Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Homes for hogs

When I compiled my list of wildlife topics for the 2022 series of Outside the Back Door, I planned to time this article about hedgehogs to coincide with when they would be emerging from hibernation – how wrong could I be!

Some of you will be already aware that we have felt really privileged to be the home of several hedgehogs for the past two years.  However, it has proved a big learning curve, as you will discover if you read on, and one of the most surprising thing has been their lack of willingness to hibernate this winter!  More of which shortly.

An early hedgehog spot from summer 2020 (c) John Malone

Our hedgehog discovery came during those sunny days of the first lockdown in April 2020.  Hedgehogs were only on my mind due to a colleague having spotted some in her garden across the river in Molesey.  So when I found strange small curved droppings on our lawn, I found myself Googling “hedgehog poo”!  The photo that popped up matched exactly what had appeared on our lawn.  Then, to my amazement, I spotted one running down the garden at dusk only a few evenings later.  I’m not sure that my husband believed me at first but, several days later, we both saw one.  We were absolutely thrilled.  Thankfully so was our neighbour so we were able to create a hedgehog highway by protecting a dip in the ground that had appeared under our fences. 

Our hedgehog highway (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t get into feeding the hogs until late summer / early autumn when, thanks to a friend, we put out some special hedgehog food, prompted by a further sighting.  We then did our research and discovered that dry kitten kibble is recommended as hedgehogs only have little mouths.  Since then, kitten food has become a regular addition to our weekly shop and I can’t help think that the supermarkets must be wondering just how many kittens we own!!  Food stopped being taken in early November 2020 and, naively, we concluded we could stop feeding until the spring.  In spring 2021, we spotted droppings again and resumed feeding and, even more importantly, putting out a tray of water.  A quick scan around the garden each evening with a torch would often reveal a munching hog or two.

Supper time! (c) John Malone

It turns out that hedgehogs can be marvellous inspiration for a whole range of birthday present ideas and in May 2021 ‘Hog Cam’ was launched!  Timed to switch on after dusk, this motion sensitive camera could capture short videos of active hogs.  To our amazement, anything up to four hedgehogs could be seen at a time!  It appeared our garden had become ‘hedgehog central’ in Hampton!

Hedgehogs dining at dusk (c) John Malone

Going live with the camera in May meant that we were up and running in time for the rutting season.  You may well be familiar with the red deer rut in the autumn with its dramatic clashing of antlers, but I can now tell you that the hedgehog rut in May/June can become pretty feisty too!  Despite all those prickles, the male hogs will push and shunt their rivals around the garden.  They circle the female who will often remain quite still.  We were never quite sure whether we captured them mating and we didn’t see any tiny hoglets either but maybe we’ll be luckier this year?  The other thing we have learnt from the camera is that they don’t hibernate for uninterrupted long periods as we had imagined.  This winter they didn’t stop coming for food each evening until into January and, since then, they have only ceased to arrive for a relatively short period of about 2-3 weeks.  The night they turned up and we’d failed to put food out for them made us feel very guilty!

Prime real-estate for hedgehogs – currently unoccupied! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Given the parlous state of hedgehog populations in the UK, we do feel very privileged to host these adorable little creatures in our garden.  The good news is that recent studies by the PTES have shown that urban hedgehog populations seem to be steadying whereas in rural areas the numbers continue to fall.  This implies that it is all due to habitat.  The clue is in the name – ‘hedge’ hog.  Without hedges, we’re without hogs.  However, wildlife and gardening programmes have done their utmost to encourage anyone with a garden to make them hedgehog friendly and this is clearly having a positive effect.

So what can you do to help hedgehogs in your local area?  Firstly, keep a look out for signs, such as the crescent shaped droppings, that would suggest you have hedgehogs in your area.  If you want to feed them, try putting a small tray of dried cat food out at dusk.  If you’re worried about rats, our experience so far has only shown a rat go to the dish twice since last May, although we do have a rather cheeky mouse right now.  The local cats also seem to ignore kitten food, clearly thinking it’s beneath them.  The fox, however, has swiped the lot occasionally but not always.  Also make sure you put out a dish of water.  We have been amazed at how much they drink.  Each hog will take some food and then waddle to the tray for a long drink, and they will do this to’ing and fro’ing for hours at a time!  They also travel long distances at night in search of food so enable a pathway between your garden and a neighbours.  Just dig down slightly to create a little run through for them.  Finally, leave corners of your garden where they can snuggle up beneath leaves and twigs.  Any actions you take may be vital in ensuring that our hedgehogs continue to survive – good luck!

Our dedicated drinking station (courtesy of a friend!) (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Hoorah for hedgehogs!

We have hedgehogs!  Not one, not two but three!  I know that everyone thinks I’m a bit crazy to be going on about them like this but we haven’t seen a hedgehog in our garden for more than 15 years.  Having decided to focus this year’s blog posts on the climate crisis and the environment, it’s rather nice to have a story to tell about one of our most endangered species. 

Our first spiny visitor! (c) John Malone

Not that many years ago, hedgehogs were abundant in the UK.  Just think how many you used to see squished on the road!  And that, in its own way, has been part of the problem.  Man’s impact on the hedgehog has been significant.  If we’ve not run over them in our cars, we’ve removed the hedges they need to nest in (the clue is in the name!) and tidied our gardens to within an inch of their lives.  In the 1950s it’s thought that there was over 36 million hedgehogs in this country but now it’s estimated that the number is probably only around 1 million.  As a result this year saw hedgehogs added to the red-list of endangered species in the UK alongside other well-loved creatures such as the red squirrel.

We first became aware of our hedgehogs in the spring. In fact, I wouldn’t even have been on alert to look out for them had not a colleague not too many miles away remarked that she had them in her garden. Only a few days later I spotted some droppings in the garden. With three cats, we know cat poo well so quickly ruled that out! Foxes can’t really get into our garden because of our cat fence but prior to having that fence, clearing the garden of fox poo was a regular and very unpleasant task, so we quickly ruled that out too. To the amusement of friends and colleagues I Googled “hedgehog poo” and up popped a picture that matched what was in our garden almost exactly.

Hedgehog poo on our lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then, by total chance, I spotted a hedgehog running down the garden one evening! My husband looked sceptical but the following evening he saw it too! Inspired by this, our neighbour went out and purchased hedgehog food. Each evening the food vanished but we never saw what was eating it. As the days drew longer, we became less than convinced that we were feeding hedgehogs. I considered purchasing one of those wildlife trigger cameras but, oh goodness, what a selection there is out there! I decided it was all far too complicated and resigned myself to the thought that our hedgehog had trotted off to better gardens.

Our hedgehog highway (protected from fox digging!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

On the last weekend in September, I walked out into the garden and saw more hedgehog poo! That hadn’t been there the day before! Two days later we were washing up as dusk fell when I spotted a hedgehog running across the lawn! We shot outside with cameras and my husband rummaged in the shed for the remaining hedgehog food. Our little spiky friend seemed quite appreciative so the following evening we were prepared and the tray of food went out in preparation. As my husband took it out, he spotted movement amongst the dahlias. Suddenly I saw frantic waving – there was not one but two hedgehogs out there! One was really small, a baby we decided. At this point we began to realise that we knew very little about the lifecycle of the hedgehog – more Googling followed!

Proof that there were two! (c) John Malone

Equipped with our new knowledge, we started to worry. If the little one was a recent baby, the statistics showed that its chances of putting on enough weight to survive the winter were quite slim. Our commitment to feeding them went up a notch or two at this point. We researched further food options and ordered kitten biscuit to be added to our next supermarket delivery. On one evening they had to do with a pouch of wet cat food and they were clearly unimpressed as that was the one evening we didn’t see them! The kitten food has proved popular as the kibble is small enough for a little hedgehog snout to cope with. Then, to our amazement, two became three! In fact, my husband was heading out with the food and nearly stood on one! At that point we realised that there were two more huddled together under our hawthorn tree.

Enjoying a supper of kitten food (c) John Malone

We are really thrilled to be welcoming these increasingly rare and endangered creatures into our garden and are delighted that our efforts at gardening in an environmentally friendly way appears to be paying off. Our garden isn’t overly tidy. We have corners that frankly we cannot reach so leaves and twigs gather which are ideal for hedgehogs. We have never sprayed chemicals although I will admit to the occasional use of supposedly wildlife friendly slug pellets but these are only used when a plant is being decimated and for a limited time. However, if we can keep our hedgehogs happy, I won’t need these as they can eat the slugs for me!

Hedgehog house under construction! (C) Elizabeth Malone

We’ve been reflecting on why the appearance of the hedgehogs has been so thrilling? Is it anything to do with lockdown and needing some good news stories? Or is it that this is giving us a chance to put conservation into action in our own back yard? Either way, we hope our little spiny friends will find somewhere snug to hibernate this winter and that we can welcome them outside the backdoor again next year.