British Wildlife Helpline

Autumn Hedgehogs

Janet Peto

When autumn is upon us and the telephone calls have started to flood in about 'a little baby hedgehog' (!) that has been found.
Do we need to be taking these in now for the winter? Do they really need to come in at all?
Over the last twenty plus years I have often asked myself these questions.
Numbers are always a problem over the winter and now that the climate is changing so much, I really feel it should be the weather that rules
    what we do and not our hearts, or what we have done in the past.

Climate change

Winter 2002-3 in the middle of England did not get really cold at ground level until early January 2003.
The hedgehogs that are wild were still about at Christmas (and enjoyed some left over turkey).
The ground did not really freeze until the second week in january 2003. It was then that the hedgehogs went into hibernation.
Prior to that we had the odd cold night, a little ground frost but the wild animals were still about.
So often it feels cold to us, because of the wind chill factor but it is not really cold at ground level. 

Hedgehog Release 2002-3

So I arranged the release of all the animals I had in my care well into December and a few in the first week in January. 
They were all 450-500 grams. (I like my animals to be lean, mean machines, not over-weight). 
All the hedgehogs had been hardened off outside and had not hibernated;  they may have gone down for an odd night but not gone into full hibernation.
They were all going back where they were found, in a situation with a release box and the finder who would continue to feed them with a few dried
    hedgehog biscuits on a regular basis.
The animals were marked and monitored. The general public love to have "their hedgehogs" back.
Not only does it educate them but also helps keep the correct balance of hedgehogs in the area.
I have been using this method for at least five years now. The wild animals tell me what to do.

What's best for them?

Why keep animals in over winter in unnatural circumstances, putting them under stress when they can go back in the wild where they belong?
It is our duty as carers to do what is right for the animal and not what we as humans think they would like.
It also gives you a break from the daily routine, enabling you to do all those things you need to do but do not have time for.
Of course there will be the odd animal which is not fit to be released but generally the animals, once they are of hibernation weight, should be released.

Educate and involve the Public

So often these "little baby hedgehogs" turn out to be 350 - 400g animals. I now ask the general public who telephone me the following questions:
1    What does the animal weigh (make sure this is not a guess, it needs to be correct).
        Ask them to put the hedgehog in a small plastic container and find out the total weight.
        Then they just need to weigh the container and subtract this  to find the actual weight of the hedgehog.
        If the answer is that it weighs more than 350g then it is OK.
2    Why did they pick it up?
        So often I get the answer " I thought they should be hibernating" or "I thought it was a little cold for them".
        This is a great chance for you to thank them for caring but to put them right.
        Try to educate them, you never know, if they get really interested they could help you out and become a carer.
        If the animal was doing normal wild hedgehog things why bring them in?

Monitoring

Ask the finder to release the animal where they found it as the animal will know that area.
Also ask them to feed the hedgehogs and provide water in a flat dish. Let them know what food is best.
If in a garden situation suggest they mark the hedgehog on the spines with a pale correcting fluid like Tippex.
They can then watch out for their hedgehog and perhaps weigh it again in 5-6 days time and keep you informed.
These calls take time but as carers it is our duty to to do what is best for the animal and not put it under any more stress than is necessary.
We know hedgehogs can put on weight really quickly with a good quality cat or hedgehog food, so why not help them out in the wild,
    rather than in the unnatural circumstances of bringing them into care.
With the finder looking after these just under weight animals, it will give you space and time to look after the animals that really need your help.
If people turn up with under weight animals without calling, you should apply the same logic; if the animal still falls in the above criteria it should be sent back
    after you have explained your reasons. Once I have explained the reasons I have never had anyone not take the animals away and release it.
I always take the caller's name and number and if possible (99 of 100 times) I will call back to check that the hedgehog is still around and doing well.

This paper was presented by Janet Peto at the European Hedgehog Research Group 5th Workshop in Onferno, Italy.
Published in The Rehabilitator, Newsletter XXXVII Autumn 2003 of the British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council.
e-mail: ehrg.members@virgin.net

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