Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Monday 6 January 2014

Looking after Spiny Norman

OK, in case you've not heard of him, Spiny Norman is a giant hedgehog from the Monty Python 'Piranha Brothers' sketch. I'm not going to write about offbeat-comedic imaginary hedgehogs, just the real ones you might see in your garden - more precisely the European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus (there are seventeen species worldwide but only this one is found in Britain and last summer it was voted Britain's national species).

Months before I saw a hedgehog in our garden, I knew there was at least one around because of its droppings - black with invertebrate remains in it.
Traditionally a common and familiar species, hedgehogs have undergone a serious decline in Britain - this is difficult to measure but has been achieved with work such as the PTES Mammals on Roads Survey and the BHPS 2011 State of Britain's Hedgehogs report. The national population is estimated at around 30 million in 1950 but only 1.5 million by1995, and a further halving by 2001 in some areas. The reasons for this major decline are not entirely clear. However, some likely causes include:
  • Agricultural intensification, in particular larger field sizes and losses of hedgerows and permanent grassland – also pesticide use which reduces prey availability.
  • In urban areas (even small ones such as villages), smaller and tidier gardens with impassable fencing is likely to have reduced the amount of suitable urban habitat. 
  • (Over)development, not only direct habitat loss, but fragmentation by buildings and roads which leads to  local populations becoming isolated and vulnerable to local extinction. 
  • Increased road use - tens of thousands of hedgehogs are killed by vehicles each year and may be an importance cause of local decline in some areas.
  • Competition with badgers (Meles meles) - where habitat provides effective cover and foraging opportunities, badgers and hedgehogs can coexist. However, badgers are a natural predator of (and competitor for food with) hedgehogs which therefore avoid sites with large numbers of badgers. The badger cull is still a stupid, unethical and politically motivated idea though. 
  • Increased disease levels.
So what can you do?
  • If you have a garden, don't be too tidy - allow leaves to accumulate, have a scruffy wildlife area and put in a hedgehog house. I made one out of scrap wood last autumn and it's already got a hedgehog in it (oh yes). I wouldn't have known except that the current bad weather damaged the roof and I found the hedgehog during (subsequently very careful and quiet) repairs earlier today. It really is important to resist the temptation to lift the lid for a peek... 
  • Also, if you have a pond (as we do), make sure the sides are not steep all the way around as hedgehog will drown if they fall in and can't climb out - flatten/shallow out at least some of the edge and/or install slipways if you need to. 
  • If possible, avoid using plastic mesh/netting or leaving plastic bottles, pots etc lying around as hedgehogs can get tangled, or get their heads stuck in them (their foraging behaviour means they are naturally inquisitive). Also, don't burn piles of grass mowings or other cut vegetation without checking first for hedgehogs (the same goes for bonfires). Similarly check compost heaps before turning them with a fork to avoid stabbing hedgehogs. 
  • Also avoid using garden chemicals, including slug pellets, especially the more toxic versions (some are more mammal-friendly). 
  • Leave some gaps/holes in fencing so hedgehogs can move between and in/out of gardens. 
  • Don't feed hedgehogs with bread-and-milk - they can't digest it and it makes them ill. If you want to feed them, cat-food is fine. In dry conditions, shallow dishes of water are important too.
Our garden hedgehog house (note the staggered entrance-way and pile of dry leaves) with the waterproof roof removed.

I could go on, but there are plenty of online resources like this leaflet about 'Gardening with Hedgehogs', as well as opportunities to get more involved such as the Hedgehog Street project where you can become a Hedgehog Champion, and a variety of voluntary PTES surveys.

Garden hedgehog enjoying cat food and a dish of clean water. Nom.