Keeping an eye out for Chiswick’s hedgehogs

Have you seen any hedgehogs recently in Chiswick? Well if you have, Joanne Gilbert wants to know. Jo is an animal welfare enthusiast who has a keen interest in human/animal interaction. She used to work in a wildlife rescue centre and has taken up the cause of protecting Chiswick’s endangered hedgehog population.

Everyone knows what a hedgehog looks like. A hedgehog’s back and sides are covered in 25mm long spines (which are really modified hairs). The face, chest, belly, throat and legs are covered with a coarse, grey-brown fur. Hedgehogs also have a little tail, which can be hidden from sight.

But do you know how common a sight they are in Chsiwick?

Jo is reaching out to Chiswick residents to find where hedgehogs have been spotted in the local area. In order to get a rough idea of where they might be, she has been taking down the name of the road where someone has spotted a hedgehog over the last two years. She then posts a picture on a map of the area, to see where the local hedgehog population is concentrated.

On Thursday 25 February, Jo chaired a Zoom meeting with local residents to listen to a talk by hedgehog enthusiast Hugh Warwick. Hugh is an ecologist, writer and the spokesperson of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, he has been working with hedgehogs since the mid 1980s.

With the help of Hugh and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Jo hopes to rally Chiswick’s hedgehog lovers in an effort to make the area more hedgehog-friendly. She also hopes to raise awareness for an endangered species directly affected by London’s fragmented urban landscape.

Images above: Joanne Gilbert’s hedgehog map as of February 2021, a native hedgehog – (Ali Taylor – Peoples Trust for Endangered Species)

Why hedgehogs?

“Everybody loves a hedgehog don’t they?” Jo told The Chiswick Calendar.

“They’re lovely, enigmatic little creatures. Last year, although we knew they were in decline, they’ve been put on the mammal red list in Britain which basically means they’re vulnerable to extinction. So they need a little more help and love from us to help them flourish and survive.

“I knew there had to be some around Chiswick, so I spoke to Hugh Warwick to organise a meeting of the Hedgehog Preservation Society to see how we could help hedgehogs around Chiswick.

“Really it’s to start off by bringing some awareness to the problems facing hedgehogs at the moment and why they’re in decline.”

“I thought it would be nice know where we had hedgehogs to start off with. I had an idea where they might be, such as large green spaces like Chiswick House & Gardens. It was no surprise that there’s a lot in the Grove Park area. I haven’t yet had any sightings elsewhere, but that is something I’m hoping to encourage.”

Images above: a hedgehog at night, a hedgehog amongst leaves (Ali Taylor: People’s Trust for Endangered Species), Jo Gilbert’s hedgehog map of Chiswick as of February 2021

Hedgehog populations rapidly declining since 2000

Every three years, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society release a report on the state of the hedgehog population in the UK. The reports, the most recent being released in 2018, are culminations background research which monitors how populations of the hedgehog change.

“I’m imagining, most of you are seeing fewer hedgehogs than you did when you were children. This is a general thing we’re seeing around the country” said Hugh during Thursday’s meeting.

“Since the year 2000, the urban population of hedgehogs has declined by almost 30% and rural hedgehogs are down by almost 50%. There’s some good news in those figures, urban population decline has levelled off since our 2015 survey. But it’s still 30% fewer hedgehogs than there were in the year 2000 and the rural population is still in free fall.”

Hugh says, after having spoke to various elderly people at talks across the country, there’s a “genuine sense” that back mid 20th century, more people were seeing hedgehogs on a regular basis.

“Hedgehogs may not be extinct in 10 years time, but if we don’t act there will be far fewer of them. If we act, we can make a difference.”

Images above: Hugh Warwick with a hedgehog in the 1980s, Hugh Warwick with a hedgehog recently

Why populations are declining… and hedgehog hazards

There are various reasons why hedgehog populations have been declining over the years, the main reason is fragmentation of the animal’s natural habitat. Fences and roads prevent the hedgehog from venturing as far as they might want to.

“Hedgehogs also like wild areas and sometimes we tend to keep our gardens a little bit too clean and tidy so it might be nice to leave some wild areas, maybe the odd leaf or log pile here and there” said Jo.

Pesticides, such as slug pellets, are also a problem. Not only can these harm hedgehogs but also damage their food chain. 

Hedgehogs can can get trapped in or injured by discarded litter. Elastic bands are a common enemy, it’s thought that postal workers alone get through two million elastic bands per day.

Hedgehogs are great swimmers, but if they fall into a man-made pond with sheer sides and no exit, they will eventually become exhausted and drown.

“The main thing though is fragmentation and the destruction of their natural habitats” said Jo.

Images above: Hugh Warwick drilling a hole into his garden wall, stone steps to bridge the relief between two neighbouring gardens, a hedgehog highway tunnel in a wire fence, a hedgehog highway sign available at: PTES (Photos: Hugh Warwick & PTES)

How to help

There are few things which can be done to aid the hedgehog in traversing the fragmented urban environment of Chiswick. ‘Hedgehog highways’ are one of the more popular solutions to connect dispersed hedgehog populations.

The Hedgehog Highways scheme was started jointly by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. It encourages people to put 13x13cm holes in their garden fences, at ground level, to let hedgehogs pass through gardens unrestricted.

“When hedgehogs are active at night they can travel up to a mile. So, if you can increase where they are able to wander to and also make it a little bit safer, rather than them wandering around on roads, then that’s really helpful for them” Jo added.

“Another thing which is encouraged is to feed them, It’s important to feed them the food, and it’s supplemental.”

Some people believe that hedgehogs are vegetarians or that they drink milk, neither of which is true. Hedgehogs are predators and feed mainly on insects like beetles, earthworms, caterpillars and slugs. They’re also lactose intolerant, so leaving out a small bowl of milk would make them sick.

“Maybe some meaty cat food or cat biscuits and a bowl of water. Another reason for the leaf and log piles or maybe a little compost heap in your garden is that you also want to encourage the little beasties that the hedgehogs eat naturally.”

If you have a garden pond, it’s best to invest in a small ramp or build a sandy bank in the pond so hedgehogs will be able to escape if they end up falling in.

Images above: Hugh Warwick drills a hedgehog highway in his garden wall, Jo Gilbert, a tell tale sign your hedgehog assisting efforts have paid off 

Community spirit

Over forty people, mostly from Chiswick, joined Thursday’s meeting of the Hedgehog Preservation Society. Jo was pleased with the turnout and hopes this marks the beginning of a broader movement of hedgehog lovers in Chiswick.

“The way forward is to get a little bit of community spirit going. Get people to start putting holes in their gardens, make leaf piles for and then we might see sightings in places we haven’t had sightings before and find out where else they might be” Jo said.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so spotting them out and about can be difficult. You’ll probably only see one out in the daytime if they’re sick or have suffered an injury. Jo acknowledges this, and says there’s a telltale sign you’ve had a hedgehog visit.

“A good way to identify them is by their poo! Like most animals, once you’ve been shown and taught what a hedgehog poo looks like, there’s no mistaking. Another way you could spot them is if you just go rooting around in your garden they might be hibernating somewhere under a leaf pile.

If you have seen a hedgehog wandering around Chiswick recently, get in contact with Jo Gilbert at jo@animalinteractions.com. If you decide to drill hedgehog highway into your fence, make sure to notify your neighbours first.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Spring at Chiswick House

See also: 300 years of Chiswick House Gardens – Part 1: Vision of Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington

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