Hedgehog hibernation is a prickly subject

Ian Bowmaker and one of the hedgehogs currently being cared for at Animals in Need
Ian Bowmaker and one of the hedgehogs currently being cared for at Animals in Need

Looking outside at the snow last week, one would have hoped hedgehogs would already be safely stowed away for the hibernation season.

But as little as two weeks ago, a hedgehog was handed in to Animals In Need, in Little Irchester, and, according to the charity’s expert, Ian Bowmaker, this little prickly creature was not the only late arrival.

He said: “It is unusual to see them in that late, a lot come in during October and November, the ones who are too small to hibernate and who are found out during the day looking for food.

“But this year we were still getting high numbers through December because of the milder weather.”

He continued: “We had more at the back end of last year and that was because of the stranger weather, we had a warm start to the year and a wet and cool summer and that affected the hedgehogs’ breeding, so we had more underweight young hedgehogs at the end of the summer and we were seeing quite small hedgehogs even in the back end of November.”

A common hedgehog plight, as well as coping with predators, such as badgers and the threat of cars, is to fail to achieve a high enough weight to hibernate properly over the winter months, which can put them in danger with plummeting temperatures and a lack of food.

Ian explained: “They can come in very small, down to a few ounces in weight, and need a lot of care and attention. One main factor is habitat. People don’t have the same sort of gardens they used to have. They like surburban areas with gardens overloaded with compost. People are much more ready now to fence their gardens up so animals can’t get in and out. Hedgehogs are losing their natural habitat.”

The threats to the hedgehog population are numerous; this is perhaps why the population is believed to have dropped by 25 per cent in the last decade.

He continued: “We don’t see that many road casualties in, as it isn’t a fair fight between a car and a hedgehog.

“We get the occasional one which might come in poorly or may have lost an eye, although they can still survive in the wild. The ones that come in generally are orphans and we get an awful lot of young hedgehogs who have been found wandering around in the day.

“There is concern if a hedgehog is out in the day as it is quite often for a reason, it might be ill or perhaps trying to find food.

“Some hedgehogs come in coughing as lungworm is common because they eat a lot of slugs and earthworms.”

In a typical year, Animals In Need, which also has a charity shop in Abington, Northampton, will take in between 300 and 400 hedgehogs. This represents a significant proportion of the total 1,500 and 2,000 creatures taken in – from across the whole of Northamptonshire – at Pine Tree Farm’s Wildlife Centre.

One room is kept at temperatures which are comfortable for hedgehogs who are too little to hibernate. There are currently about 30 hedgehogs at Animals In Need, some of which are hibernating and some of which are not.

Ian said: “When they get to hibernating weight of 600g, if the weather conditions are right, we put them into outside pens and keep them out there where they can hibernate or not as the case may be.”

Eventually, the hedgehogs are released into the wild, which can be a slower, staged process for the creatures which have been with Animals In Need for a longer time.

The charity is currently looking for volunteers who can help provide a safe piece of land to help in the staged hedgehog release programme in the spring.

Ian said: “We don’t want to just dump them out in the wild. If it is a road casualty who is just a bit dazed and who we have had for a week and it recovers then it can go straight out into the wild. Some of the hedgehogs we have had since they were tiny babies. They have all the natural instincts they need but would need more adaptation.

“In that case we use a ‘soft’ release; somewhere we can put them and keep our eye on them for a while. Then we can release them into the wild.

“Soft release sites aren’t easy to find as we need people to be able to offer places such as an enclosed garden where they can be kept in a run. They can make sure it is eating and then give it the free range of the garden before letting it go.

“We have 30 hedgehogs in at the moment and in a month or two we will need more release sites so we need local people with the right gardens to take a hedgehog in for a few days to help get it out into the wild.”

Anyone who can assist with a piece of land for hedgehog releases can ring 01933 278080.


-A recent report (The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs) shows that numbers have dropped by 25 per cent in the last 10 years.

-Hedgehogs will usually hibernate from late November onwards, with the majority hibernating after Christmas. A healthy mature hedgehog will build a hibernation nest where they will remain until March.

-Hedgehogs who succeed in hibernating will appear as if dead. If the weather turns very cold, fat reserves come into play to help the body produce more heat.

-Any hedgehog found hibernating should be left alone, no matter what is happening with the weather.

-It is believed that hedgehogs should weigh 600 grams to survive the tough hibernation period.

-Hedgehogs are nocturnal so any hedgehog seen out during the day is likely to be in trouble and should be taken to a Wildlife Rescue Centre.

-Hedgehogs usually eat beetles, worms, slugs or snails. In milder weathers when hedgehogs are likely to be found, people can offer hedgehogs good quality tinned meat such as dog or cat food and water to drink. They must not be given milk.

-Gardeners should take care not to fork over compost heaps in case hedgehogs have taken up residence.

-According to the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital Trust, gardeners should leave some areas of wilderness in their gardens where hedgehogs can snuffle insects.

-The organisation also advises people not to use slug pellets or other chemicals as these can poison hedgehogs.

-According to Tiggywinkles, if a hedgehog is found sleeping out in the open, away from a nest, it is not hibernating but possibly suffering from hypothermia and will need attention. The advice is to take it inside, place it on a towel-wrapped, warm hot water bottle and wait for it to move. If it doesn’t, it may have died. If the animal is alive, more assistance can be sought from a local wildlife rescue centre.