Hedgehog Lives Matter

Now is the time of year you’re liable to see small hedgehogs bumbling about in the daytime (and all too often getting squashed on the road). These unfortunate youngsters, born late in the season, haven’t had enough time to fatten up sufficiently for winter, forcing them to forage in daylight, and making them vulnerable, in their weakness, to disease and pest infestation. So the hard truth is that most won’t survive hibernation – especially sad given that this iconic British animal is now an endangered species due to habitat loss, deliberate human cruelty and misplaced human kindness (never, but NEVER, give hedgehogs bread and milk! They’re lactose intolerant and it kills them. Don’t give dried mealworms, either, only meat-based cat-food – not fish – and biscuits, or special hedgehog food).

So yesterday afternoon at Beckside, Hubcap wasn’t entirely surprised to see a young hedgehog wandering about in the open, being plagued by a swarm of green-bottles (‘fly-strike’, a horribly apt term). Needless to say he retrieved it, shooed off the flies, and brought it home in a bucket of hay.

Neither of us had great hopes for its survival. Although we couldn’t see any obvious wounds, it was covered in fly eggs (plus a couple of ticks), lethargic, and small; we hoped it was just cold, hungry, thirsty and disoriented rather than sick. We knew from experience, (having found a young hog of similar size but in even poorer condition a couple of years ago), that our local vet couldn’t do anything for it. Luckily, as we have resident hedgehogs in the garden which we house and feed year-round, we were reasonably well-equipped to try some DIY; so rather than risk Hoggie dying before we could get it to a sanctuary, I Googled ‘remove fly eggs from’ and ‘emergency first aid for’ hedgehogs and acted on some refreshingly simple information I found on britishhedgehogs.org.uk.

First I prepared a bed in an old washing up bowl, lined with a warm hot-water bottle wrapped in a tea-towel, topped it with a pad of hay, and laid the patient on it to start slowly raising its body temperature. Then I assembled my instruments: a small artist’s paintbrush, cotton wool swabs, and tweezers and forceps from my old museum conservation toolkit; set up the illuminated magnifying glass Hubcap uses for tying fishing flies; and with some trepidation, set to work. Bar the odd flinch, poor little Hoggie was too exhausted and torpid to protest, which made it relatively easy to spread its bristles and find the disgusting yellowish-white masses of fly eggs laid close to its skin; luckily these stick together and can be extracted in big clumps, (as satisfying as squeezing pimples!), rather than picked out individually, which would have taken all night. As it was, I spent the best part of an hour tweezing out all but a couple of stubborn single eggs adhering to the bristles – by which time I (and probably the hedgehog) had had enough, and I hadn’t yet found, let alone removed, any ticks; but hadn’t seen any fleas either, which was good news.

While I’d been thus occupied, Hubcap had sorted out a recovery ward in a large plastic storage tub lined with newspaper, with a pile of hay and bits of old sheet for bedding, a dish of water, and a dish of Henry Wowler’s chicken-flavour cat-food. In went the hog, on went the lid, and we left it in peace and warmth in front of the stove.

A couple of hours later it started scrabbling around and polished off the cat-food – an encouraging sign. I gave it some more, plus some dry hedgehog kibble. It liked that a lot, proved by the soon-emptied dish. I gave it some more. Meanwhile I’d found lots of excellent advice from Hedgehog Bottom, Berkshire’s Hedgehog Clinic, a voluntary group whose delightfully witty website https://www.hedgehog-rescue.org.uk/ is worth reading purely for information and enjoyment, and resolved to put it into practice ASAP. 

And contrary to our initial gloomy predictions, Hoggie did last the night, alternately stuffing its face then sleeping it off tangled like a teenager in a horrible mess of bedding; and by next morning, curled adorably on its side like a tiny bristly cat, looked bright-eyed and remarkably perky. We duly went straight out to buy pet-safe disinfectant, proper food bowls, a bag of hay, (Hubcap cursing because we’d just had a field full at Beckside, but not foreseeing a need, hadn’t processed any for storage!!) – and lots more hog-food. Then, as recommended by Hedgehog Bottom, while Hubcap did the mucking out I popped Hoggie onto my digital kitchen scales: only353 g, at least 250 g below the minimum for successful hibernation. That answered our first question: yes, we need to keep it indoors and let it pog until it’s practically doubled in weight, when we can move it out to a luxury wooden Hedgehog Hotel, complete with bed compartment and dining area, under our new lean-to in the garden. I also tried to find odd fly eggs (or, God forbid, maggots) and the ticks Hubcap mentioned – but by now the full and feisty Hoggie had enough strength to ball up tightly, contracting its skin and pulling the bristles together wherever I probed. I’ll have to keep trying this every day until, hopefully, it becomes sufficiently accustomed to handling to relax and let me examine and treat it properly. Meanwhile my best hope is that the loosened eggs fell out and were thrown away with the soiled bedding!

Finally, we installed hog-home in the hobby room and put it in as recommended, with chopped-up old fleece and shredded newspaper for nesting. Looking in an hour later, I saw it snugged into a hollow in the hay, sound asleep, breathing deeply – completely transformed from yesterday’s limp scrap into a warm, fed, watered and healthy-looking (if no doubt highly bewildered) little creature. It was a joy to see, especially knowing that Hoggie would surely have died in this big, cold, wet storm if Hubcap hadn’t found it; and even if it doesn’t survive till next spring, we’ll have the consolation of knowing that its days ended in comfort and safety.

But so far, so good – a cycle of eating, sleeping and evacuation has been established, with an immediate and very noticeable improvement in Hoggie’s energy and appearance, (needless to say, if we’d seen any sign of disease, like crying or wheezing, we’d have taken it to the nearest hedgehog specialist). Hopefully this regime of warmth, restricted movement and plentiful food will allow it to gain up to 10 g per day (indicative of good health) – in which case it could be outside in the Hotel by November, with a chance to hibernate naturally, find food nearby if it wakes, and be restored to Beckside next spring to help raise a new generation of these delightful creatures.

In short: if you find an ailing hedgehog, don’t panic! Look up and apply the emergency first-aid procedures, they’re quite simple. Then if you can’t provide the requisite ongoing care, contact the RSPCA or your local hog sanctuary – because every one matters, now more than ever, and we need to save their precious little lives wherever possible.