Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of

salt, but with more than a grain of truth!

Prickly Encounters

It's September already, a time when we should be getting balmy days and cool nights and the beginnings of a glorious riot of autumn colours. What do we get? Torrential rain, floods, mud and mayhem, and it's cold in to the bargain. So spare a thought for the wildlife actually exposed to these unseasonal conditions. Badgers, foxes and young hedgehogs, as well as birds can struggle at this time of year.

I have had hedgehogs in my garden over the years, always discovered by accident. When my children were small we spotted one late at night wandering down the garden. On another occasion my husband remembered at about ten o'clock that he had not locked the side gate. It was warm and dry, so out he toddled in just his socks - well, clothed as well, but you know what I mean! Big mistake.

Walking along the side of the house in total darkness he trod on something sharp, and yelped. It was a full grown hedgehog, minding his own business and heading who knows where, when this clumsy great human stepped on him. He rolled in a ball and hubby left him in peace. He was seen toddling down the back garden later none the worse for wear - the hedgehog that is, not my husband, who limped for a day or so!

Then one evening my son came home from work and pulled the car on to the drive, screeching to a halt with headlights full on. He dashed through the house to the back door, leaving the rest of us open mouthed. It seems his headlights had caught a hedgehog, doing the same route as my husband had discovered many years before. There was the hedgehog trotting down the garden path, having negotiated three big steps to get there, and having escaped being squashed by the car. Memories of such minor wildlife events are carried with us for life.

We have never attempted to feed them for fear of attracting rats, and in recent years we have had nightly visits from badgers and foxes who will predate on hedgehogs, so luring them to a possible sticky end doesn't seem too kind. In some areas they are at risk from stoats and pine martens too.

However, perhaps it is time to think ahead to Autumn proper, and Winter too. Certainly the animals are thinking ahead. Badgers are feeding themselves up frantically, to lay on enough fat to carry them through their hibernation, and in the case of females, to ensure they can give birth and suckle their young successfully.

The hedgehog, that almost invisible 'gardeners' friend' will also be hunting for food urgently for the same reasons. At times when we are tidying our gardens in preparation for winter, it is important to look out for juvenile hedgehogs in particular. These are called Autumn juveniles and they may be large enough to leave 'home' but not big enough to hibernate. Ideally they need to be at least 600 grams (22oz) in order to survive the winter and emerge with a fighting chance in the Spring.

If you should find a particularly small juvenile then try feeding meat based dog/cat food mixed with cereal, and water (never milk). If the animal is thriving and you can continue to feed then do so. If it appears unwell then contact the British Hedgehog Preservation Society

and click the Carers link. You should find help and advice within easy reach.

Hedgehogs are most active at night after heavy rainfall, so perhaps I should have been looking more closely the past few nights, but sightings in daylight are a cause for concern.

One benefit of such wet and windy weather is that it has put a 'damper' on early firework activity and bonfires, but no doubt the peace won't last. Any bonfires built should be checked regularly for evidence of a resident, and strimming etc. should only be done after checking vegetation for a lodger. Check under sheds and fallen fencing too. Compost heaps can provide a cosy environment for 'hedgies', so take care turning them. Instead, encourage them to nest nearby by providing a deep pile of leaves somewhere secluded.

Ponds should always have an escape route via a shallow slope or some form of ramp. Any empty tubs should be turned upside down so they don't fill with water, as hedgehogs and young birds can drown seeking a drink. Shallow water filled receptacles should be provided for all manner of visitors.

If this seems a lot to think about just to accommodate the odd hedgehog, then think of all those slugs most of us have been plagued with this year. Hedgehogs, badgers and foxes will remove many for you, but PLEASE don't use the traditional slug pellets. Not only will they kill the slugs, but hedgehogs too, and any bird that gets hold of a pellet, a contaminated slug/snail or dead animal. Young birds are inquisitive and will try anything that might be food.

Of course hedgehogs are wonderful in the right place, but like any creature, in the wrong habitat it can be a real pest. You may remember the campaigns at the beginning of this decade to stop the proposed culling of hedgehogs on the islands of North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist, in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. A cull of approximately 5,000 hedgehogs was commenced to protect the eggs of important populations of wader birds, and some 700 healthy hedgehogs died. A huge campaign to allow the hedgehogs to be caught and relocated to the mainland was begun by the Uist Hedgehog Rescue. Since hedgehogs are in serious decline in the UK, this seemed an eminently sensible idea to most people. Eventually in February 2007 Scottish National Heritage ended the cull in favour of a trial translocation to the mainland. So far over 1,000 healthy hedgehogs have been relocated and the number is rising. Unfortunately the costs have to be found by Uist Hedgehog Rescue as no funding is forthcoming from Scottish National Heritage. Relocated hedgehogs have been tagged, and have been sighted with young, the year after release. Of course some will die of natural causes, from accidents, and from being eaten, but that is the natural order of things.

There are numerous reasons for the decline of hedgehogs. In the country the heavy use of pesticides, different farming patterns and habitat loss has driven them to seek refuge in suburban areas. Once, they thrived in gardens, but the removal of myriads of garden hedges, and the installation of fences with gravel boards has made their night time foraging much more difficult. Many too are ending up as road kill. Like badgers they have poor eyesight, but a good sense of smell and hearing. They can swim and climb, but a means of getting out of ponds is helpful, and gaps under fences would mean they need to climb less, except for a juicy snail or slug up a tree.

Whilst not listed as endangered, hedgehogs are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in the UK and a licence is required in order to trap them.

Once this rain has subsided and the lawn is less of a quagmire, I hope to get out and 'tidy' my garden but these days I shall be watching closely before I strim, mow or otherwise disturb this little oasis which attracts so much interesting activity. Look at your garden with new eyes, and you might be surprised at what you see. But wear shoes!

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