MrElaineous and I arrived back from a trip to Florida in mid March, and we had just about managed to unpack when we found ourselves in lockdown. We were used to working from home, but we suddenly found that rather than taking breaks with day trips, walking adventures, and weekends away, our world had shrunk to no more than the boundary of our garden.
We knew we were fortunate to have this patch of green to enjoy, especially as it turned into the sunniest April on record. The birds kept us entertained with their antics—although the Easter Weekend Massacre is not something I’d like repeated—and it was magical to watch the flowers spring into life, turning the front garden into a meadow.
The longer we stayed under lockdown, the more it was possible to notice the little things. In particular, I started to notice poo. If you’re familiar with naturalist Chris Packham’s fondness for animal scat, you’ll know that excrement can be an excellent way of identifying wildlife. While I don’t have Chris’ eye (or nose) for droppings, I am familiar with the poo that regularly pops up around the house. For example, the badgers have a tendency to dig holes in the back garden before filling them with their own waste, which I assume is a territorial display. The green woodpecker leaves droppings that look like cigarette ash, made of the exoskeletons of the hundreds of ants it devours.
This was like nothing I had seen before in the garden. Too large for a rat or mouse, too small for a fox or cat. Could it possibly be hedgehog poo? A quick online search indicated that yes, this was very likely.
MrElaineous and I were overjoyed. In nearly seven years of living in our house, we had never come across hedgehogs. Badgers, yes. Beyond their poo, our camera trap showed that they were regular visitors to the back garden, hoovering up any crumbs from the bird feeder and eating apple cores we left out for the birds. We even caught the occasional fox on camera, and plenty of neighbourhood moggies (US readers: cats).
But the camera trap broke a few years ago and what was happening in our garden after the sun set was now anyone’s guess. We decided to get a new camera, and what it revealed was beyond our wildest wildlife dreams.
Not only did we have a hedgehog, we had at least two, potentially three. We promptly bought hedgehog houses (yes, plural) and began feeding them every night. Our collection of cameras increased as well as we tried to cover every part of the garden and figure out the route of our nocturnal visitors.
This obsession only seems natural: hedgehogs are a British favourite, and the Beatrix Potter tale of hedgehog washerwoman Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was one of my own favourite bedtime stories growing up. The British population of these charismatic insectivores, however, is in steep decline. Estimates put the current number of hedgehogs at around one million … compared to an approximate 30 million+ in the 1950s.
There are many reasons for this. Habitat loss and fragmentation play a large role, as hedgehogs have a surprisingly large territory for such small creatures. They can walk up to two miles a night in their search for food, but fences, walls, and roadways can make for insurmountable, and deadly, obstacles. The desire for paved or overly neat and tidy gardens also has an impact by depriving them of both hiding spots and their food sources—namely insects, worms, slugs, and other invertebrates. Poisonous slug pellets and other pesticides get ingested by animals further up the food chain, including hedgehogs.
What can you do to help?
LEAVE PART OF YOUR GARDEN WILD.
Several years ago, Chris Packham made an excellent programme that showed that wildlife don’t actually like things completely wild. Instead, the gardens that had a mix of different habitats—grass, hedges, flowers, trees, compost or wood pile—had the greatest biodiversity. We’ve noticed a similar trend in our own garden: the mowed patches are favoured by green woodpeckers so they can get access to the ants, the meadow provides a peaceful hangout for insects and pollinators, hedges get transformed into nurseries for young birds, and the dandelions and clover are buzzing with bees.
PUT A HOLE IN IT.
FEED THEM AND THEY WILL COME.
I don’t necessarily mean putting out hedgehog food, but rather ensuring that there are enough insects to attract the animals that eat them. Log piles or leaf piles are great for this, and please do not use slug pellets or other pesticides. If you are going to directly feed hedgehogs, bread and milk are no-nos. Instead, dried cat kibble (or meaty—not fish!—moist cat/dog food) are popular, and there is also specialty hedgehog food To prevent the neighbourhood cats from getting the food, we put it inside the hedgehog house, and you can also build your own feeding station.
WATER. WATER. WATER.
Putting out water dishes (yes, plural) for birds and other animals is one of the best ways to attract wildlife to your garden. I think we’re up to ten general water dishes scattered across our patch. Each hedgehog house has its own dish that’s used every night. You don’t need to buy anything fancy unless you want to: a shallow dish from a charity shop will do the job! Just make sure to keep the water topped up during the day, and clean out the dishes on a regular basis to prevent algae and other growth. If you put in a pond, you’ll attract even more critters, but please make sure that you have an escape route in case any of them fall in.
It has been a real privilege to have these little ambassadors of the British countryside taking up residence around our house, and rather than flood my personal Facebook feed with daily videos, I have launched a new YouTube channel to share clips from around the garden. At the moment, Wildlife at the Tower* has hedgehogs, badgers, and the occasional mouse, and I hope you enjoy checking in to see what nature is doing while MrElaineous and I stay close to home.