Hedgehogs are one of the cutest and most iconic critters found in British wildlife, but you may have noticed that catching a glimpse of them in our gardens has become a pretty rare occurrence.
Sadly, hedgehogs have been declining in the UK over the last decade and are now considered vulnerable to extinction. This is down to a range of factors and generally speaking, when it comes to wildlife, humans are advised to have a hands-off approach. That said, when it comes to hedgehogs, there is one rule that can be broken.
If you are as fond of hedgehogs as we are, then building them a little house is one of the best ways to give these adorable creatures a much-needed helping hand. While you can buy pre-made hedgehog houses at lots of shops and garden centres, making your own is easy, inexpensive and fun, and can really make a difference to these spiky fellows’ lives.
For those who don’t have the time or materials to build their own hedgehog house, you can also see our five best hedgehog houses rated here.
What are hedgehogs?
Hedgehogs are small mammals belonging to the Erinaceidae family that are easily identified by their coned, pointed faces, stubby legs and porcupine-like quills. In spite of their similarity, hedgehogs are not closely related to porcupines and in fact, share a distant ancestry with shrews and have not changed much evolution-wise for over 15 million years.
Where porcupines easily shed their spines, hedgehogs do not. Hedgehogs have some 6000 quills which are made of keratin, making them similar in composition to humans nails.
When threatened, hedgehogs roll themselves into a tight ball so their spines completely cover their soft underbellies, making it extremely difficult for predators to uncurl them and harm them. Contrary to popular myth, hedgehogs must stay still to maintain their ball shape and cannot roll away from predators.
Hedgehogs usually make their homes from burrowing into the ground, making their nests from leaves and other vegetation. However, hedgehogs are also known to take over other animals homes which is why a human-made hedgehog house can be very attractive to them.
Hedgehogs are solitary animals and are big on sleeping, preferring to sleep for up to 18 hours a day. Being nocturnal, they sleep throughout the day and only venture out after dark which is another reason we don’t see them too often.
Sleep is also a form of protection for hedgehogs; they will hibernate through cold seasons as well as hot droughts if they live in deserts.
Hedgehogs are poorly sighted and use their sense of smell and hearing to help them find food. Hedgehogs were named as such because they root around under hedges looking for food, snorting like a hog.
They’re omnivorous and have a diverse diet which includes fruit, fungi, insects, slugs, snails, worms, centipedes, frogs, toads, bird eggs, berries, reptiles and snakes. And they’re hungry, too! A hedgehog can eat up to one-third of its body weight in one night.
These shy and reclusive creatures only give birth once a year after a gestation period of around six weeks, producing litters of four to seven young, which are called hoglets or piglets. It is imperative not to disturb hedgehog mothers as if they feel under threat they will often eat their young.
After four to seven weeks, the hoglets are ready to leave the nest and fend for themselves. At nine to eleven months, they reach full adulthood and generally live from three to eight years in the wild.
Why are hedgehogs in decline?
Sadly we are seeing a steep decline in hedgehogs in the UK, and this is thought to be down to a range of factors including:
- An increase in badgers – badgers are the only predators that are able to unroll hedgehogs, and since the 1980s their numbers have increased by more than 85%.
- Agricultural intensification – modern farming accounts for the loss of many hedgerows as farmers expand their land, meaning that hedgehogs have fewer places to find food. The use of chemicals also reduces the number of insects and bugs, leaving hedgehogs with less food available.
- More roads and more traffic – One of the highest causes of mortality for hedgehogs are collisions with vehicles. New roads can also act as barriers, leaving hedgehogs stranded in smaller areas where there is less food, lowering their chance of survival.
- Climate change – With winters becoming warmer, hedgehogs are prone to come out of hibernation far too early when there is still precious little food available to them. Likewise, with the climate changing in summer, many hedgehogs are unable to build up enough fat reserves to get them through hibernation. We are also seeing increased flooding in the UK, which can pose a huge risk to hibernating and nesting hedgehogs.
Why are hedgehogs so important?
Hedgehogs are a true friend of gardeners as they love to dine out on pests we hate such as slugs, snails and harmful insects. But hedgehogs serve another important role – they’re considered an indicator species for the health of the natural world. Hedgehogs feed on soil invertebrates, so a decline in hedgehogs suggests a decline in the quality of their environment.
Another benefit of encouraging hedgehogs into the garden is that they provide an excellent opportunity for both adults and children to learn about the natural world around them. Hedgehogs lead a fascinating life, and having a hedgehog that visits your garden frequently is a wonderful way to learn about them and how they behave in the wild.
An extra special bonus is that studies show that having a frequent and long-lasting connection with nature has magnificent benefits for our mental health. An American author, Richard Louv, identified a condition called “nature-deficit disorder”, which he claims many of us are prone to in the modern world. Making a hedgehog house and inviting these shy animals into our garden is a great way to get a much-needed dose of nature which has been proven to have many positive effects on our minds and emotional well-being.
What is a hedgehog house?
Now you know the low down on hedgehogs you are probably eager to start encouraging them to visit and a hedgehog house is the perfect way to do this.
Hedgehog houses provide a safe, warm habitat for hedgehogs to nest and hibernate throughout the year. They are designed to allow hedgehogs to enter and exit easily, whilst preventing larger predators like cats, foxes and badgers, from getting to them.
Hedgehog houses are easy to build and are a fun activity for the whole family and a perfect opportunity to immerse yourselves in nature.
How to build a hedgehog house
By now, you must be pretty set on making your very own hedgehog house so you can enjoy the company of these sweet, spiny animals.
We’ve put together a step by step guide to help you build a basic hedgehog house but keep in mind that your hedgehog house can be as simple or sensational as you want, so don’t be afraid to get crafty and creative!
- A large wooden crate
- Untreated timber (15cm by 2cm and 1.2m long) – try being eco friendly by upcycling or choosing wood from a sustainable source.
- A handful of 25mm nails
- Hosepipe (cut to 1m in length)
- A jigsaw
- A hammer
- A drill with a 25mm bit
The first step is to make the tunnel that the hedgehog will use as an entrance and exit to the house. Using the jigsaw, cut your length of timber into 300mm sections. Using a hammer, nail the pieces of wood together lengthways, forming a tunnel.
Set the tunnel aside and grab the wooden crate. Mark out a hole that’s about 150mm by 100mm, then use the jigsaw to cut it out.
Now, you want to join the tunnel to the hole. This will be the hedgehog’s front door, so make sure no sharp nails are sticking out.
This step is the most important. Using the drill to make a hole for the hosepipe. It should be a snug fit, and the hole should be resting on the ground outside to allow for only air to get in but not rain. This will help keep the hedgehog house ventilated without the risk of flooding it.
Finally, you can place the top back on the crate but be sure not to nail it shut. Every year or two, you will need to remove the lid and give the house a bit of a tidy. We recommend doing this in October before the hogs begin hibernating.
Where to put a hedgehog house
Once you have built the perfect new house for your hedgehog friends, it’s vital that you choose the perfect place for it. Placing your hedgehog house in an unsuitable environment will mean it will quite likely go unused.
Hogs of the hedges tend to move in linear directions, along hedgerows, fences and walls, so you will want to put their new home in a corner of your garden where these curious creatures are likely to come across it.
The most successful home will have the following features:
- It will be somewhere calm and quiet.
- It will be out of direct sunlight.
- It will be sheltered from the wind and other harsh elements.
- It will have no obstructions to its entrance or hosepipe, ensuring adequate ventilation.
- It will have a pool and a mini BBQ set….. Just kidding!!
How else can I help hedgehogs?
Now that you’ve set up your hedgehog house, or mansion depending on how creative you were feeling, you may also be wondering about what else you can do in your garden to help your new neighbours out.
Here are a few of the things you can do to make your garden more welcoming to your spiky guests:
Plant a tree
Planting an oak, beech, hornbeam or lime tree can provide the perfect sized leaves for hedgehogs to build their nests for their winter hibernation.
Make your garden more accessible
Cutting 13cm by 13cm holes, or placing little tunnels at the base of your garden fences can make your gardens much more accessible for hedgehogs. Make sure the holes are tunnels are too small for pets but big enough for a grateful, well-fed hog to crawl through.
Wine and dine your guests
Okay, obviously don’t provide wine for your hedgehog guests, but providing supplementary food and water can be life-saving for these little guys.
You can buy specific hedgehog food or use meat-based cat or dog food put down for them. Cat biscuits also go down a treat!
Hedgehogs should be hibernating between November and March so if you spot one out and about then leaving out some food when invertebrate prey is scarce, can be a real game-changer.
Putting out some water during hot and dry periods will also be very well received.
Become a hedgehog rescuer
If you find a hedgehog that is underweight, sick, injured or orphaned, then we strongly recommend taking them to your closest hedgehog hospital or vets.
You can place the hedgehog in a box or cat carrier with a towel that it can hide under and take them in for some specialist care.
If you find the animal in distress and aren’t sure what to do then contact the British Hedgehog Society or call them on 01584 890801.
Help bring the hogs back to the hedges
Building a hedgehog house is a fun and easy way to help support hedgehog numbers in your local area. Hedgehogs dwell not just in the country but in cities too so wherever you live you can be active in making a difference to their endangered lives.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and build yourself your very own hedgehog house and enjoy the benefits that come with welcoming these humble hogs to your garden.