Banner image: Hedgehog in woodlands

Hedgehogs are one of Britain's most loved wild creatures – consistently topping the charts in surveys of the UK’s favourite wild creature.

Their spiny coats, shuffling walk and habitat of rolling into a ball to deter predators make them instantly recognisable. They have fascinated and inspired us for generations and have appeared in many works of art and literature over the centuries.

Hedgehogs in history

The name ‘hedgehog’ is of English origin and came into use around 1450. The creatures feature in many of Shakespeare’s plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies saw the spiny hedgehog as a threat to their Queen Titania, singing “Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen … Come not near our fairy queen.’

In 1905, Beatrix Potter painted a rather fonder picture of the hedgehog in her much-loved children’s book Mrs Tiggy-winkle. The character – a kindly washerwoman who did all the laundry for the other animals - was apparently inspired by Potter’s own pet hedgehog.

One of the most curious stories about hedgehogs is a country folktale, long believed in rural England in the dim and distant past, that hedgehogs would suck milk from the udders of cows as they lay down. While the yarn has never been disproved, it is now known that hedgehogs are lactose intolerant, and consuming cow’s milk can give them diarrhoea, which can be fatal if they have too much.

For this reason, the saucer of milk and bread that was traditionally advised for feeding any hedgehogs that visited your garden is now not recommended. A dish of meaty dog or cat food or specially formulated hedgehog food will be far more nutritious for your spiky visitor.

What do hedgehogs eat?  

A hedgehog’s natural diet in the wild is quite varied. Beetles and caterpillars make up around half of their diet, and earthworms and birds’ eggs are also popular. Slugs, snails, millipedes, earwigs and even carrion make up a smaller percentage. Hedgehogs can deslime particularly slippery slugs using their deft forepaws, but they often avoid larger snails as their shells are too hard to tackle.

Because hedgehogs consume a range of garden insect ‘pests’ - such as slugs – they are often welcomed by gardeners. If you want to attract a hedgehog onto your plot, there are a few simple steps you can take to make this more likely.

Image: Hedgehog feeding on cat food

Making your garden hedgehog-friendly

The obvious first step is don’t use pesticides, as that will reduce their invertebrate food. You also need to give them easy access to your garden (and those surrounding it) as hedgehogs visit numerous gardens every night as they search for sustenance. On average, researchers have found that hedgehogs travel over a mile every night to find food, and this distance increases during breeding season for males who are seeking out a mate!

So ultimately, if your garden is difficult to access, because of walls or fences, a hedgehog won’t visit. Creating a small hedgehog-sized gap at the bottom of fencing is one solution to this – but remember to get your neighbours on board too, so you have a joined-up network of ‘hedgehog highways’.

Another effective way to attract our prickly friends to the garden is to avoid being too ‘tidy’ – particularly during autumn when hedgehogs will start looking for nesting sites. So leave that leaf pile, don’t worry about the long grass that’s grown beside the shed, and don’t bother clearing under that hedge! These are all prime real estate for hedgehogs looking for a suitable spot to hibernate.

Hedgehog hibernation

Hedgehogs go into hibernation usually in October, but this can vary depending on the weather. If we have a mild autumn and winter and insect food is still available, hibernation can be delayed. During hibernation, the hedgehog’s fuel supply comes from the fat stored within its body, so it’s very important that hogs are a healthy weight before they hibernate.

Studies have shown that hedgehogs can wake from hibernation a few times and will sometimes even venture out or move nests. If you do see one out and about at night during the winter months, putting some supplementary food out will help boost its fat stores and chance of survival. Hedgehogs emerge fully from hibernation around March or April – again depending on temperature and food availability.

Image: Hedgehog nesting in leaves

How are hedgehogs doing?

Earlier this year, The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) published the 2022 ‘State of Britain’s Hedgehogs’ report, which provides a picture of how hedgehog populations are faring across the country.

The report revealed that hedgehogs in Britain have undergone a long historic decline, but the differences between urban and rural populations are now becoming increasingly apparent. In urban areas, the picture is of a stable population showing signs of recovery, while in stark contrast, rural populations remain low. In the last two decades, numbers have continued to decline by between a third and three-quarters nationally.

The report highlights the importance of people taking local action in their neighbourhood and in their own gardens and greenspaces to help hedgehogs to thrive.

If you’d like to find more useful information on making your neighbourhood hedgehog-friendly, visit:

Image: Hedgehog pictured in UK woodlands

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