Hedgehog © John N Murphy
The June Bank Holiday weekend and the start of the summer. We all look forward to it and the fine weather that it brings. With this fine weather about, people move from home to holiday resort, jamming our roads with traffic as they try to get from A – B as quickly as possible. This is the start of the crazy season and the season of the ugly little thing, the Hedgehog. His Irish name Gráinneog which translates to ugly little thing sums him up.
For most of us, the only time we see one of these nocturnal creatures is after it has been flattened by a car tyre along our country roads or newly built motorways. When surveys have been carried out to find out which animals are killed most often on our roads the poor hedgehog often comes out in the top four. Surveys have calculated that about 12,000 to 15,000 hedgehogs are killed on our roads every year. This seems a very big number, but if the hedgehog population can suffer these deaths, and yet not go extinct, surely this is a good thought. To help preserve these spiky mammals less speed and more care, especially at night might help preserve these little mammals and us as well.
I recall my first encounter with one of these little fellows. One weekend in June myself, the parents and my four brothers were travelling back from a day at the picturesque seaside village of Kilmore Quay in Wexford. My dad suddenly hit the brakes and swirved our Ford estate car to narrowly miss a little spikey ball in the middle of the road. As he pulled the car to the side of the road, we all piled out to see the cute little mammal that caused the commotion, a hedgehog. Of course we did all the wrong things. In a joint group decision we reckoned he would be a great pet for the garden, so little ‘Hammy’ was wrapped in a beach towel and taken home to our small suburban garden. I had the pleasure of holding him all the way home. Of course once released into the garden he was never spotted again. Always leave them close to where you find them, this was the first lesson I didn’t learn, till many years later.
Hedgehogs are solitary and nocturnal animals. In summer, hedgehogs spend the day in temporary nests. They hibernate during the winter, in a small nest or winter retreat called a hibernaculum. Most hedgehog deaths occur during this hibernation period due to freezing or destruction of their nests. Many are burnt to death when piles of stick or brush are gathered for bonfire burning in early spring, when gardens are being prepared and tidied for the summer.
The 6,000 or so spines on a hedgehog offer protection from predators, when they roll up into a tight ball covering the head and soft underside. Animals with long snouts like foxes can often prize open Hedgehogs and eat or attack them from their soft underbody.
The hedgehog's breeding season lasts from about April until September. The main period of activity is in May and June, when the nights are warm. The gestation period for hedgehogs is about four and a half weeks. Most baby hedgehogs are born in June and July. Hedgehogs have up to 2 litters a year, of about 4 - 5 young.
What can we do to help hedgehogs survive and why should we bother to protect these ugly little creatures. Well, like all biodiversity on the planet, they have their uses and niech. Habitat loss is a big issue, especially the clearance of hedgerows and rough ground where they live. Did you know, hedgehogs can swim, they are great climbers, they run almost as fast as a dog and they rid your garden of pesty plant eating slugs. These are just some of their skills.
Apart from being run down on roads and the loss of suitable habitat, their next biggest cause of death is poisoning. Hedgehogs love slugs, not the big fat black or brown ones that live on dead matter, but the small stripped ones that prefer to feed on living plants. Slug pellets placed in the garden to prevent grenery being munched is a big problem for hedgehogs. The main ingredient in slug pellets is a substance called metaldehyde. The reason it is used is because it is (usually) harmless to other animals, and it takes only small doses to kill slugs.
Hedgehogs prefer small striped Slugs that feed on live plants, They don't normally eat these large black ones that feed on dead vegetation © John N Murphy
To kill a slug, it takes between 5 and 20 micrograms of metaldehyde per gram of slug. Whereas a hedgehog sized animal would need 200 - 1,000 micrograms per gram. So it would take 40 - 50 times as much to kill a hedgehog than a slug. That is a lot, but many other factors need to be considered. For example, will hedgehogs eat slug pellets? They do not usually like hard, dry things but post mortems have found slug pellets in hedgehogs, proof that they will eat them occasionally. However, this is not proof that they died as a result of eating the slug pellets.
So what if hedgehogs eat poisoned slugs? Dead or sick slugs are an easy target for hedgehogs, so it would seem that many hedgehogs could get metaldehyde in this way. But metaldehyde soon decomposes in dead slugs, so the risk is minimal. If however, a hedgehog did eat poisoned slugs, the sort of doses involved would mean that a hedgehog would have to eat about 5,000 slugs for it to prove deadly. Some tests show that to kill a 1lb hedgehog it would take about 250 milligrams of metaldehyde, much more than would be consumed by eating poisoned slugs, or pellets themselves.
This seems to suggest that slug pellets are safe, but this does not take into account the effect of small doses which could cause smaller problems from sickness to birth defects. It would seem that more research needs to be done in this area. There are some things that you could do to help prevent poisoning by pellets such as purchase only pellets that contain blue dye and taste nasty to hedgehogs. Use slug pellets sparingly or do what I do, leave out beer for your slugs. This might result in drunken Hedgehogs all over your garden. But BE WARNED, this might just lead to a June Hedgefest of ugly little things, in field near you.