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Love-making jokes apart, hedgehogs are important contributors to ecological balance in the wild much as in British gardens, says PETER FROST

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How do hedgehogs make love? “Very carefully,” says the ancient joke. But the present day predicament of our loveable garden hedgehog is no joke at all. Some hedgehog experts are predicting that unless we take urgent action our native hedgehog may well be extinct in Britain within 15 years.

So why are hedgehogs declining so fast? The reasons are complex. Likely factors are the loss of hedgerows and a reduction in the quantity and quality of hedgerow habitat.

Farm fields get ever larger and the use of herbicides and pesticides both on farms and in our gardens threaten the hedgehog. Domestic slug pellets are a particular hazard.

Foxes and badgers are natural predators of hedgehogs so they actively avoid sites where badgers are present.

Urban and suburban areas are increasingly important for hedgehogs but the move towards tidy, sterile gardens has also contributed to their demise.

All those TV gardening programmes that used to dominate our screens before bake-offs arrived, covered our gardens with decking while secure fences replaced unfashionable hedges.

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Because hedgehogs like to forage for quite long distances between many gardens and hide in long untidy grass and shrubberies these new look gardens are very unfriendly to them.

Hedgehogs don’t like tidy gardens with paving, gravel and decking. They much prefer thickly planted borders, shrubs, groundcover plants and areas of undergrowth.

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Strimmers and lawnmowers can seriously injure or even cause the death of hedgehogs that are often found hiding in long grass. Garden netting can also trap hedgehogs.

Rubbish and litter pose even more dangers to curious and hungry hedgehogs. They get their heads trapped in yoghurt cartons or tin cans. The plastic rings from packs of beer cans are also known to entangle.

Recently hedgehog campaigners have persuaded KFC to change the lids of some ice-creams and shakes to make them less likely to trap and kill hedgehogs.

Some animals fall into uncovered drains and become trapped and die and even more are burnt to death after crawling into a pile of wood that is intended as a bonfire so always check your pile before you are ready to set fire to it.

The hedgehog, one of the world’s oldest and most primitive family of mammals, got its name because of its noisy feeding habits.

They root through hedges and other undergrowth in search of insects, slugs, snails, worms, centipedes even mice, frogs, and snakes. As they move through the hedges they grunt like a pig — hence hedgehog.

They are nocturnal, coming out at night and spending the day sleeping in a nest under bushes or thick shrubs.

Today you can buy or make a hedgehog house for your garden to offer better protection.

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Their coats are thick and spiny, for defence against predators. When they feel alarmed or intimidated, they will curl up into a spiny ball to protect their vulnerable stomach. Sadly, this defence mechanism is useless against a motor car and many are killed on the road.

A single animal will have 5,000 spines and up to 500 fleas. Each spine lasts about a year then drops out and a replacement grows. Spines are hollow and springy and can be erected for defence. Hedgehog fleas rarely bite humans.

While hunting for food, they rely primarily upon hearing and smell because their eyesight is poor. A long extending snout helps them forage for food.

The diet of a hedgehog makes it a gardener’s friend. It eats all sorts of garden pests such as weevils, slugs and snails, but if you want to feed yours use dog or cat food not the oft recommended bread and milk.

Hedgehogs are usually solitary, pairing up only to mate. When they mate they often make a lot of noise.

The male circles the female, sometimes for hours, to persuade her to mate. After the careful copulation the male takes no part in rearing the family.

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From one to 11 cute, blind baby hedgehogs with soft spines are born after 32 days. The young are suckled by their mother until they are able to hunt for themselves.

They remain with their mothers for only four to seven weeks before heading out on their own. After about four weeks, the mother will take the young out on their first foraging trip and after ten more days the young are on their own.

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Mothers must guard against male hedgehogs, which will sometimes eat the young. Hedgehog mothers too have also been known to eat their young but usually only if the nest is disturbed.

Hedgehogs in Britain hibernate throughout winter. They feed as much as possible during the autumn and in around October look for a suitable home to build a nest of leaves and grass in which to hibernate.

There are many ways of making your garden more wildlife friendly and many ways of encouraging hedgehogs and if we all do our bit we can surely save one of our most fascinating mammals from the edge of extinction.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 29 May 2015

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