European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) are one of the most unique wild animals that roam in the UK. Sadly their numbers are in dramatic decline and they are listed as vulnerable to extinction on the red list for Britain’s mammals.
Table of contents
- What is hibernation?
- When and where do hedgehogs hibernate?
- Can we help hedgehogs going into hibernation?
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Hedgehogs are small spiny mammals easily identified by their unique anatomy of skin covered in spines. As nocturnal omnivores they eat a mixture of animal based food, such as insects, slugs and earthworms, and plant based food, and roam up to 2km a night foraging and looking for food.
One of the most unique features of hedgehogs is that they hibernate every year.
What is hibernation?
Hibernation is a state of prolonged torpor, where an animal drops its core body temperature to match its surroundings and reduces its metabolic rate to reduce the amount of energy supplies needed to survive. It is a crucial tool in energy conservation in species that rely heavily on
seasonal changes to provide food resources, and enables them to get through seasons where food supplies are limited.
When and where do hedgehogs hibernate?
Hedgehogs hibernate from around November/December to February/March every year. This can vary as the seasons and weather changes, but generally covers the winter months. They hibernate in hibernaculums, which are often big piles of logs and leaves that they bury themselves into.
Can we help hedgehogs going into hibernation?
The biggest threat to hedgehog survival is humans. Sadly a number of human behaviours and
infrastructures are causing significant destruction to hedgehogs normal routines and sadly often result in death or significant injury.
Top ways to help hedgehogs in or approaching hibernation are:
Creating a ‘wild garden’
A garden with tree and bush coverage, foliage, leaves and log piles on the ground etc. are great ways to encourage hedgehogs into your garden and give them a safe place to hibernate – please don’t let pets near them however as they can cause significant injuries to hedgehogs that are often life threatening. It is also important to make sure there are small gaps in the fence so hedgehogs can leave your garden and explore when they wake up, and any ponds have shallow ramps so hedgehogs can get out of them should they fall in.
Check under bonfires BEFORE they are lit
November is bonfire season but it is also hedgehog hibernation season and these piles of wood often make great hibernaculums for hedgehogs
Hedgehogs need to be a suitable weight and body condition to survive hibernation
They need to weigh at least 600g. If you notice hedgehogs outside during the daytime in autumn/winter please take them to your local wildlife rescue or veterinary surgery for assessment, they are unlikely to survive hibernation if left in the wild over the winter
Offer food to help them “fatten up” for their winter sleep
If you have hedgehogs in your garden, providing a small amount of fresh meat based wet dog or cat food, and meat based cat biscuits, each night from autumn and into winter can help small juveniles gain much needed weight as they approach hibernation, a good way to monitor this is having a night camera set up in your garden to check for activity.
It is important they don’t become reliant on this as a food source, so please don’t feed all year round, but at this time of year it can be particularly helpful, especially as wild food supplies reduce in availability as the seasons change. Hedgehogs can wake up during hibernation to feed or change nests on occasions, so having a small amount of food out over the winter months can be useful as well, but again, the best way to assess the need for this is to check for activity overnight using cameras.
Don’t move a hibernating hedgehog
Every time they wake up they use up body reserves so disturbing them can cost them vital energy resources. Leaving a small amount of meat based dog or cat food and water near a nest after you have found it can be useful in case that hedgehog has been disturbed, so they can eat when they wake up before they return to hibernation.
- Hedgehogs are vulnerable to extinction in the UK
- Never disturb a hibernating hedgehog
- Always check under bonfires before lighting them, as hedgehogs use piles of logs and leaves as nests to hibernate in – if you find a hedgehog outside during the day in autumn/winter please take it to a local wildlife rescue or veterinary surgery for assessment