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Hedgehog in autumn leaves. Photo Tom MarshallHedgehog in autumn leaves - Photo Tom Marshall

By Sarah J. Dodd

Many species of British wildlife are seen more rarely during the winter months, but there are only three that truly hibernate: the bat, the dormouse and the hedgehog.

Larger insectivores, such as badgers and moles, stay underground and dig deep for earthworms or – in the case of moles – prepare a larder of paralysed worms in case of shortages.

The hedgehog is relatively large but cannot dig down into the frozen ground. As the temperatures plummet and it needs more food to survive, the supply of that food dwindles almost to nothing.

If the hedgehog is to survive the winter, it has no choice but to hibernate. This is more than just a deep winter sleep. A hibernating hedgehog will appear dead, being cold to the touch and mostly unresponsive. However, a sudden sound or unexpected touch will cause a reflex action and the hedgehog will instinctively curl into a tighter ball.

The drop in body temperature to just 10˚C would kill most animals (although the tissues around the heart are kept warm). However, the low temperature means that fat reserves are used up much less quickly, enabling the hedgehog to emerge in the spring undeniably thinner, but alive.

The hedgehogs that may need human assistance are the autumn juveniles – those young hedgehogs that have not reached sufficient weight to hibernate. If they try, then they will almost certainly die. So they need to struggle on through the winter, trying to find enough food to survive.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends that you keep a close eye on any hedgehog visitors to your garden. Meat based dog or cat food may be given, mixed with a little non-sugary cereal such as Weetabix to add bulk. Meat based cat biscuits are good for their teeth, though a dish of water must be provided (and kept ice-free).

Hedgehogs that seem inactive, or behave in unusual ways (such as being out during the day) need help. Contact your local wildlife rescue centre or carer for advice.

It's Wild About Gardens week 26 October - 1 November 2015. Find out how to help hedgehogs in your garden