Time is ticking for our hedgehogs and unless things improve quickly they are in danger of becoming some of the rarest creatures on the planet.
Thanks to their appetite for insect and bugs, they are every gardener’s friend but in reality they are in dire need of some friends of their own – especially people like West Norfolk hedgehog heroine, Frances Davies.
Frances, who lives at Wimbotsham, has devoted the last 13 years to rescuing, caring for, treating and re-homing hedgehogs and has almost lost count of the numbers that have been brought to her door.
Every spring, once the hedgehogs have woken from their hibernation, the patients begin to arrive and in the past few weeks it has started all over again.
A young hedgehog that had been clipped by a car was one of the first to be brought to her house this year. “It was touch and go whether he would survive but, with some veterinary treatment and a chance to get over the shock, he rallied and is now with carers who have the perfect habitat,” said Frances.
“I am hoping we might have a girl brought in who can join him and set up their own little family.”
It all started when she took in a hedgehog found in trouble by a friend and realised how difficult it was to find someone prepared to help save it.
She went for training, including visiting the Tiggywinkles Centre in Berkshire and became one of the carers in the eastern area recommended by the Hedgehog Awareness Society.
For several years Frances was taking in as many as 70 to 80 hedgehogs a year, many of them orphans and many from newborns to those two to three weeks old which she hand-reared feeding them lactose-free milk every two-and-a-half hours.
“It is time consuming but actually hedgehogs are not too difficult to rear and it is around 99 per cent successful,” she said.
Older ones tend to be those wounded and suffering from fly strike.
Once they are healthy enough to spend a few hours each evening safely rootling in her garden Frances sends them on to safe homes and locations to be released and go about their business snuffling round the countryside again.
The babies have no life skills so, at first, they need access to 24-hour permanent feeding stations until they learn to fend for themselves.
Her big concern is that numbers are dwindling – she now sees a maximum of 35 a year – and has real concerns for their future. “They are so vulnerable that it is estimated by 2020 they will be classified as a protected species.”
Figures show that numbers have dwindled by 30 per cent over the last 10 years and there are now less than one million hedgehogs in the UK (there were 30 million in the 1950s) – we can count ourselves very lucky if we see one.
This is backed up by a recent survey which showed that more than 50 per cent of people in the UK never seen a hedgehog.
The prickly hedgehog might have a spiny protective overcoat but that has no bearing when it comes to the biggest threats which come from our modern way of life.
Things are really stacked against them.
Their natural habitat of undergrowth is disappearing fast and the fashion for pristine gardens with manicured lawns, decking and gravel is not hedgehog friendly.
Worse still there is more traffic and road deaths account for huge losses.
“Hedgehogs rely on their sense of smell. They don’t see or hear well and everyone is in such a hurry on the roads they don’t stand a chance,” said Frances.
“If a mummy hedgehog is killed at this time of year there is a chance there is a nest of four to six babies which will die too.”
She suggests that if a hedgehog is found dead it is worth looking round and listening for the peep-peep noise that is made by hungry babies.
And anyone who is lucky enough to have hedgehogs in the garden can help them by making sure there is water available and leaving out some feed.
Dry cat food is good and it is also possible to buy hedgehog food.
Hedgehogs would also appreciate a wild area in the garden, gaps so that they can travel round their territory, care when moving rubbish, log piles and lighting a bonfire – and being hedgehog-aware on the country roads.