Hedgehogs are lovely, completely inoffensive creatures and, because of their gentle sweet nature, are Britain’s most accessible and well loved wild animal. They are our natural heritage. But they are critically endangered – more so than even the tiger. The BTO have estimated that if the current decline in numbers continues, by 2021 the last hedgehog in England will die.
I am devoted to saving these precious little animals and am determined to help halt this tragic decline.
Members of the public bring me sick or injured hedgehogs and orphaned babies, or they are referred to me by the RSPCA and veterinary clinics. I take them in, give them the medical treatment they need and keep them warm and safe and fed while they recover. Once they are fit and well I return them to the wild, where they can breed a healthy new generation.
I do this out of love, there is no charge. But love doesn't pay the bills. I have no funding; everything I use to save the animals - from the vet's bills and antibiotics, right down to the washing up liquid, all comes from my own pocket. I occasionally receive a small donation from the finders, but more often than not, they are just so relieved to be free of the responsibility of the little life they've helped save, they forget.
Any support you feel you can give, be it a donation, or helping spread the word about Hedgehog Cabin, will help save lives. If you would like to help with supplies I have an Amazon Wishlist http://amzn.eu/iKsezQB
I live in a village in Hampshire and I’m lucky enough to have hedgehogs who visit my garden. I’ve always fed them and would occasionally notice one looking not too good so would drive it to a wildlife hospital for treatment. But so many times, even the furthest wildlife rescues were full and couldn’t take my casualty. Or, if they had spaces, those spaces were so cramped and dirty that it made me cry with frustration. So I cleared out my garden cabin and, with the help of my lovely carpenter neighbour, made some pens. I’m an ex nurse so I’m okay with hygiene and wound care, and even though I knew very little about hedgehogs I decided to try and help them myself. I’ve always had dogs, so to me it was just another version of looking after an animal.
How naive and arrogant I was.
Taking responsibility for the life of a wild animal is nothing like caring for a pet. It’s like saying “I can speak English, English is based on Latin, therefore I can speak Italian”. Compassion and good intent are just empty gloves without the hands of knowledge and experience to guide them, and despite their tough spiky appearance hedgehogs are surprisingly fragile, complicated little creatures. So I learnt, slowly and sometimes painfully, thanks to the patience of the experts I constantly pestered (and still do) and a lot of reading. I bought a microscope and learnt how to examine poo for parasites, and over the years, without even really noticing, I morphed from a normal woman just looking after the wildlife in my garden that I felt somehow morally responsible for, into one of those do-gooder local community animal charity people who can bore you rigid with hedgehog-related tales.
Each hedgehog is weighed on admission, and again every morning – not just to record their progress, but so that I can calculate the exact dose of the drugs I need to administer that day. Most medications are given via a subcutaneous injection. This is little Chester in the scales, who arrived last September. He’s actually 3 months old here but was so terribly ill that he struggled to gain any weight for a long time. He had been bitten by a dog and was too sick to escape or protect himself. He was teeming with every parasite a hedgehog can suffer from, and was so weak and distressed. The usual drugs just didn’t seem to work on him. Each morning I’d be so surprised he was still alive, and each night I’d scour the internet, looking to see if anyone had come across his symptoms and knew of a cure. Eventually I found some invaluable information from a paper published by Twycross Zoo, and a hedgehog rescue in Jersey. Although he cost me a fortune on drugs, special diets and vitamin supplements, I’m delighted to say that he is now a lovely happy and healthy 920g.
Needless to say, after all the injections he’s had, he hates me. Even when he’s sleeping, when I walk into that cabin he hisses like a den of snakes. I don’t mind, he’s a precious little miracle and I love him. But roll on springtime when he can be free!
Because they have been born at the wrong time when there's no natural food around, Autumn juveniles and orphans are very frail, underweight, and dehydrated - which means the parasite burden they have picked up gets stronger and eventually becomes overwhelming. Without treatment they would die.
Not only are they sick, a hedgehog needs to weigh at least 700 grams to safely make it through hibernation. These little ones are born too late to be able to put on enough weight before winter sets in. They are housed in pens kept at a constant 20c until their treatment is complete and they are a safe weight. If it's too late to release them then I keep them here, over winter, in a cabin that is kept at the optimum temperature for hibernation. In the spring, when they wake up, they are released back into the wild.
Years ago, when hedgehogs were a common sight, concrete gravel boards and decking didn't exist, and your parents and grandparents would greet their neighbours over a garden hedge or simple wooden fence. There would always be a little gap a hedgehog could squeeze through so they were free to roam between gardens, eating all the food that nature provides. Fields were divided by dense hedgerows and wild flowers and weeds grew among the crops. The soil beneath was rich in a diversity of beetles, larvae and small insects - all the favourite things on a hedgehog's menu.
Today, a field of corn will look uniform - not a single poppy head or weed to be seen. The earth beneath the crops will be bare, barren. It has been sterilised by chemicals, allowing only the chosen crop to grow. Although, through legislation, the chemicals sprayed are safe enough not to kill animals outright, they kill all life beneath the soil, leaving nothing for hedgehogs (and other animals and birds) to eat. The edges of the crop growing area have been extended into where once the hedgerows grew, eliminating the undisturbed shady haven where hedgehogs could nest and safely raise their young.
Although omnivores, hedgehogs prefer an insectivore diet and mostly eat beetles, grubs and small insects. Contrary to popular belief, hedgehogs only eat slugs and snails when they are desperate and starving (the skin is very tough and can get stuck in their palate – sometimes with fatal consequences).
But needs must, and when there is no other food around (or they can't access it) a slug could be the difference between life and death. But slugs and snails are often hosts to lungworm - a parasite that is fatal to a hedgehog if left untreated.
Among other creatures, slugs and snails can also act as intermediate hosts to the fluke parasite, infecting natural water sources. The fluke is a flat worm that takes up residence in the liver and eats it (which is painful) and lays eggs. If it's not caught and killed in time the fluke make their way into the bile ducts, and that's curtains for the host. The poor hedgehogs, like all wild animals, have no concept of pain as an internal thing and try to do the only thing they know how to do to escape the pain - they try to run away from it. So the fluke sufferers in care continually run round their pens, dig like crazy in the corners, and desperately try to climb the walls. It's heartbreaking to see. Like lungworm, it can be cured, with three weeks of medications, but only if caught in time.
Dehydration kills all living things, including wild hedgehogs. If they can't access water - in the summer when all natural sources have dried up, or in the winter when it is frozen - they will start to weaken.
Like most wild animals, hedgehogs carry roundworm. Healthy hedgehogs develop a form of resistance to these worms, whereby the hedgehog itself prevents the worm numbers building up to the point at which they become a problem - enabling hedgehog and parasites to live in harmony. If a hedgehog's immunity is reduced by any stress, like dehydration (or starvation) the worms can then multiply unchecked. So even if the lack of water is temporary, it can trigger a secondary threat.
This is a family of five orphaned babies that were found in the grounds of a hospital, by a cook who was popping out to sneak a crafty cigarette. Someone had just watered the plants and these babies were desperately licking the damp concrete. This screenshot was taken of them, after being gently warmed up and hydrated, tucking into the first meal they’d had in days.
Like little spiky pigs at a trough, aren’t they?
Although they were 4 weeks old, so had teeth (so didn’t need bottle feeding) they were so malnourished that they were too small to eat from normal bowls. I had to improvise and used drink coasters as food plates.
This is little Ruby, who came in bearing over 70 ticks. Most of them were on her left hand side, which means she had been debilitated and lying on that side for a while. A handful of ticks won’t do that much harm to a healthy hedgehog, but more than that will make the animal anaemic from blood loss. To an animal already compromised by internal parasites this amount would certainly be fatal. The finder first saw her out on a grassy bank in the day time. Not realising the fact that the hoglet was out in daylight meant she was already in dire peril, the finder moved the little hoglet under a bush, thinking she would be safer there. The next day the little hoglet was still in the same place, so the lady brought her in to me. Ruby was in a terrible state by then and was lucky to have survived the night. She was freezing cold, suffering from pneumonia, and urgently needed antibiotics and treatment for lungworm, roundworm and coccidia. She is completely recovered now but will stay in the heated cabin, to prevent her from hibernating before she's big enough to do so safely. The resilience of these sweet creatures never fails to amaze me.
They are so incredibly sweet when tiny, aren't they? These are brother and sister from last year. Hedgehogs should be a nice round shape when curled up. These two are much longer than they are wide, more rugby ball than football shape, meaning they are very underweight. Willow was weaned, raised, treated and was released, all fit and healthy, in the autumn - only to be killed by a car. His sister, Bluebell, is all grown up now but still lives here; she took up residence in the pre-release lodge and has decided to stay put. When the other pens are empty she totters round them, with a mouthful of hay, making up the beds.
This is the inside of the original cabin, which is kept heated in winter and cooled in summer. There are 7 pens in here, each measuring 3 foot by 4 foot. The walls above them are covered in shelves which are groaning under the weight of bowls, hundreds of puppy training pads, newspapers, bags of cut up fleece blankets (bedding for the babies) and food.
Late winter is usually my quiet time as, apart from a couple of sick hogs, most of the hedgehogs are hibernating. But in 2017 there were just so many autumn orphans I was running out of beds.
Two or three times each week throughout November and December the doorbell would ring and there would be someone standing there, holding a tiny hedgehog that was covered in their dog's saliva and bleeding, and all I could think was: Oh no! Where am I going to put this one? I haven't even done the meds tonight or torn up the newspaper strips for the bedding tomorrow and now this little one is going to need me rehydrating her all night long. And that's the problem with wildlife - stress kills so easily, so you can't just pop them in a nice, easy to clean plastic box and stack 'em high. Just because they don’t run or bite, doesn’t make them any the less wild than a fox or a deer. Being in captivity, even for all the right reasons, is terrifying for a wild animal. And extremely stressful. So, the more space they have, the less stressed they are. The less they are stressed, the more chance their antibodies have to fight for survival.
By the end of October that year my little hedgehog hospital cabin was full and, as I just couldn’t turn a needy animal away, I had to have a second cabin put in, to cope with all the arrivals. Every single hedgehog baby (some weighing barely 100g) had at least two fatal conditions – mostly lungworm and fluke. The majority of them also had roundworm, coccidia and ringworm.
Like the first cabin it is kept heated at 20c and there are heat pads under each bedroom in the pens. There are 3 floor pens and a treatment area. There are also 3 intensive care beds, for those too sick to move around and who need constant supervision.
This is the outside lodge. It has 8 pens and in spring/summer is used as a pre-release site (where the treated hogs can live for a couple of weeks, totally hands-off, to allow them to fear humans again and get used to the outside temperature and smells, before being released back to the wild) and in the winter as hibernation pens. And yes, one day when I have time I would love to tidy up all those messy cables (every pen, indoors and out, has its own HD CCTV camera).
Who needs to sit and relax and watch telly in the evenings when there are sick animals to pester? Because they are prey animals, hedgehogs are very good at hiding any weakness from their predators (humans included, sadly) and will not limp even on broken legs, or cry out at the most terrible pain. So when they are first admitted, after giving life-saving treatment as quickly as possible (warming up, rehydration, tending wounds, etc) I put them in a pen, leave them in peace, and watch on the cameras. And listen. It's here that I hear the hacking coughs of lungworm, long before they've produced a poo I can examine for parasites under the microscope.
And of course, with so many sick animals, hygiene is a number one priority, to stop cross infection (to me as well as between the hogs themselves), and cleaning and disinfecting all those pens every day takes hours. Each pen has its dedicated gloves - one pair for cleaning, one for handling (disposable gloves are used for the pooy stuff and medicating).
Using the right products (that kill the germs but are harmless to animals) is another big expense, coming third after vet/medication and food. There are about 50 bowls that need to be washed up each morning then left to soak in Milton.
Obviously I have heaters in the cabins for the winter months, but during the summer the patients need to be kept cool, especially the tiny babies who can’t regulate their own body temperature (in their natural habitat hedgehogs nest deep beneath the undergrowth, or in long grass, where the sun cannot reach and temperatures are kinder). Both cabins have air conditioning units but they are very expensive to run. Paying high electric bills isn't something you might think about, but it's just as vital as medicines and food. I don’t have any means of funding so if you’d like to help, any donation, no matter how small, will be very very welcome.
This is Hugo, having his ringworm cream applied. Hugo is an old boy (you can tell by the slight ginger tint to his fur). Hedgehogs can live as long as dogs, but sadly, most are very lucky to see their third year.
Ringworm is a fungal infection (much like athletes foot) and is a common hedgehog ailment. The infected skin is extremely itchy and forms a scab, which eventually falls off, along with any hair or spines attached to it. A hedgehog’s spines are his only means of defence and if he loses them he will be seriously injured or killed by an attacking predator (or inquisitive dog). Luckily Hugo came to me when the ringworm was still in the early stages.
You can see where a scab has been on the furry part of his nose, leaving bare skin, and how the spines are missing from the top of his head. His belly was completely bald and for an animal who lives so low to the cold ground, that loss of fur can be critical. Ringworm is extremely infectious, to humans as well as other animals, so I have to double glove when treating and handling infected hogs.
Ringworm is a tenacious infection and curing it completely on a hedgehog is incredibly labour intensive. The only way to succeed is to have patience. Lots of it. Before the hedgehog can start the two week long treatment of baths in a substance that kills the ringworm, the scabs need to be softened with cream and allowed to drop off to expose the infected skin. But applying the cream can be tricky. The frightened hedgehog (I am a predator, after all) will be tightly curled, but being placed on a comfortable heating pad, and being an extremely inquisitive animal, he will eventually feel brave enough to uncurl a little to smell his new surroundings. Once his head comes out I’m there, with a small artist’s paintbrush loaded with cream, and if I’m lucky I get one quick dab on before the head disappears again. So I reload and wait. I use this rare sitting down time, in between dabs, to write the daily progress log and record individual treatment plans.
This is sweet Hazel, who was brought in to Hedgehog Cabin on Christmas Eve. Hazel is starting to recover now but she'll still need supervision for the next couple of weeks as it was very touch and go for her. This was a typical case - the finder discovered the little hoglet in the garden out in the daytime. Now that means the hog is already very sick with something and is starting to die, go into shock, and is out in the daytime trying to get warmth from the sun.
The lady took her in (which is really great) and then kept her for a week (which is really bad), thinking that food and warmth would make her better. Sadly, this is a common and quite understandable expectation. She'd read they like mealworms so was feeding them to this poor baby. They do like mealworms, the same way kids love sweeties, but feeding them will cripple and eventually kill the hoglet, as the mealworms have no nutriments and their imbalance of phosphorous and calcium will cause metabolic bone disease (as will sunflower seeds and peanuts).
The lady had gone into the local pet shop to ask about hedgehog food, as this little hoglet was losing so much weight (and she only weighed 300 grams to begin with). Luckily the pet shop owner told the woman that she really needed to get the hedgehog some medical help fast, and gave her my number.
Healthy hedgehog poo does not have a terribly unpleasant smell – it’s sort of earthy, like damp woods. Poo from an infected hedgehog has a particular odour, and as soon as I picked Hazel up I recognised the scent of fluke. Her nose was running and I could hear her little lungs wheezing. Watching her on the CCTV I could see that she was already showing signs of weakness in her hind legs. It's a miracle she'd survived that long. But she's responding well to the medications and her legs are getting stronger now, with the intensive care, specialist diet, and a good sized pen to exercise in.
This is Tabatha, brought to me on Halloween, around midnight. She was found curled up on the back doorstep when the owner of the house let his dog out for a last wee before bedtime. She was very dehydrated and dying from lungworm.
Hedgehog mums usually have five hoglets in a litter so I advised the finder to watch out for this little one’s litter mates. Sadly, no more were found.
Today Tabatha is fully recovered. She weighs an astonishing kilo now and is hibernating in the outside lodge, ready for release in the spring.
Tabatha also happened to be one of only two cases of flea infestation I’ve ever come across. Contrary to the old wives’ tale, hedgehogs aren’t riddled with fleas, no more than any other animal, wild or domestic. Hedgehog fleas are species-specific, so they can’t live on you, your dog, or any other animal. The old adage probably comes from the fact that the sight of a hedgehog scratching is so common. The cause is far more likely to be dry skin, ringworm or mites.
I've only heard a hedgehog scream once, and I never want to hear that sound again, it was terrifying in its anguish. This little hog, just 120g, had been picked up by a dog, shaken, thrown in the air, and dragged around before the owner could catch the dog and save the hoglet. I actually heard the screams from my kitchen, as the man holding the rescued hoglet walked down my road that night.
He, little Screaming Teddy, recovered completely and has now gained enough weight to hibernate.
Please check long grass and undergrowth thoroughly before you use a strimmer, because this is where hedgehogs like to sleep during the day. Hedgehogs will sense the danger coming and hear you, but unlike most wild animals they won’t try to run away or bite you. Their only defence is to roll up into a ball and stay quiet, hoping you’ll go away. You’ll only know they are there when it’s too late.
Better still - don't strim. Lives are more important than looks, and the long grass edges will be home to insects that hogs like to eat.
Put out a shallow saucer of water (an earthenware plant pot saucer is ideal) and keep it clean and freshly topped up daily all year round. This will be a life-saver in the warm weather, when natural sources of water dry up and nursing mothers and their babies are struggling. But it’s equally as important in the colder weather; the babies and adults that arrived this winter were dehydrated because all natural sources of water were frozen. If your back garden isn’t safe then leave the water in your front garden.
If your garden is safe (no dogs running loose unattended, no ponds without shores, no netting to get tangled in) but has no hedgehog suitable access, make a doorway for the hedgehogs to gain entry – a hole the size of a CD cut into the bottom of a fence panel or gate is perfect. If you have concrete gravel boards, still cut the hole in the bottom of the fence above them – hedgehogs are excellent climbers – or make a tunnel under them.
If you can, put out fresh food for them each evening, before dusk. Cat or kitten dry complete food is perfect. Any make or flavour is fine, but they prefer chicken, and the smaller the size of the kibble the better (hedgehogs have tiny little mouths). As with most things, the more you pay, the better quality the food will be, generally. Avoid any that have cereal as the first, main, ingredient. Always take away and clean up any food left over in the morning. Slugs and snails will have, no doubt, crawled over it and they can carry lungworm. And flies may have laid eggs in it, which will turn into maggots within hours.
Never give mealworms, sunflower seeds or peanuts. Yes, you will still see lots of internet sites recommending these bad foods, but if the internet was as prevalent 20 years ago these sites would be recommending feeding bread and milk. It takes a while for new discoveries to become common knowledge and for sites to be updated, and the link between the phosphorous/calcium ratio and metabolic bone disease is a relatively recent discovery. No sultanas or other dried fruit either, as they get stuck in their teeth and cause decay. It’s only humans who eat for entertainment so they don’t need ‘treats’, just nourishing food.
The food you provide will suppliment their natural diet, not replace it.
Please drive carefully at dusk and after dark, and watch out for hedgehogs crossing, especially in the spring, when newly roused hedgehogs are still weak and disorientated from hibernation and are searching for life-giving water, and early summer when courting hedgehogs only have one thing on their minds, and aren’t so safety conscious.
Simple acts of kindness save lives.
By supporting Hedgehog Cabin you can save lives today, and help ensure the health of future generations