As autumn approaches and winter draws nearer, you may notice that you don’t see your hedgehog friends. This is nothing to worry about, as they will hibernate from November to mid-March. Hibernation can begin slightly earlier, and this often depends on how much food is available.
What is hibernation?
Hedgehogs, and many other animals hibernate during the winter as a way to conserve energy. For many animals, there are fewer sources of food available during the winter, so they could struggle to survive. Hibernation is a way for them to see through the winter months without having to forage for less food.
Many people think hibernation means the hedgehog is simply asleep, but it’s a lot more than that. Hedgehogs put themselves in to a state of ‘torpor’. When an animal goes into torpor, it does look as though they are sleeping and their body uses less energy and needs less food. This helps them to survive for a few months without food.
- Torpor involves slowing their metabolism down so they use less energy. This will use up their reserves of fat very slowly, making it last for 3 months.
- They also lower their body temperature, which is a way of handling the colder winter temperatures.
- Hedgehogs even slow down their heart rate. The usual heart rate of a hedgehog is usually 190 beats per minute. During torpor it slows to just 20 beats.
You may see hedgehogs during the winter and this is often nothing to worry about. If the temperature drops, they will wake up and find a warmer place to continue with their hibernation. They can also wake if they need food.
If you come across a hedgehog during the winter and it looks like it’s asleep, make sure that it is in a safe area and is warm but do not try to wake it up. When they are ready to come out of hibernation, they will increase the metabolism slowly and generally do not need any help with this.
Why do hedgehogs hibernate?
Hedgehogs hibernate because during the winter months their food sources are not so easily available. Hibernation means that they can conserve as much energy as possible instead of having to use up more energy than they would normally do trying to find food.
During the winter there are less insects around, and as a result, there is less food for hedgehogs to eat. If they did not hibernate, they would have to keep looking for food in colder temperatures, and many would not survive.
How do they prepare?
Hedgehogs need to make sure they are well prepared for hibernation. If they are not, they may leave themselves prone to predators, or simply may not survive until the Spring.
- Before they hibernate, hedgehogs need to build up their fat reserves. Thanks to a slower metabolism, these reserves are then used gradually throughout their hibernation to keep them alive. They eat as many worms, beetles and caterpillars as they can so they have plenty of fat. When it’s time for them to wake up, these reserves are usually depleted and the first thing they would do is go in search of food.
- Building up fat reserves, also helps to keep them warm. Although they do cool their bodies while in torpor, fat also provides essential warmth.
- They also need to find a safe place to hibernate where they will be away from predators and warm. They will look for a quiet spot and if you have a garden shed or logs for the fire, they may even choose to hibernate underneath those. They like building shelters from dead leaves and twigs and will even use feathers, and will find quiet spots in hedgerows.
Some of the common places you may find hedgehogs hibernating are:
- Under piles of wood or leaves
- In hedges
- Compost heaps
- Under sheds and outhouses
- The roots of large trees
- They will even use old rabbit burrows.
Juvenile hedgehogs may need help to survive the winter. Hedgehogs need to weigh between 500 and 700 grams to survive hibernation. If a juvenile weighs less than 500g and autumn is approaching, they may not have enough fat reserves to see them through.
Underweight hedgehogs will need to be kept indoors until April. The temperature will need to be constant so that they do not feel that urge to hibernate and daylight will need to be as natural as possible so that they carry out their nocturnal activities. They will need space to walk around and food and water provided for them.
If you see a juvenile hedgehog in your garden then contact your local hedgehog support group and they will be able to give you the best advice to help.
When do they hibernate?
Hibernation generally takes place during the winter. It can begin as early as October and ends usually around mid-March. There is no exact time scale as hedgehogs will begin to prepare as food sources start to lessen.
If the autumn is a warmer season one year, then hibernation can begin later.
How you can help
Like all animals in the wild, hedgehogs are well adapted for preparing for their hibernation and surviving. That doesn’t mean we can’t offer them a little help where we can. If they are regular visitors to your garden you are just a few things you can do.
- Hedgehog homes. During hibernation is very important that hedgehogs are in a safe place and are as warm as possible. You can put hedgehog houses around your garden which will be safe places for them to spend the hibernation and which will also keep them safe from the winter weather.
- When hedgehogs start to come out of their hibernation, they want food. You can help by placing some food in your gardens so that they have some readily available as soon as they need it. You can also help by giving them food sources during the autumn so that they are able to fully build up their fat reserves to see them through the winter.
- Keep an eye out. You may occasionally see a hedgehog pottering around during the winter. Unless it looks unwell then you can leave alone as it might simply be looking for a slightly better spot to carry on with its hibernation. If you see a hedgehog curled up in the open don’t try to wake it. Just gently move it to a sheltered spot so it can continue hibernating in safety.
- Be careful. While garden bonfires are not used quite so much these days, if you do still have, one check for hedgehogs before you light it. This is particularly important for Bonfire Night. Hedgehogs will hibernate under piles of leaves or in bushes, and built up bonfires make the perfect place. Similarly, if you are giving your hedge a trim during the winter always make sure that there are no hedgehogs in there before you start stop
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I do if I disturb a hibernating hedgehog?
Hedgehogs can hibernate in places we would not expect to find them, so often you can disturb them without even knowing. Compost heaps and leaf piles are common areas they choose. If you do disturb one:
- If possible, cover them back up. If they have chosen a safe place, you can leave them where they are, as long as you make sure they are warm.
- If you have removed their shelter, don’t move the hedgehog unless absolutely necessary. It’s best you build a shelter for them, or they will use up valuable energy rebuilding it. They will need an area which is sheltered, safe from predators and warm.
Hibernating hedgehogs should always be left alone if possible. Even if you think their chosen spot is not suitable, do not move one. Disturbing them will simply use some of their valuable fat reserves so they will have to venture out to top those up.
What food should I leave for a hibernating hedgehog?
Before they hibernate, and when they wake up, hedgehogs will need food. Nature usually provides this, but it never hurts to give it a helping hand.
- They eat insects, so you need to make sure you have plenty in your garden. One way to do this is to have one area of your garden as a wild garden as this will attract them. Log piles and leaf piles are also great areas for insects to live.
- You can also leave a dog biscuit or small dish of meaty dog or cat food close to where they are hibernating. They are most likely to eat at night so put this out in the evening and make sure it’s not left out so long that it attracts unwanted visitors to your garden.
- Don’t forget that hedgehogs will also need water, so make sure they have a supply of that close by.
If you put extra food out in the early autumn, it will help them to build up their reserves of fat too.
Hedgehogs usually prefer to hibernate in the countryside, but you may find them around your garden as well. If they are regular visitors during the year, they may come and find a safe space somewhere in your garden.
If they are there, keep an eye on them to make sure they are warm and safe, and leave a little food in case they need it. When they start to wake up again in spring, you’ll be able to see them enjoying your garden once more.