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September 2012

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Time for Bed

This is the time of year when you're most likely to see a hedgehog in your garden. Hedgehogs are the only Irish mammals, apart from bats, that go into full hibernation. This usually starts in October, sometimes early November in a mild autumn. Before they hibernate, it is crucial that they build up reserves of body fat. An individual going into hibernation weighing less than 450 grams is unlikely to survive through to spring.     

They are usually nocturnal animals but at this time of year the drive to get extra food forces them to forage in the daylight, after dawn and before dusk, which is why you are more likely to see them in the garden. The way a hedgehog feeds is to go for a long ramble, gobbling up everything edible it encounters on the way. At this time of year it may well cover three kilometres in a night, so in suburban areas it is going to visit a lot of gardens, as well as parks and green spaces. They can make quite a lot of noise as they trundle along through the undergrowth and on still evenings you'll often hear them before you see them. If they are feeding on snails the crunching of shells and smacking of lips is particularly loud.

Most of their food is made up of invertebrates - beetles, earthworms, slugs and snails, earwigs, wood lice and millipedes. But they sometimes eat carrion, and mice if they can catch them, bird's eggs and even windfall fruit in orchards. When I was young we used to put out saucers of bread and milk to feed them, which was usually eaten by some stray cat. But apparently this is bad for the hedgehog's digestive system and you should use tinned cat food - although this will be even more attractive to stray cats.

But because they forage on the move, you won't be able to confine them to your garden just by leaving out plenty of food. A better way to attract them is to provide suitable nest sites. During the months when they are active hedgehogs sleep during the day in nests made of grass and dry leaves in dense vegetation or piles of dry brushwood. Around where I live I've found they have a preference for the base of thick furze bushes. They may have several of these nests in their foraging range and, as dawn approaches, they just curl up in the nearest one.

Their hibernation nests are somewhat more elaborate and better insulated. They like to make them in piles of brushwood but I've known of ones under garden sheds or in compost heaps, which even in winter tend to generate a small amount of heat. Again, they tend to make more than one nest. They wake several times during the winter and during a cold spell they may add extra insulating material or even move to another nest before relapsing into a coma. Ireland is at the extreme northern edge of the hedgehog's international range and they were probably introduced into this country by the Normans or the Vikings as food animals. This far north hibernation is a marginal thing for them and the population crashes after a long, hard winter.

They're charming animals and extremely good at controlling garden pests. So if you have seen one in your garden you may like to encourage its presence by providing a nest site. A cubic metre of brushwood and sticks in a quiet corner with some dry grasses, leaves and moss that it can use to construct a warm and soft nest may well tempt it to take up residence.

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