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Hedgehogs are at high risk from traffic accidents as well as all the other issues of sharing their world with humans. (Photo from Daily Mail).

Hedgehogs are at high risk from traffic accidents as well as all the other issues of sharing their world with humans. (Photo from Daily Mail).

As it is now officially Spring (stop laughing at the back, there!) woodland creatures are considering waking up from hibernation and poking a sleepy snout into the big wide world.  Most will wonder why they bothered; here in SW Scotland I can see the snow-pack glistening on the raw east wind-swept hills even as I type, and the nice man on the BBC has smilingly assured of us more – lots, LOTS, more – snow to come.  And so the Wood Elves make no apologies for blogging, once again, about some of their most beleaguered cousins, the UK’s resident hedgehog population.

According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, over the past 10 years the UK hedgehog population is disappearing as fast as the world’s tigers.  And surveys suggest that there are now fewer than one million hedgehogs left in the UK, from an estimated 36 million as recently as the 1950s.  So as hedgehogs make a sleepy appearance back into the world of laundering handkerchiefs, pinafores and wine-stained table cloths (apologies to Beatrix Potter!) what can we do to help?

Firstly, hedgehogs are nocturnal creatures and any hedgehog seen out in the day is likely to be sick or injured and in need of medical treatment – the wonderful St Tiggywinkle’s Wildlife Hospital can provide advice and help 24/7/365.  Gardeners can help make gardens a safe haven by avoiding the use of slug pellets, providing compost heaps that aren’t disturbed or emptied until after April, providing escape ramps out of ponds, and creating access holes into gardens which expands the hedgehogs’ habitat for feeding and breeding; there are some good points about hedgehog-friendly gardening in this article by the BBC.  There’s also an excellent article here by Natasha Harper, with information on how best to help injured or abandoned hedgehogs and hoglets if you can’t get to a wildlife hopsital straight away.  And, of course, here in SW Scotland we have the hardworking staff and volunteers of the South of Scotland Wildlife Hospital, who suggest that if you find a baby hedgehog leave it alone if it’s in a nest – mothers will leave their babies for long periods to feed.  But if the baby is in the open, injured, or you have reason to believe the mother will not come back place the hedgehog in a box (with a towel), keep it in a warm quiet place and call the SSPCA.

Sadly, the most sightings of hedgehogs seen hereabouts are the dead ones on the roads, road mortality is a major contributor to decreasing numbers.  The photograph here is of a hedgehog who suffered a broken leg and pelvis as the result of a road traffic accident (from an article in the Daily Mail).  The PTES Hedgehog Awareness Week aims to highlight the problems hedgehogs face in their shared environment with humans, and will run this year 5-11 May 2013, so we’ll be getting in the kitten milk and dog food for our hedgehog ceilidhs that week!

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DSC_0035-001 Whilst Britain’s native squirrel, the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris L.), is in serious decline in England and Wales, figures suggest that in regions of SW Scotland numbers are on the increase.  Scientists now understand that red squirrels, one of our most iconic woodland animals, can survive happily in both deciduous and conifer habitats,  but don’t seem to be able to compete in deciduous woodlands or small and fragmented habitats if there are grey squirrels around (Forest Research; red squirrel).

Management of habitat for red squirrels favours large (200-2000 ha) areas of mixed conifer, with native small-seeded trees such as rowan, willow, birch, alder and ash.  Whilst red squirrels enjoy hazel nuts and acorns (which are actually a bit indigestible because of their high tannin content), these larger seeds are also enjoyed by their grey cousins, and competition for these food sources often results in the reds losing out.  There are now habitat management strategies for woodlands with red squirrel populations.

But red squirrels have also been devastated in recent years by Squirrelpox; a deadly virus carried by grey squirrels, which doesn’t affect non-native greys but is fatal to native reds.  In 2007 the first outbreaks of squirrelpox were found in the Dumfries and Galloway area, thought to have come over the Scottish-English border, and quickly spread throughout the region.  The effect was devastating and huge areas, including Wood Elf Towers, lost their regular garden visitors over the next few years.

Red squirrels love bird food, apparently..... Photo by Mike Hall

Red squirrels love bird food, apparently….. Photo by Mike Hall

But monitoring  disease outbreaks and prompt action has resulted in our local red squirrels making a come back to a bird feeder near you!  Our lovely red squirrels- Cyril and Cyrilina (and perhaps some Cyrilettes in the future!) now enjoy a hearty breakfast at the purpose-made squirrel box (fullof sunflower seeds) whilst also snacking at the bird feeders and even the fat balls too – squirrels are nothing if not eclectic in their choice of ‘menu du jour’!

Meanwhile, research continues to find a vaccine to the Squirrelpox virus.  You can read more about red squirrels in Dumfries and Galloway at www.red-squirrels.org.uk

There’s also a great list of where to spot red squirrels throughout the UK at the Vistwoods website – click on visitwoods.org.uk/en/visit-woods/pages/red-squirrels

Squirrels like peanuts too!  Photo Mike Hall.

Squirrels like peanuts too! Photo Mike Hall.

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How cute is this little fellow?  Photo from the Guardian.

How cute is this little fellow? Photo from the Guardian.

Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) are probably one of the UK’s cutest and most iconic woodland mammals, and often feature in some of our most popular literature – think Mrs Tiggywinkle, or the unfortunate ‘croquet balls’ in Alice in Wonderland.  There’s also A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog, by Hugh Warwick which is a delightful account of the natural history of the hedgehog – although beware, it does contain accounts of hedgehogs as a roadkill delicacy.

There’s a lot of folklore  and myths surrounding the hedgepig too.  Elizabethan farmers thought that hedgehogs suckled the milk from dairy cows, and there was a bounty of 3 pence per hedgehog caught.   The Romans thought that the hedgehog could predict the start of Spring, whilst Asian cultures credited hedgehogs with great wisdom.

Recently there was a huge public outcry surrounding the hunting of hedgehogs in the Hebridean island of the Uists and Benbecula.  Not a native of these islands, hedgehogs were introduced in the seventies to help with slug control in island gardens.  However it was considered that they were a threat to the local ground nesting wader bird populations, whose eggs the hedgehogs were eating.  The resultant cull of the hedgehogs  organised by SNH resulted in some very divided opinions about wildlife management on the islands.

Hedgehogs are known as the ‘Gardener’s friend’ because of their love of slugs which they devour noisily.  They hibernate in dens (‘hibernacula’) between November and March, and appreciate a thick bed of leaves, or a well made twig stack.  However, our UK populations are in decline – numbers are diminishing, it is thought, because of increasing use of slug pellets in gardens, from death on our roads, and from loss of habitat.  You can get more information from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.  And the Woodland Trust has a lovely hedgehog poster,  with loads of facts, at its Nature Detectives site, where there are also loads of great hedgehog themed activities.

There’s also a great hedgehog photo gallery over at the Guardian (from where this photo was copied), and some really gorgeous video at this BBC web site.

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