My neighbours tell me they’ve seen a hedgehog wandering about on our driveway lately. This is great to hear, because I’ve been putting hedgehog food out for a while now, but had concluded the local cats must be snaffling it, because I’ve not seen so much as a prickle myself. I promptly refilled the dish with Spike’s hedgehog food, and await further sightings.
There are lots more things we can do to help hogs - and boy, do they need our help. In the 1950s there were around 36 million of them, down to less than a million today. Something like 10 million have vanished since 2003. Public surveys reveal horribly alarming stats: almost half of Brits have never seen a live wild hedgehog, although they were a common sight in gardens half a century ago. Each year, less and less garden sightings are reported.
So, what can we all do to help protect our prickly pals from possible extinction?
1 Help them get around
Safe passage between gardens is crucial to hedgehogs’ survival, helping them avoid roads. Photo: Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)
Fifty years ago there were fewer houses, and fewer people had fully fenced gardens - and of course, there weren’t nearly as many cars. Hedgehogs and roads make a disastrous combination, and as shy little snufflers, they would very much rather not have to use open tarmac to get around.
We can easily ease their path by creating routes between our gardens. If you have solid fencing, cut a small, 10cm doorway at ground level so hogs can pass through. If you have brick walls, perhaps you can create a space under the gate? Have a word with your neighbours and see if they can do anything with shared boundaries - perhaps you could all align a hedgehog superhighway across your back gardens? Or consider replacing fences with hedging? Also think about creating little ramps up any steps or obstacles.
2 Banish the slug pellets
A hedgehog is an asset to any garden, hoovering up slugs, snails and other unwanted pests. If slugs emerge from the darkness to devour your seedlings and destroy your vegetable beds overnight, I feel your pain… I sometimes feel I’m fighting a losing battle. Slug pellets are probably the easiest way to control slugs, but they will also poison the hedgehogs that eat them. I deploy an arsenal of alternatives: Loathe as I am to waste good beer, beer traps are a sure-fire slug dispatcher, and then there are physical barriers such as eggshells, used coffee grounds, squashed garlic. I have been known to relocate slugs (often via trowel catapult) to the wildflower borders around the pond, where hopefully lurking frogs can make use of them.
3 Reduce hog hazards
Bonfires, ponds and strimmers represent just three of the horrors awaiting hedgehogs in gardens. We’ve built a bonfire circle in our garden, with log seating around it, for the purpose of burning garden cuttings while enjoying a cold beer and warm toes. But we always pile the firewood next to it, and move it into the fire piece by piece, just in case there might be a hedgehog lurking underneath. Garden ponds should always have a ‘way out’ for anything that falls in - mine has a large half-submerged rock near the edge. And always check long grass before strimming (or mowing) - hedgehogs won’t necessarily flee when they hear it coming.
Treat your garden to a hedgehog hotel and you might attract your own resident slug-muncher! This one’s available from the RSPB shop for £29.99.
4 Provide shelter
All sorts of wildlife, not just the cute and prickly sort, will benefit if you can leave a corner of your garden to nature - leaving the grass long, letting weeds become wildflowers, and ideally creating a large pile of twigs, dead wood and dried fallen leaves in a secluded corner, away from too much wind or sun. Hedgehogs need to snuggle away during the day. The long grass will also attract insects for them to feed on, give you somewhere to relocate unwanted slugs, and help hedgehogs hide - they’re very shy creatures. As well as hiding during the day, this time of year, they will be nesting and raising their young, and come winter they’ll need somewhere to hibernate. Even better than a log pile, why not build or buy them a weatherproof hog house, where they can do all of these things safely?
5 Open a hedgehog cafe
Hedgehogs will often come up close to humans if there’s a meal in it for them. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Hedgehogs are also prone to starvation, and if they don’t find enough food throughout the summer and autumn they will not survive their winter hibernation. Whatever you do, don’t give them bread and milk - there are plenty of much safer food options. Try wet or dry cat or dog food, sunflower hearts, mealworms, minced meat or even cooked potatoes… and don’t forget to put out a dish of water on the ground. Here’s all you need to know to create an easy hedgehog banquet.
Well, I will let you know if I do manage to catch a glimse of our elusive prickly visitor, and meanwhile (especially in this weird cold snap) I shall ramp up my efforts to make their lives a little easier, so that hopefully my children can be among those lucky enough to see one alive and hopefully thriving. If you have catered for hedgehogs in your garden - and maybe bucked the downward population trend - let us know! Email the magazine or log in to comment below.
It was a first for me last weekend, as I attended the annual RSPB Weekend conference. It was also a first for the new conference venue: Nottingham University campus. The venue and weekend as a whole delivered both wildlife and a platform for the RSPB to communicate the great work we do, only made possible by our fantastic supporters – you!
My weekend kicked off with an excursion to Sherwood Forest on Friday at lunchtime. You’ve probably seen the news regarding Sherwood Forest and the RSPB, but in case you missed it, the RSPB will be managing 440 hectares having successfully won the bid to manage the area with a consortium including Thorseby Estate, Continuum Attractions and the Sherwood Forest Trust. We’re still really excited about it, and are committed to building a new visitor centre for the site for everyone to enjoy. All the delegates thoroughly enjoyed the several hour long walk around Sherwood Forest, which included seeing the Major Oak and a lesser spotted woodpecker – both a first for me!
The super friendly Laura and Julia headed up the Community Fundraising exhibition stand, with big community grins. (Photo: James Harding-Morris)
Once back at base I had the chance to finish setting up the Working with Young People exhibition stand that would be my home for the rest of the weekend. I’d been paired up with some stonkingly good staff members. The one and only James Harding-Morris, Campaign Project Manager, and the best person I’ve met in years and years, Jo Goldsmid, Aldi Schools Outreach Officer. And that for me is what RSPB weekend is all about – making great friends. We were a crack team all weekend, and had a cracking time to boot!
Ever the professional, Ross delivered all our social media communications and presence over the weekend - well played sir! (Photo: James Harding-Morris)
The next morning brought one of the main attractions for many delegates: the early morning bird-walk. It proved too early for me, but some of the highlights were waxwings in the lime trees that border the lake area of the university campus, great crested grebes on nest, and a red-crested pochard. Well done to all those early birds and the RSPB staff leading the walks.
Delegates and staff discussed our work during breaks with incredible enthusiasm - Mark and Sarah worked their socks off the whole weekend! (Photo: James Harding-Morris)
Of course the bird-walk wasn’t the only activity revealing wildlife on your doorstep. The bio-blitz went down a storm, with several RSPB staff led teams pitched against each other in flora and fauna furore. It was a highlight for anyone who had signed up, and showcased the great new venue brilliantly.
Ah-ha! The hunter becomes the hunted... You can't escape getting photographed, Heather, even as the weekend's official photographer! (Photo: James Harding-Morris)
But RSPB weekend isn’t only a chance to enjoy nature and meet people. It’s an important platform and occasion for the RSPB to show its supporters what we’re doing to save nature. The opening speeches were incredibly inspiring, combining a fascinating exposé delivered by Dave O'Hara of the project at RSPB Dove Stone, which I can only touch on here, so please do click the link to find out more. The award winning RSPB Dove Stone project combines important conservation efforts in the Peak District, with the issues facing the infrastructure responsible for bringing water into homes provided by the project’s partner United Utilities. It’s a perfect example of how conservation partnership can benefit nature and the day-to-day needs of communities nearby, harnessing the efforts of local volunteers and in cooperation with farmers.
Charisma in spades and the keenest of intellects helped Steph get her message across at our Campaigns and Communications exhibition stand. (Photo: James Harding-Morris)
For me though, the show was stolen by the moving speech delivered by Sorrel Lyall, a young conservationist and member of A Focus on Nature. Introduced by our own Matt Williams, who’s also Associate Director of AFON, the super professional duo stirred the crowd with a speech about the growing movement of young naturalists just on the horizon, and then asked the audience whether they could be a mentor to a young person and help secure the future of our planet. Well done Sorrel and Matt!
Feeling rather proud of being fortunate enough to work for the RSPB, there was just one more thing I needed to do – D I S C O… Thoroughly exhausted, the take home was unanimous: what a great way to spend a weekend.
Swifts really are the birds of the moment. They’re now returned to many areas of the UK after a winter spent in Africa to scream and scythe their way through the sky. Many more are winging their way to us, so keep scanning the skies for that unmistakable sickle-winged shape, and listening out for those calls. If “your” birds aren’t back yet, don’t worry: swifts will continue to arrive throughout May.
There's no mistaking a swift - just remember all black plumage and "boomerang" shape (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
Our Summer 2017 Nature’s Home magazine has the most beautiful close up swift on the cover (it’s my favourite cover ever) and a great feature all about the work going on in towns and cities around the UK to help them - building the swift cities! Not only that, we need you to tell us about your swifts this summer in the RSPB swift survey. This really is the month of the swift.
What a beauty - check out those big eyes and a bill that was made for insect-eating (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
I’ve picked out 10 of my favourite swift facts from the RSPB’s archives to keep the swift celebration going and to hopefully tickle your fancy with a few things about these amazing birds you may not know...
1.Swifts have an average life span of about five and a half years. One bird in Oxford was found dying in 1964, 16 years after it was ringed as an adult, so was likely to be at least 18 years old. This bird probably flew about four million miles in its lifetime, the same as flying to the moon and back eight times.2.Swifts have four toes, four arranged in twos, with each pair pointing sideways rather than forwards, a bit like a chameleon or a koala.3.They use saliva for building their nests in roof spaces and cavities.
4.The swift probably eats more species of small insect and spiders than any other UK bird – well over 300.
5.Swifts drink by gliding over smooth water and taking sips and bathe by flying slowly through falling rain.
Swifts very rarely land, but they have to for nesting of course (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
6. Their eyes have moveable bristles in front – sunglasses for reducing glare when they are on the wing.
7. Swifts can sleep on the wing – a French Airman in the 1914-18 war glided down with engines off behind enemy lines. At 10,000 feet he found himself amongst apparently motionless birds. One of them was caught in the machine and on the following day was found to be an adult male swift.
8.When they are about month old, baby swifts do ‘press ups’ in the nest to strengthen their wings. They lift themselves up by pushing down on their wings. By the time they’re ready to go, they can hold their bodies clear off the ground like this for several seconds.9.Each ball of food that the parents bring to their babies weighs just over a gram and contains 300-1,000 individual insects and spiders.
10.There are seven species of swift on the UK list. Our familiar swift is the only one that that breeds here, but there are six other rare visitors. The Alpine swift is a big swift with white underparts and throat, but the pallid swift is extremely similar to “our” swift. The little swift lives up to its name and has a white rump like a house martin. Then there are the really rare ones: Pacific swift, chimney swift from North America and the awesome, and incredibly fast, needle-tailed swift.Tell us about your swifts!
Once your local swifts have returned, We'd like you to let us know where you have seen them and where they're nesting. Watch out for screaming groups of swifts flying at roof-height (that means they're breeding nearby), or where you've seen swifts entering a roof or hole in a building, which means they are probably nesting.
We need sightings from anywhere across the UK and you can enter as many records as you like at different times. You can even submit sightings you remember from the past - the more records, the better!
Put some time in your diary this summer for searching for swifts - and tell us about them! (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
If you have sent in records before, it’s important to know if birds are still returning to the same areas. Please tell us what’s happening there this year. Your information will increase the RSPB's knowledge of swifts, so that more nest sites can be provided and protected for these beautiful birds during their short, but very important time spent in the UK.
Have a great swift summer!