High-risk Hedgehogs – How is climate change affecting hibernation? By Helena Gibbon

I always think of hedgehogs as the cute, happy, woodland creatures that star in many a children’s book. One of my favourites is Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle. Her laundry service is first-class, and the customer service is reportedly excellent. And yet she may have to invest in a couple of new tumble dryers this year, with the summer having been one of the wettest on record. 


Mrs Tiggywinkle is not the only member of the hedgehog community facing difficulties this year. Many baby hedgehogs are having to spend the winter in the warmth of various rescue centres due to them being too small to hibernate. 


Mother hedgehogs usually have their litters in the spring, which gives the hoglets (I’m not making that up – that’s what they’re actually called!) the entire summer and autumn to fatten up for winter and be ready to take a long, well-deserved nap. The devastating effect of the rain this summer was that many of these young hedgehogs drowned, meaning that the mothers had another litter later in the summer. The problem with this is that these new hoglets have not had enough time to grow big enough for hibernation. 


The Leicestershire Wildlife Hospital says it currently has more than 200 hedgehogs in its care – roughly double what it had this time last year. A fully-grown hedgehog should weigh around 600g, but some are coming in at less than 100g. The rescue centres are having to feed up the hoglets and keep them warm over the winter, in the hopes of being able to set them free in the spring. This crisis means that many wildlife centres are chock-a-block with hoglets, along with all the other poorly hedgehogs that have had to make a trip to A&E. 

This is not the first challenge that hedgehogs have had to face. Over the last few decades, the expansion of urban areas, along with the destruction of their habitats for agriculture and infrastructure, has had a devastating effect on the population. It has been estimated that there were around 30 million hedgehogs in Britain in the 1950s, with only 1.5 million by the mid-90s. This is a decline of 95%. 


Another way that climate change is harming hedgehogs is by waking them up too early. A warm spell in February or March, followed by another final blast of winter means that the hedgehogs are tricked into waking up too early and then struggle to survive the rest of the winter because all the shops have run out of woolly jumpers. 


Various schemes are in place to help reduce the effects of expanding towns and busy roads. People are being encouraged to cut holes in the bottom of their fences and build hedgehog houses in their gardens to make it easier for hedgehogs to travel around and find somewhere safe to sleep. There are also bridges being built over busy roads so that hedgehogs, and other animals such as badgers, can cross without getting squished. 

More needs to be done if we are going to stop the rapid decline of hedgehogs and even start to increase their numbers again. In the meantime, I’m going to see if Mrs Tiggywinkle is open for business. 


Sources:

https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/leaflets/sobh.pdf

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-50289433



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