If you find a wandering hedgehog, please help
We have an early warning system for hedgehogs in our garden: our little terrier, Kiko.
She is fascinated by the prickly visitors, barking excitedly whenever she finds one. She gets so over-agitated that she sometimes lunges at the object of her fascination. The sharp spines stab into her muzzle, preventing her from continuing her assault. She always backs off, carrying on her mad barking from a safe distance until we arrive on the scene to rescue the beleaguered hedgehog.
We don't normally see hedgehogs in December, but there have been several so far already. This has been an exceptionally warm winter, with very few frosts. Hedgehogs normally feed themselves up during the summer, creating a layer of fat which acts as a supply of nutrition and insulation when they hibernate in the winter. Usually, they curl up for their winter sleep in late October or November, snoozing till March or April. This year, they must still be finding enough earthworms, slugs and snails to justify staying awake for longer than usual.
In the UK, a recent census of the hedgehog population has raised fears for the survival of the species. Numbers are significantly down, caused by the loss of hedgerows and intensive farming in rural areas, along with tidy fenced-in gardens in urban and suburban locations. Members of the public have been asked to help hedgehogs by cutting out CD-sized holes in the foot of garden fences, allowing hedgehogs to wander from garden to garden in their search for food, mates and territory.
The hedgehog population deserves our help. Known as "the gardener's friend", hedgehogs are voracious natural predators of garden pests like slugs, snails and beetles. They are blessed with quirky good looks: a spineless hedgehog would too too much like a short tailed rat to be appealing.
Hedgehogs in trouble are often brought in to our vet clinic by members of the public. Most hedgehog casualties fall into one of three categories.
First, those lucky hedgehogs with simple, fixable ailments that can be rapidly sorted. A good example came in last month, when I treated one with small lacerations that needed to be sutured (be warned: if strimming in long grass, be sure to keep an eye out for hedgehogs lurking). Other common examples include hedgehogs with snouts and limbs trapped in pet food tins or the plastic holders of six-pack cans of drink. We also see uninjured hedgehogs with nothing more serious than an infestation of fleas and worms.
Second, some unfortunate individuals have injuries or illnesses that are so severe that euthanasia is the only kind option. One recent example was a hedgehog with an old wound on his underside: it was infected and maggot-ridden, and was beyond treatment. There are many other examples, from hedgehogs dying of old age, to those with severe respiratory disease, to those suffering from the advanced effects of serious pesticide poisoning. The animals would suffer for days before dying in pain if left on their own, so it's an act of mercy to carry out peaceful euthanasia.
The third group of hedgehogs are the most interesting and inspiring ones: they're the ones that need medium term care before being returned to the wild to fend for themselves. Examples include injuries that need weeks of care before sutures can be removed, broken limbs that need operations or casts, and medical diseases (like pneumonia) that need lengthy treatment. These cases need to be taken to an animal sanctuary where they can be looked after by dedicated volunteers. Sometimes they're kept for up to six months, but as soon as they are well enough to cope in the outside world, they're released.
There is a sub-group of hedgehogs needing long term care: second litter foundlings. Hedgehogs usually produce a litter of young in the late spring, and these offspring thrive, growing plump on a summer diet of plentiful food. However sometimes a second litter is born in the early autumn, and these babies find themselves in a challenging situation. There is just not enough time for them to grow big and strong enough to survive hibernation in the short period before winter descends.
Scientists have learned that a hedgehog needs to be a minimum of 500g body weight to survive hibernation. Second litter foundlings are often less than 400g, and as if they know they cannot survive hibernation, they stay awake. They're often found stumbling around in daytime in the late autumn/early winter. If you come across one of these, you need to rescue them: take them indoors and weigh them. If they are less than 500g, they need to be kept awake all winter in a cosy den, being fed cat food. If you can't do this yourself, then find a local animal rescue group who will help out. They generally thrive, growing big and strong over winter, then being released in springtime.
Many animal rescue groups around the country help out with hedgehogs. In 2013, Hedgehog Rescue Dublin was set up by a zookeeper in her spare time. The centre's Facebook page is filled with inspiring stories about hedgehogs in rehabilitation. If you ever need help with a rescued hedgehog, talk to them: they are experts. And if you can help them with fundraising, it's a great cause.