This is a question that I often see asked; frequently preceded by a comment about how the “asker” hasn’t seen a hedgehog in years. So, how can you encourage hedgehogs to visit and, perhaps, take up residence in, your garden? How can you make your garden hedgehog-friendly?
It’s possible to make or buy some palatial hedgehog houses and some top quality hedgehog food, but really a broader approach is better and you can attract hogs without either of these things; often without any additional cost.
First things first. Are there any hedgehogs in your area? Many people are quick to say there aren’t any hedgehogs around because they never see them, but they’re easily overlooked. Look around your garden and any local green spaces for their signs – mainly cylindrical droppings, 2-3 cm (1.5 in.) long and up to about a centimetre thick.
If you don’t find any signs, you could enter your post code into the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and People’s Trust for Endangered Species’ Big Hedgehog Map and see if anyone in your neighbourhood has recorded them. The same map also shows who locally has gone the extra mile to make their garden accessible by making a “hedgehog hole”.
Hedgehogs are a species in national decline, so it may be that there aren’t hedgehogs in your area, but many people are surprised to learn they are around. If they are, it’s just a matter of reeling them in. If they aren’t about, there’s no reason why you can’t make your garden welcoming to them anyway, because a hedgehog-friendly garden is really just a wildlife-friendly garden and I would argue that we all need one of those as much as our beleaguered wildlife does.
Broadly speaking there are two areas that you need to focus on if you’re wanting to attract hedgehogs to your garden: connectivity and desirability. It may sound obvious, but wildlife needs to be able to get into your garden and want to be there.
Joining the dots
The first element of getting wildlife into your garden is perhaps the most obvious and yet frequently the most overlooked. You need to provide access.
Good fences, as the old adage goes, make good neighbours. Indeed, most gardens contain some form of boundary structure—typically a fence or wall—and a great many are impenetrable barriers running flush to the ground to a height of some two metres (6 ft.). This seems particularly the case for new builds, which often have concrete base/gravel boards installed below the panel. While such structures pose little obstacle to larger mammals, birds and many insects and spiders, they can be a significant impediment to smaller amphibians, reptiles and mammals, including hedgehogs.
The first order of business is to make some holes in your fences. Ideally, if your garden is bordered on four sides you’d make one hole in each boundary to link your garden with those of your neighbours; but even linking one garden to another, or to the street or an alleyway, can make a huge difference. Hedgehog Street has some details on the easiest way to do this and you can even buy a small sign to install above the hole to inform subsequent occupants why the hole is there.
Make sure you discuss any hole creation with your neighbours first, as they may have small pets that could escape from the garden if the holes aren’t correctly sited. If you have fences sectioning off your garden, ensure there is space underneath or a hole somewhere. Gaps and holes are most effective when placed at one end of a fence or wall as hedgehogs tend to follow edges while foraging and are more likely to find gaps along borders.
A gap that’s 13cm x 13cm (5x5 inches) is plenty sufficient to allow passage for hedgehogs as well as most other wildlife (e.g. wood mice, frogs, slowworms, beetles, etc.), but hedgehogs can get through smaller and narrower gaps. As a broad rule of thumb, if you can get a clenched fist under a gate or fence, most hedgehogs will make it through, too.
Rules of attraction
Once a hedgehog has made it into your garden, what’s there to make it stay or come back? A few pots with flowers to attract bees and butterflies doesn’t hold much appeal for hedgehogs, although spilt food from bird feeders can be enticing. Generally, however, the more diverse you can make your garden, the better for all the species that visit.
Logs for hogs: Log piles are fantastic additions to any garden, and they don’t have to be massive. Our garden is relatively small, yet we’ve managed to include two – at opposite ends. Decaying wood is a crucial component of many insect lifecycles and ours are a hot bed of beetle and spider activity. All this insect life provides a tasty snack for passing hedgehogs and frogs, while the crevices between the logs can provide safe nesting spots, particularly during the winter.
If you don’t have any logs, it’s worth asking your local tree surgeon; sometimes they’ll charge, but in my experience you’re often doing them a favour and they’ll donate a few for free. Typically, I opt for hardwood species, but it will depend what’s available and logs of any wood are better than nothing. I would advise against deconstructed pallets, fencing, garden furniture, etc., as these are often treated. Check out the Wildlife Trust Log Shelter Guide for more tips and information.
Water, water everywhere: It’s safe to say that wildlife is very quickly attracted to water, be it a bird bath or the lake of a stately home. Any opportunity to put in a pond should be seized and even an old bucket or washing up bowl sunk into the ground will beckon the likes of frogs, newts, dragonflies and damselflies. If you add a rock or brick to create different depths and put in a plant or two, you’ll increase its wildlife value exponentially.
We have a small free-standing pond in our garden and within a year of putting it in we had our first batch of frogspawn and froglets on the lawn come summer. Since then we’ve had dragonfly larvae emerge, water snails take up residence, blackbirds bathing in it and hedgehogs drink from it.
There are several key points to think about when putting in a pond and there’s a lot more detail in this short video from BBC Gardeners’ World and the Wildlife Trusts’ Mini Pond Guide. A few things in particular are to:
- Ensure it’s not constantly in direct sunlight (we have a potting table over ours to provide some shade).
- Fill it and top it up with rainwater if possible. If using tap water, leave it in a bucket for a few hours for the chlorine to dissipate before adding it to the pond.
- Make sure there’s a sloping side of ramp of some description to allow anything falling in to get out.
- Ideally situate the pond near ground cover, such as a bush or your new log pile.
Whether you put in a pond or not, think about putting out a couple of shallow dishes of fresh water that are replaced daily. With any dishes, it’s a great idea to include some stones or marbles that break the surface, allowing insects to land and drink without the risk of drowning.
Wildlife wildlands: Many of us already “plant for pollinators”, growing flowers specifically to attract bees and butterflies, and this is fantastic. We can improve on this by including a variety of species that flower throughout the year. This will help combat the “nectar drought” pollinators encounter during summer because many popular garden plants flower during the spring. Campanula, Iberis, and Erysimum are examples of species that will flower through summer and are popular with pollinators. Despite being loathed by many gardeners, ivy is a fantastic plant to have in your garden, providing both shelter and a very welcome source of nectar well into autumn.
Trees, particularly fruit trees and natives that produce a lot of pollen such as silver birch, are obviously a superb addition to a garden, but it must be the right tree in the right place. If you’re thinking about planting a tree or hedge, The Woodland Trust are offering free kits. Often, low-growing shrubs that provide shelter and cover are more important than trees, particularly if you’re pressed for space. One group of plants that are often overlooked are the grasses. Grasses are a requirement in the lifecycle for many species of insect, including many butterflies.
Just leaving a corner of your garden with some lawn to “grow wild” will provide a diverse mix of grass, clover and probably also nettle (the food plant of caterpillars of the orange-tip butterfly). If you can restrict your mowing and leaf-raking activity to a couple of times a year, so much the better, too. This wild area will provide food, shelter and nesting material for hedgehogs visiting your garden.
The Royal Horticultural Society’s Plants for Pollinators website can help you choose the right flowers for your garden, as can the RSPB’s Plants for Wildlife site. Plantlife’s No Mow May website explains more about the virtues of leaving the mower in the shed.
Hog hazards: Hedgehogs are highly adept at getting themselves into trouble. They’re happy to climb, unafraid of falling and will readily take to the water. As such garden features that may seem innocuous to us, such as drains, ponds and netting, can be problematic, sometimes lethal, to hedgehogs. I’ve mentioned the need to have an escape ramp in any ponds, but covering drains and keeping the use of netting to a minimum is also advisable. In the case of netting, if it can be attached tautly to a frame, so much the better, as this reduces the potential for hogs to get ensnared in it. If you have an electric fence to protect small livestock, please make sure the bottom rung is at least 10cm (4 in.) above the ground.
Pause pesticides: Finally, it perhaps goes without saying, but pesticide use should be avoided wherever possible, remembering that hedgehogs will eat many of the species these products actively target. I’ve already discussed the potential issues slug pellets pose for hedgehogs, but sufficed to say, and to quote Hedgehog Street: “All things considered, to be truely [sic] hedgehog-friendly you need to stop using slug pellets or pesticides”.
Unfortunately, ditching pesticides often means coming to terms with losing some prize plants, fruits and vegetables. There are some non-toxic alternatives for slug control, for example, but they’re typically ineffective. I’ve heard reports that spraying plants with a fine mist of garlic water can protect them from pests, but I suspect many are less willing to try that on fruits and vegetables.
Des res: Hedgehogs are adept at making nests; it’s an inherent behaviour that hoglets practice while still in the nest. Leaving a patch of long grass and fallen leaves will provide suitable nesting material for them, while woody shrubs and bramble offer excellent structural support. Hedgehogs will also nest in log piles, under garden structures such as greenhouses and sheds, and even in compost heaps/bins.
You can also buy or make hedgehog houses. Bear in mind that hedgehog houses are often ignored by their intended audience, and there’s no evidence that they do much to help hedgehog populations, but they certainly don’t hurt. Also, if you do install a house, resist the urge to check inside or clean it too often; essentially, you can clean it in late April and October, but it should be left alone for the rest of the year. Hedgehog Street has more information about making and buying hedgehog houses on their website.
Food, glorious food
Many people wonder about the ethics of feeding wildlife and it’s a subject I have covered on this site in some detail. There are good arguments for and against, but in the end, when feeding is done with appropriate food, in reasonable quantities and in a suitable way, there’s little problem with it other than the need to accept you may attract non-target species (see The undesirables below).
When it comes to making food available in your garden there are three main options: you can grow it; buy it; or have a combination of both.
Growing grub: The best option for any wildlife garden is to grow plants that feed insects, the animal base for most garden food webs, while also providing shelter and water for a community of invertebrates, small mammals and birds. It may sound callous, but the smaller animals attract the larger predators. Indeed, fostering a biodiverse wildlife garden, as well as being relatively cheap and maintenance-free, means that the abundance of life will attract a range of other species, including foxes, badgers, sparrowhawks and even owls, snakes and bats. You may also be surprised how quickly this can happen.
So, if you have a log pile full of beetles and spiders, a lawn with grasshoppers, worms and insect larvae and a pond or drinking station supplying fresh water, you already have pretty much everything a passing hedgehog needs to feel right at home.
Supplemental feeding: This is a highly contentious subject among gardeners and biologists alike and there’s no doubt that it’s very easy to cross the line of appropriateness. I’ve seen people put huge amounts of food out for wildlife visiting their gardens and feeding in vast quantities can unquestionably cause problems. People can often be rather liberal in the breadth of food provided as well; I’ve seen chocolate cake on the menu.
If you’re going to put food out, you need to consider three key points: how much goes out; what goes out; and how it’s offered.
For hedgehogs, you can buy specially formulated hog food that most will eat with relish, but equally dried cat or dog biscuits are perfectly sufficient provided water is readily accessible. I have seen arguments suggesting that cat and dog biscuits aren’t “natural” food as hedgehogs would never eat beef, chicken, lamb, etc. in the wild. Leaving aside the legitimacy of this, knowing what we do about the tenacity of hedgehogs, I feel it misses the point. The important aspect is that you’re providing an easily obtainable nutritious food source, and this can really benefit hedgehogs during prolonged dry spells and in the runup to hibernation. Please avoid feeding peanuts, sunflower hearts and mealworms as these have the potential to cause metabolic bone disease, and steer well clear of bread and milk.
In terms of quantity and presentation of food, I always recommend scattering around only small quantities. Concentrating food in feeding stations is often a necessary evil to keep the local cats away from it, but it can also focus aggression when there are several hedgehogs in close proximity. Wherever possible, I opt for scattering a couple of handfuls of biscuits over the patio and focus mainly on the feeder during the autumn or very dry spells. If you can spread the food across a couple of feeding stations, so much the better.
Lots of people worry that cutting a hole in their fence will encourage visits from rats, mice or the local cats and this is a distinct possibility. Indeed, if you’re going to garden for wildlife, you must accept that this will include the species you want and those you’re not mad-keen on. Whether it’s a sparrowhawk taking “your” starlings, a rat eating the food you put out for hedgehogs, or slugs and snails devouring your prize vegetables, having a healthy wildlife garden means fostering an inclusive community.
Rats and squirrels can be a significant concern and people often ask how they can feed the birds and hedgehogs without also feeding their local rodents. The frank answer is that you can’t. Rats are commonly (although not strictly) nocturnal, so clearing away bird food at the end of the day can help, but while you can relatively easily exclude cats and foxes from a hedgehog feeding station, it is virtually impossible to keep rats out. If Rattus norvegicus is that much of an issue, the only option is not to put food out in the first place. This won’t stop rats visiting, but it will likely reduce the duration of their visits.
It’s also worth remembering that while any “hedgehog hole” also makes it easier for rats and the neighbour’s moggy to get into your garden, both are exceptional climbers and will scale a 2m (6 ft.) fence or wall without breaking a sweat. The lack of an easy access hole is very unlikely to be keeping them out.
It is also possible to get ultrasonic deterrent devices for rats and cats, although these are of dubious efficacy and tend to vary on an individual basis.
I hope this inspires you to have a go at creating your own wildlife garden, or maybe just installing a hole in your fence or letting a corner of your garden grow wild. Despite about one in eight houses lacking a garden, an estimate by The King’s Fund suggests 87% of UK households have one and, combined, they cover an area of just over 430 thousand hectares (one million acres), about one-fifth the size of Wales. This means, joined up, they have the potential to be our largest nature reserve. Added to this, we know that both gardening and connecting with wildlife provides huge mental health benefits.