I’m not the only one emerging from hibernation at the moment. A couple of days ago we finally saw our first hedgehog of the year. It’s been a long time coming, as we’ve been finding plenty of ‘signs’ of hedgehogs for a few weeks.
We’ve been leaving out food for them, but whereas in previous years we could leave the bowl in the open, I think we need to build a hedgehog feeding station to keep out the neighbours’ kittens this year.
It’s so nice to see the hedgehogs again. I hope the dormice will follow suit for our April box check.
One of our top priority wildlife garden tasks for March was making it safe for hedgehogs. It’s mostly pretty safe, with no slug pellets or trailing nets, and our tiny pond has a hedgehog escape route. But there was still one area that needed improvement.
My study is lower than the rest of the house, and there’s a small area of gravel outside it, surrounded on three sides by walls, with steep steps up to the rest of the garden. There’s a gate at the top of the steps, but the wood had rotted so the latch no longer held it shut.
We know that hedgehogs can get trapped in that area. One of Fat Cat’s rare moments of Lassie-like heroism was when she alerted us one morning that there was a hedgehog down there, unable to climb the steps. That hedgehog was fortunate, as it wasn’t stuck for too long, and was able to scurry away when carried up the steps. But we can’t rely on every hog being so lucky.
So, Dr C has repaired the latch, and we’ve installed a mini fence to hopefully stop daredevil hedgehogs falling down from the garden above. The hedgehogs are visiting our garden every night. At least I know they are safe there now.
I have been itching to get to work on the garden since my new year’s resolution. At last, this weekend, we had some dry weather coinciding with me having some spare time, so I lit the chiminea for warmth, and set to work. My priority for this month was improving the wildflower meadow.
Calling it a meadow is perhaps stretching the point. My garden is tiny, so the meadow is only a few metres square. Nevertheless, it does have wildflowers, and the insects seem to love it.
When we decided to turn half our lawn into a wildflower meadow a few years ago, we tried a couple of approaches. In one small area we skimmed off the top layer of turf, and sowed a ready-made mix of wildflower seeds. This patch has done well, with a variety of wildflowers growing and setting seed each year. All it needs is a couple of trims a year, and the bees get a feast.
In another patch of the meadow I planted some plug plants of various wildflowers. These haven’t done so well, but nature seems to have seized advantage of the twice yearly mowing schedule to invade the area with a buttercup-like flower (botany is not my strong point). The patch is ok (a definite step up in terms of biodiversity from the lawn), but not as flowery as the first patch.
The remaining bit of meadow is in the shade, on the north side of the fence. It was taken over by ground elder, so, months ago I covered the area with old carpet, to combat the invasion. The carpet kept the plants down, but I knew the real problem remained – a dense network of roots just below the surface.
Armed with a hand fork and rake, I did battle with the roots. It’s quite addictive (and that comes from me, a very occasional weeder). The trouble is that the roots go beyond the patch I wanted to work on, so it was hard to stop. Still, it was good to be out in the garden, working with the soil, and seeing the signs of spring (even if it was mainly embryonic ground elder leaves). I’m pretty sure that the war against the ground elder isn’t over, but, hopefully I have set it back enough to give a wider variety of wildflowers a chance.
Once again, I am comparing a couple of different approaches to sowing wildflowers. The first is a wildflower mat: two layers of biodegradable fabric, with wildflower seeds sown in at appropriate spacing. I have heard that these can work well. You just place the mat on top of your prepared soil, and cover with a thin layer of soil. The other approach was rather less measured and evenly spaced. I mixed up a load of wildflower seeds, a chucked them on the ground, raking in lightly. As it’s a shady area, I used some seeds from wildflowers used to the shade of woodlands: primroses and violets. But because I am also impatient and not always terribly well organised, I also mixed in leftover seeds from commercial wildflower seed mixes that I had lying around in my seed box. I am not sure how well these will do, as they’re probably better fitted to sunnier areas, but nothing ventured…
My other concern is that it may be a little early to sow the seeds. I know some wildflowers need a bit of frost before they germinate, and I hope the others will get by, as spring seems to be coming early this year. Time will tell. I am looking forward to seeing what comes up. And anything will be an improvement on layers of old carpet.
The other wildlife garden related achievement from yesterday is that Dr C put up a hedgehog highway sign by the hole in our fence (the neighbours have one for their side as well). The sign is a bit of fun, but also, if we move house before the fence falls down, it will encourage future owners to keep access clear for hedgehogs, and look out for them (particularly if they end up strimming my beautiful meadow – maybe we should never move – I’m not sure I could cope with letting someone else be in charge of my wild garden).
Unused to such physical exertion, I’ve spent all today groaning each time I stand up or sit down. But the temporary pain is outweighed by the excitement of seeing what germinates, and then what creatures will make use of the new flowers for food or shelter.
Hoglets stay in the nest for a few weeks after birth, so by the time they were ready for their first foray into the world we were away on holiday, so we missed that milestone.
Hoglet A met a tragic end. I am not sure what the cause of death was – by the time I found the body only the prickles and skull were left. This isn’t atypical; less than half of hoglets survive their first year.
Hoglet B did better initially, but our neighbours found it out in daylight, looking confused and unwell. They took it to Wildlife Aid, our local wildlife hospital, where it’s now being looked after. It will be kept warm and well fed over winter, as it’s not big enough to hibernate. Again, this is a common story. Wildlife Aid expect to look after a hundred little hedgehogs this winter, and other wildlife hospitals throughout the country will be experiencing similar demands. This all costs money – hedgehogs can eat a lot of cat food, and their medication can also be costly. But the good news is that hedgehogs cared for by wildlife hospitals have good survival rates: 70% of admissions to Wildlife Aid are saved. So hopefully Hoglet B will be back with us in spring, ready for adult life.
The other hoglet we know about, Hoglet C, (or Ericnaceous, as we named him) did rather better. He was a regular visitor to our garden, and set about gobbling the mealworms we left out with gusto. He still looked quite small for a hedgehog, so I did weigh him to make sure he was on course to be big enough to hibernate. His weight was fine, given he still had plenty of time to put on more before the cold weather was likely to strike. We haven’t seen him for a while, but I haven’t really been looking for the last few weeks. We’ve had pretty mild weather so far (only a couple of frosts), so he may still be out and about.
Today is the 2nd birthday of this blog, so to celebrate I’ve been back over my posts from the last year, and picked a couple of my favourites from each month. I quite enjoyed looking back – brought back lots of memories!
Photo Special: Isles of Scilly – I had to choose this one, really, as not only do I quite like some of these photos, but, as it happens, I’m actually in the Isles of Scilly at the moment. It’s a beautiful place with excellent wildlife watching opportunities.
Scrumping badgers? – it’s so exciting seeing badgers (even if I didn’t get any photos)!
Moles: perfectly adapted – I’ve still never seen a mole in the wild (alive, at least), but you can’t help admire how suited they are to their subterranean lifestyle.
Looking for Harvest Mice at an airport – this day of surveying for harvest mice at Gatwick airport was really memorable, even if we didn’t find any in the end. It’s fascinating to see what wildlife can exist even in the most unlikely places.
Dormouse licence! – It took a long time to get enough experience with handling dormice to obtain my licence, so this was quite a significant milestone for me. This year I’ve enjoyed having my own site to survey.
On the trail of wild beavers – I’ve really enjoyed following the story of England’s first beavers in the wild for hundreds of years, and it was amazing to see signs of them when we were visiting the River Otter.
Church speaks and acts on climate change – While the new government seems to be implementing as many policies as possible to increase climate change (fracking, cutting subsidies to renewable energy, imposing the climate change levy on green electricity, the list goes on), it’s encouraging to see the church take a strong stance on this issue
Election summary – I spent a couple of months during the election campaign trying to find out where the main British parties stood on various issues relating to nature, the environment and wildlife. I must say, I didn’t enjoy the process much – it was quite dispiriting. But this post summarised all that work.
I was getting concerned for our garden’s hedgehog population – we hadn’t seen one for a while, and the mealworms I had left out went uneaten for a few days (that never happens if hedgehogs are about!). But I wasn’t expecting my next sighting of a hedgehog to be in broad daylight.
Usually if a hedgehog’s out during the day, that’s a bad sign. The last time we found one in our garden in daylight, it was obviously poorly – sluggish (which is strange, given our hedgehogs never seem to eat any of the thriving slug population in our garden) and disorientated. We ended up taking him to the local wildlife hospital, Wildlife Aid, where he stayed for a few months, being treated for a respiratory infection, dehydration and underweight. (It ended happily, with us being able to release him back into the garden, and him scurrying off, a picture of hoggy health and haste.)
But this time was different. The hedgehog was active and purposeful. I wanted to know more – should I be worried, or was it natural behaviour? A look at the British Hedgehog Preservation Society website soon settled that. While hedgehogs are nocturnal, there are a couple of reasons that a health hedgehog might be out and about in daytime:
it might be a new mum, grabbing a quick bite to eat while the babies are asleep
or it could be an expectant mum gathering nesting materials ready to give birth
It being daylight, I got a good view of the hedgehog and what it was up to. It was collecting mouthfuls of bedding material from our ‘mini meadow’, and carrying them into our hedgehog box. Which hopefully means that ‘it’ was a ‘she’, about to give birth, and planning to do so in our hedgehog box!
According to hedgehog expert Pat Morris, young hedgehogs usually venture out of the nest for the first time 3-4 weeks after their born, so we’ve got a bit of wait before we find out how it’s all gone. But we’ve seen mum (we’ve named her Florence) a few times in the evening, tucking into the cat food and mealworms we leave out for her.
I’ve never been sure how much our hedgehog box gets used. Hedgehogs are rather nomadic, and will use several nests in a single week, so I wouldn’t expect a particular hedgehog to move in and stick his nameplate on the door (entrance tunnel). We know that it has been used from time to time, but I’ve always had a suspicion that the hedgehogs prefer our compost heap to the box (that’s where the fencers found one hibernating when they were fixing our fence, so they put it safely in the box). So it’s really good to know that Florence has chosen to bring up her new family there.
I’m dying to know how things are getting on in there, but obviously I have to be careful not to disturb the young family (if there is one now). Hedgehog mums have been known to eat their babies if they’re disturbed soon after birth. Or it could just drive her to find a new nest. I tried setting the trail cam to keep an eye of the entrance of the box, to keep track of when Florence comes and goes. But the box is in the meadow, so all I got was footage of the plants rustling, and the odd glimpse of prickles. So I’m going to have to be patient. Not my strong point.
Anyway, Dr C and I are delighted to know that the hedgehog box we built is helping a new hedgehog family – hedgehogs need all the help they can get these days. It was well worth the effort of building it!
My birthday present from Dr C has finally arrived: a trail cam! This is great timing, as the nights are so short now that I miss seeing our hedgehogs (I’m in bed before they come visiting the garden).
I’ve had it running a couple of nights so far (well, three nights really, but the memory card was too full to take any footage on the middle night – beginner’s mistake!). As suspected, most of the footage has been of hedgehogs.
It’s easy to assume that the hedgehog you see is the same each night – ‘your’ hedgehog. We learnt a few years ago that that’s not the case – when we did a proper(ish) census of hedgehog visitors to our garden there were at least 6 different adults and 3 babies. I’ve spent a bit of time looking at the footage for distinguishing features. One of them is fairly easy to recognise, as he has dark marks on his back.
Here’s him again a couple of nights earlier, with a birdsong soundtrack.
Here’s another big hedgehog.
And another hedgehog (or is it the same?)
So I don’t think I’m going to be able to tell exactly how many hedgehogs visit the garden just from the trail cam footage. But even over two nights we know there are several that pass through the garden. (The hole in our fence helps!)
I often put out cat food or mealworms for the hedgehogs, so a lot of the clips are just of them with their noses buried in the bowl. But I enjoyed these couple of ones:
A hedgehog having a shake:
And a hedgehog having a good old scratch:
Most of the clips are of hedgehogs, but we did get a couple of other nocturnal visitors:
A neighbour’s cat (we call her Spot), whose territory seems to encompass most of the town we live in.
And, if you look closely at the next clip, you can just about make out a mouse (although I’m not sure what type of mouse it is).
I’m still getting used to the camera, so hopefully the quality of my footage will improve. I promise I won’t post quite so many hedgehog clips next time, I’m just quite excited with my new toy! My ambition is to get footage of baby hedgehogs visiting our garden, as we have seen them in previous years.
March seems to have flown by. My focus for the British Animal Challenge in March was reptiles and amphibians. I did manage one reptile spotting walk, but didn’t see any reptiles. (I think I picked too warm a day, and should have gone out earlier in the morning.)
Still, I did at least cross one new species off my list in March: we found a common shrew in one of the dormouse boxes we were cleaning out. I’ve seen a few pygmy shrews in dormice boxes before, but not a common one. They don’t nest in the boxes, so are either using them for a quick nap (shrews need to do everything quickly, as they have to eat pretty much constantly), or helping us get rid of some of the insects that like to take up residence in the boxes.
I’ve definitely seen dead common shrews before (victims of my previous cat), but can’t remember seeing one alive, so didn’t cross it off my list before. I finally have a confirmed sighting.
While there was only one new species ticked off my list in March, I did see some other animals. I’ve seen:
Hedgehogs (now coming every evening to my garden) – even witnessed some hedgehog fights
Deer – not sure which sort, as we whizzed past on the train
My calendar for April looks pretty packed. It includes a dormouse box check, so I may get lucky and see a yellow-necked mouse. I’ve also got another trip to Cornwall planned, to go sailing in my dinghy for the first time – I’d love to see some cetaceans on that (although I’m not pinning my hopes on it). I’ll also try to look out for reptiles and amphibians (there are some good ponds near where I’ll be staying in Cornwall).
It may only be March, but the hedgehogs are already out and about in my garden. So I thought it was time to dust off the mammal footprint tunnel again. These are simple plastic tunnels that contain some tempting food, inkpads and paper, so when a mammal comes to investigate the food, they leave inky footprints behind. Here’s how to set one up.
A tracking plate (a simple sheet of stiff plastic that you put the bait, ink and paper on, and insert in the tunnel)
Something tasty (see below for some ideas)
Wide masking tape
Black poster paint powder
Two sheets of A4 paper
8 paper clips
Tent pegs to keep the tunnel in place
Assemble your tunnel
If you use a flatpack tunnel of the design recommended by the Mammal Society, all you need to do is fold it out, and insert the tabs into the slot – easy.
Get your tracking plate ready
This involves several stages:
Paper clip a sheet of A4 paper at each end of the tracking plate.
Put two strips of masking tape across the tracking plate, each the distance of just over the length of an A4 sheet of paper from one of the ends of the tracking plate
Mix one part black poster paint powder with two parts vegetable oil (I used sunflower oil), so if forms a smooth black ink. This is safe for mammals to lick off their paws, and stays damp for several nights. 1 teaspoon of powder and 2 of oil will be enough for your tunnel for several nights. If you make up more than that, keep the excess in a sealed jar until you need it
Apply a layer of ‘ink’ to the two strips of masking tape
Site your tunnel
Now pick a good spot to place your tunnel. Next to / under hedges is a good spot (hedgehogs live up to their names), or along a fence or shed, or on the edge of grassland or woodland. I put mine next to a small garden hedge.
Make sure the tunnel is flat on the ground, and use the tent pegs to keep it in place (you’ll need to pierce a hole in the floor of the tunnel for this, but that’s easily done with a pen knife).
Pick your bait
Previously I’ve had good results with dried mealworms that have been soaked in water to rehydrate them. This time I’ve tried experimenting with berry suet pellets (that are sold as bird food), more mealworms, and dried cat food soaked in water. The hedgehogs have hoovered up everything I’ve put out, so I can’t make any recommendations as to which they prefer, but any of those seem to work. You could also try peanuts (of the sort sold as bird food) (I have a nut allergy, so steer clear of these), bits of hotdog sausage, seeds or bits of fruit.
Last year when I was using the tunnel I put the bait directly onto the tracking plate (in the middle, between the two ink pads). The disadvantage of this is that bits of food end up in the ink, which is messy. So this year I’ve taken to putting it in a little ramekin (of the sort posh puddings come in), which has kept things cleaner. The ramekin does tend to get dragged about in the tunnel, but at least I don’t have to pick bits of mealworm from my ink pads.
Insert your tracking plate into the tunnel
Insert your tracking plate (complete with bait) into the tunnel, and you’re all set for the night.
The next morning
Check your tunnel by removing the tracking plate. Hopefully anything that’s been eating your bait will have left inky pawprints on the paper. All you need to do then is work out what sort of pawprints they are. This can be tricky with some species, but hedgehog prints are fairly distinctive.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 18 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk