The Big Sleep of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle
Autumn is a time of great change for our wildlife. Days get short, nights get long, leaves turn from green to orange and the cold sweeps through the country. For most, this means a simple change in routine. Wake later, forage faster. For our hedgehogs however, these changes herald a battle for survival. Hibernation takes place once a year, every year. Mammals and some insects lower their metabolism, heart rate and breathing rate in order to survive through winter without having to eat or drink. It’s an extreme case of something known as torpor, a lowering of the metabolic rate that has been found in lots of mammals. In hedgehogs, hibernation generally lasts from around early November until the following April. This is obviously quite a long time to go without eating, drinking or defecating, and they do on occasion wake up, carry out these necessities and get straight back off to “sleep” again.
Many species hibernate because they can’t survive extreme cold, or because their food source isn’t available in winter. Hedgehogs fall into the latter camp. Hogs eat insects and other bugs, including worms, but these can be tricky to find when it’s chilly. By hibernating through the coldest part of the year they avoid the inevitable starvation they would face if awake. In mild years with lots of food they may not hibernate at all; climate change could have a real impact on hedgehog hibernation!
When preparing for winter, hogs try and build their body fat as much as they can. If an animal is too thin it may not survive the hibernation process. For a hedgehog, the minimum recommended hibernation weight (the weight that rescue centres deem an animal fit for pre-winter release) is 600g. Unfortunately, reaching this weight can be an issue. The adorable little porkers breed twice a year, their second litter entering the world in autumn. These young ones often struggle to reach 400g, let alone 600g, and winter hedgehog casualties can be huge. Supplementary feeding of garden hedgehogs and providing hog homes are great ways of helping to increase hedgehog survival. Rescue centres are often overloaded with young, underweight hedgehogs, who are fed up over winter and released in spring.
Sadly, rescue centres are sometimes so full that they can take no more, and supplementary feeding isn’t always enough. If you find a small hedgehog around this time and your local rescue centre has no room for him then you can help him, if needed, by keeping him warm for winter. You can take the hedgehog into your shed (or even your home if you like…I warn you that they smell), put him in a box lined with newspaper and hay and feed him up with catfood (chicken flavour works best, do not use fish). If, by November, your guest has reached 600g then you can release him, safe in the knowledge that his survival is all but guaranteed. If not, as when I rescued a hedgehog a few years back, you can keep the hog in the box until spring as long as you provide fresh food, clean bedding and plenty of water. Just don’t be surprised if he doesn’t stick around once released!
I’m not imploring you all to go out and adopt hedgehogs for winter. They are wild animals and shouldn’t be kept in boxes in our sheds if it can be avoided. That being said, hedgehogs are an endangered species and helping them through winter is one way to aid the conservation of the species! If you do take a hog in for winter read the information available online or ring your local rescue centre and ask for their advice. In hog-related emergencies, contact Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital: 01844 292292
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