Visiting a hedgehog hospital
We’re taking a stroll into the garden, where if you’re quiet enough, and lucky enough, you might get to see a hedgehog worming its way through the undergrowth. Once a familiar sight in British gardens, these animals are sadly disappearing. But some places are working to help out our spiny friends. Adam Murphy made the trip Shepreth Wildlife Conservation Charity to chat to Welfare Officer Alex Masterman about their hedgehog hospital...
Adam - Hedgehogs, the spiky little mammals that like to roam around our gardens snuffling out insects. They like hedges and they have little pig like snouts, hence... hedgehog. They're adorable little things that mean none of us any harm. Sadly, hedgehogs are in decline. Their habitats are getting walled off into gardens, and they often fall victim to parasites and strimmers. One place helping them out is the Shepreth Wildlife Conservation charity Hedgehog Hospital here in Cambridgeshire. I spoke with Alex Masterman, welfare officer at the charity who first of all showed me one of their adorable little patients...
Alex - So this is Rosemary.
Adam - So what's wrong with Rosemary; what happened?
Alex - I'll have a little look at her chart and I can tell you. Yeah, so Rosemary was out during the day several times so she was brought in. They thought she might be quite old and she had fleas and she was quite lethargic. And then when we checked her she had capalarya and crenosoma, so lungworm and roundworm, things like that. She was about 500g when she came in and she is now much bigger than that, she's now in the 1200g range so she is doing really well. She's actually on our ‘clean shelf’, which means that she is now completely parasite free and were actually looking for a home for her to be released into now.
Adam - And when I was finished fawning over the hedgehog - the first one I'd ever seen in the flesh I'm ashamed to say, I wanted to know how you treat something whose first instinct is to curl into a ball of spikes...
Alex - Some hedgehogs are more prone to curling up than others, especially our older ones, if you pick them up sometimes they won’t curl. Rosemary is doing quite a good job of when you pick her up she will. One of the ways we can kind of see underneath them so for like our general first-aid when they come in, we want to make sure there's no cuts or injuries underneath is if you sort of wheelbarrow them like that, their instinct it's sort of put their feet down and that will make them uncurl.
Adam - Nearly onto their heads?
Alex - Yeah. That sort of gives an opportunity to look underneath and check their bellies are nice and fluffy and things. Some of them, especially the new young ones when they come in, you’ll put them down and they’ll curl into a ball and they won’t uncurl, and then to get them to do that you can just tickle their back here and if you sort of lightly brush the spines they will slowly curl. No idea why!
In terms of the medication we give here, it all goes into the skin, none into the veins or the muscles, and for that we actually like them to be curled up into a ball. What we do is we put them on their back and there's a ring of muscle around the front and that's how they curl up. If you just take some of the spines around the edge and gently pull out, and what that does is exposes some of the skin - tense it - so then we can get the needle and put it in parallel to the body and just get it under the skin.
Adam - What kinds of things are their pokey patients treated for here?
Alex - I'd say the majority is parasite burdens. Things like lungworm and B. Erin and the stuff can make them unwell. Ringworm as well which causes them to lose a lot of their spines and fur and obviously, that's no good because they lose their main defence mechanism. We also do get injuries - a common one is strimmer victims. Early in the season, we have one at the moment that, luckily, just avoided a strimmer and has just had some of her spines taken off. All sorts we get ones coming in with missing limbs; ones that are blind. I'd say that the majority is definitely parasite burdens.
Adam - But what is the state of hedgehog kind? Why is a hospital like this necessary?
Alex - So, hedgehogs in the UK are actually on the same decline as tigers. They are really struggling and experts reckon that in the next 10/15 years we could no longer have hedgehogs in the UK, and that's largely because of population loss and fragmentation. A lot of people close off their gardens and obviously there's new roads being built and things like that, and it just means that hedgehogs can't move freely and breed. As well as that people think they are vermin and pests and they’re really not, they’re actually very useful for us in our gardens because they obviously keep down insects and things like that.
Adam - What can we do to help them? If we wanted to make it easier for hedgehogs what's the best thing to do?
Alex - One of the easiest things you can do to just create 'hedgehog highways' in your garden. So making holes in your fence just to allow hedgehogs to pass through and that just makes it a lot easier for them to move about. Also putting out food and water, so hedgehogs will eat cat and dog food, wet and dry, as long as it's not gravy or fish based because that can give them an upset stomach. But especially at this time of year when they're waking up from hibernation they can often be dehydrated and really appreciate some food and water.
Adam - And when the inpatients are ready to become outpatients, how do you put a hedgehog back into the wild?
Alex - We have people on record that are release sites. So when we have one that's ready, we always try to get them back to or as close to where they come from as possible. So when someone brings in a hedgehog we will try and talk to them about being a release site, if not, we will find someone in the same area or the same postcode. And then we do what we called a 'soft release'. The hedgehogs go into like a rabbit pen for a few days and get fed in that garden and then after no more than six days, they get let out and people often still feed them. They're really good just getting back into the wild, they don't tend to have any issues at all.