Autumn in France: How to help hedgehogs as winter approaches
Human activity and climate change have made autumn increasingly difficult for vulnerable hedgehogs. Here are five tips for how to help them - and what to do if you find one
Hedgehogs are preparing for winter and need to eat a lot of insects and slugs to fatten up for hibernation. You can help them survive Pic: Coatesy / Shutterstock
People living in France are being encouraged to help hedgehogs to get ready for hibernation as the vulnerable animals work to achieve a minimum weight before winter.
Hedgehogs are insect-eaters and come out at night to search for insects and slugs. But with the expansion of cities and roads, the massive use of pesticides and the transformation of their natural habitat, hedgehogs are becoming increasingly rare.
Every year, between 700,000 and one million hedgehogs are killed by road traffic, according to animal welfare organisations. Their life expectancy has been reduced from 10 to 2 years.
As a result, in the past 20 years, over two thirds (70%) of hedgehogs have disappeared in France claims Philippe Jourde, a naturalist in the Natural Heritage Study Department for the Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux (LPO)
But if you have a garden, or regularly walk in the countryside, you can help them to get ready for the colder months, and make sure they are not in danger.
Here are some tips, compiled by regional newspaper Ouest France.
1. Help them reach a minimum hibernation weight
Climate change has meant that the seasons are not as predictable as before, causing confusion among hedgehogs. This has led to a higher risk of hedgehog mothers breastfeeding late and not being able to put on enough weight for winter.
If you find a hedgehog that seems too slight, you are advised to weigh it on your kitchen scales.
Josianne Sauvage-Hanib, volunteer and manager at bird and animal protection group La Ligue de Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) Bretagne said: “If it weighs less than 700 grams, that won’t be enough to hold out over winter. It is in danger.”
If you find an underweight hedgehog, you are advised to keep it in a cardboard box with a hot water bottle wrapped in a sheet or towel, and contact an animal association (see below).
2. Check their overall health
If you find a hedgehog in the daytime, that may in itself be cause for concern, Ms Sauvage-Hanib advises.
If the hedgehog seems to be a baby on its own, then immediately take it inside and call an association. If it seems to be a young adult or an adult, you can do a quick health check.
“Check if it’s injured; if it rolls up into a ball as it should, when you try to touch it; or if it has signs of flea eggs (which develop in its skin and can kill it) between its spines.”
If you find any eggs, remove them with a toothbrush, and then call an association for advice.
3. Open a hedgehog canteen
Hedgehogs typically hibernate from mid-November to March or April, depending on the temperatures. Beforehand, they will try to eat as many insects, slugs and snails as possible, to build as much fat as they can before they hibernate.
During hibernation, “their body temperatures will drop from 35C to 5C, so they expend the least energy possible”, explains Ms Sauvage-Hanib.
As temperatures drop, there are usually fewer insects so you can help hedgehogs with extra food.
Ms Sauvage-Hanib explains: “If you live in the countryside or have green areas around you, you probably have hedgehogs in the area.”
She recommends leaving a shallow bowl of water in a corner, and “another small bowl with some cat or kitten food” nearby (but never leave bread or milk, as these are toxic for hedgehogs).
You can buy ‘hedgehog houses’ online or, if handy with woodwork, make one
You can go further to create a three-star culinary hedgehog experience. Place a small wooden box or ‘house’ in your garden, with a roof, an entryway and a ‘chicane’ or pathway inside it, to prevent cats and predators from entering. Inside, place a small bowl of kitten food.
You can put a shallow bowl of water outside, too.
“If you do that for a few days running, they will get into the habit of coming over. You can do the same thing in spring, because when they come out of hibernation they are exhausted, and will have lost 30% of their bodyweight.”
4. Help them make their nest
Human activity has made it more difficult for hedgehogs to gather all the materials they need to build their hibernation nests.
As a result, you can help make it easier for them, by “leaving a small corner of your garden with grass, brambles, nettles, and a little pile of branches and leaves”, says Ms Sauvage-Hanib. Clearing everything away makes it harder for them to find what they need.
She explains: “They are very opportunistic animals. A piece of wood at a 45-degree angle against a wall, a bit of garden tarpaulin, or a garden shed - all these things will help them take shelter.”
5. Alert animal associations if necessary
Each region of France has animal associations that you can call if you need advice or want to signal a hedgehog in danger.
In Brittany, you can contact the hedgehog website herisson.bzh, and nationwide you can contact the LPO. A map of the regional LPO offices can be seen on their website here, and contact details for the national office are here.
The LPO also has a page with more advice on what to do if you find a bird or small mammal in distress.
You can also contact France Nature Environnement if you find a hedgehog in trouble, or even if you wish to simply report a regular sighting, a nest, or even sadly a dead hedgehog (as this also helps the association with its work).
It is illegal to keep a wild animal in your home for long periods of time, even if you are taking care of it. You are advised to keep a hedgehog in a box only for as long as you need to contact an association, and if necessary, to hand it over to them for care.