As swiftly as this year has gone, swiftly comes the time for our hedgehogs to scurry away and find a place to sleep for the winter. Known as hibernation, a Latin term which literally means “to pass the winter”, it is common practice for a number of different mammals to stow away for a cosy nap due to the scarcity of food over the winter months. This behaviour is critical for survival, and during hibernation extraordinary changes occur within the body of hedgehogs: breathing rates slow down, body temperature drops, and metabolic patterns adapt to the colder environment.
This relatively simple coping method allows hedgehogs to just shut down. In the lead up to hibernation, it is essential that hedgehogs fatten up and put as much weight as possible so that over winter there is a large store of energy upon which to call for the body to keep running.
It’s incredible to note that hedgehogs stop being warm blooded creatures, as this state often uses up too much energy. A comfortable surrounding temperature for hedgehogs to hibernate effectively is around 5 degrees, and freezing conditions must be avoided.
Hedgehogs begin their hibernation process in mid-October to mid-November. However, it is entirely possible that some hedgehogs may stay “awake” as late as Christmas should enough food be placed out for them, or if they haven’t managed to accumulate enough fat reserves prior to their usual time of hibernation. You’ll also find that most hedgehogs get up for a few days at a time over the winter period to feed – they do not enter a continuous state of hibernation.
There are a number of ways in which you can help hedgehogs over the winter period, including suitable habitats and homes like the one highlighted below. Also, by having a patch of garden or small area with dense undergrowth and a variety of scattered leaves and lengthy grass, you’ll help them to find comfort.
The most critical thing a hedgehog can do prior to its slumber is create a pool of bodily fat reserves. Not being fussy eaters, hedgehogs can live off a variety of different insects, slugs, mice and even fruit; so, plenty of rich pickings in the average garden. To complement this, however, you can help by putting out either meat-based cat or dog food, or a variety of sunflower hearts and mealworms (dried); and even as a treat, a little bit of cake!. There’s also a range of specially-created hedgehog food from companies like Spike’s, whose choices include dry, meaty and semi-moist food (see below).
Leave out a dish of fresh water for your hogs, and make sure you keep it clean. Importantly, hedgehogs are completely lactose intolerant, so never put out milk, as this will certainly do more harm than good.