if placed in a quiet corner, the animals may adopt for rest or hibernation.
One reason hedgehogs emphatically do not make pets is their need to forage for up to two miles a night, and you should cut a suitably sized passage in the base of your hedge or fence to allow them to do so.
But hedgehogs might be only part of an animal ensemble in the back yard. Such a garden can still be tidy, says Moya O’Hara of the Centre for Wildlife Gardening, in the inner London suburb of Peckham, it just needs a range of habitats: “long grass for crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars, which will turn into butterflies or which other animals will feed on; shrubs, as cover, and a nesting area, for birds”.
Frogs, newts and toads need a pond to breed in and a dead log or two for hibernation and to hunt on. And every wildlife garden should have a sheltering tree, O’Hara says, if only a small one.
By contrast, traditional suburban gardens, with their short turf and flower beds, are a blasted heath for fauna, as are decking and paving. Provide a diverse landscape, however, O’Hara says, “with lots of nooks and crannies”, and sit back and the animals will come.