How we came to foster five baby HEDGEHOGS
To have a hedgehog pay a visit is always a special treat, but a few years ago, 5 little hogs joined our household for several weeks.
My children did what I had done as a youngster and put out a bowl of warm milk for the visitor, often adding a piece of bread. We now know that water and a dish of mashed tinned dog or cat food is the answer. After all in the wild hedgehogs live on a diet of meat. We learnt that bread passes straight through undigested and hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so cows’ milk gives them diarrhea that consumed in quantity leads to dehydration and even death.
The actions of our inquisitive Dachshund, Benjamin on our North Auckland farm gave as our special hedgehog experience. It started when his loud barking led us to family of baby hedgehogs, lying on a bed of composting bark between some logs. We left the nest undisturbed hoping that their Mother would return, but several hours later when we checked, we could soon see that his interference had frightened the Mother away. We had inherited 5 very small helpless hedgehogs.
A phone call to the hedgehog expert at Animal Rescue did not give us much hope. We explained how their spikes were brown but were still quite soft - their eyes and ears were open - their faces had hair with pointed snouts like fully grown hedgehogs with teeth just starting to come through, but they could not yet roll into a ball to protect themselves. They were about the size of an average lemon and fitted in the middle of our ten-year-old daughter, Claudia’s palm.
We learnt the hedgehogs were around 3 weeks old at the critical time weaning is just beginning when survival without their mother is extremely borderline. She looks after all their needs from birth to five or six weeks of age, but, if disturbed she will abandon them.
Not a very positive outlook, but we were advised it was imperative to keep the orphans warm - they needed to feel warm to the touch. We should give them mashed tinned chicken puppy food at room temperature to eat and plenty of water to drink. A deep oblong plastic box that fitted in the airing cupboard with a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel in the bottom topped with a thick layer of shredded newspaper was found to put the babies in. As they were not at all interested in eating that night, we feared the worst. All we could do was make sure they were warm and safe. Unbelievably, the next morning, five little heads peered up to greet us.
Now getting them to eat was our most important task. Claudia put some finely chopped tinned puppy food at room temperature in a dish with a low lip so it would be easy for them to reach and tempted them with a little bit on the end of her finger. It took a few minutes at first, but to our joy, soon it was a rampage.
They were very messy and greedy eaters, as their name would suggest. To keep them all happy, we spread food out on newspaper so they could all eat at the same time. They drank huge amounts of water, so we made sure the water dish in their box was always full. We fed them three times a day and if we were the slightest bit late they certainly let us know. A fierce collective cry of loud squeals emanated from the closed airing cupboard door but stopped the instant they saw us.
They lived altogether for the first few days, till the smallest one, whom we named Whisker, developed mange from skin mites and had to be segregated. A common problem for hedgehogs and one they are often born with that causes the skin to become rough and spikes to fall out. The condition did improve before it was released. To reduce the risk of spreading infection, we washed our hands after contact, a precaution also against possible ringworm infection, although I have read that this fungus is not widespread. In addition, hedgehogs have large fleas, but fortunately, the variety only lives on hedgehogs and is not attracted to humans, cats or dogs.
As they became bigger, stronger and more active, the four healthy hedgehogs graduated to a day-time playpen, made from a deep plastic fridge vegetable basket. ‘Whisker’ was able to play in his little shoebox and enjoyed a separate runaround with Claudia every day. When any of the hedgehogs had time out there were plenty of contented grunts, snorts and snuffles. We found they loved to have their noses stroked and their chins and tummies rubbed
The time came to begin acclimatization outdoors, to prepare them for survival in their natural environment. Our entire family plus towel and the prickly troop adjourned outside to the lawn near a group of trees where fallen leaves and twigs provided deep natural mulch and the likelihood of slugs, earwigs, snails and grass grubs. At first, the hedgehogs were not at all keen to leave the safety of the towel. They peered nervously over the outer edge and a couple toppled uncertainly onto the lawn. We helped out accompanied by gentle words of encouragement.
Each day they became more confident, till late one fine afternoon the time had come to let them go. Our sadness in losing our special friends was overridden by a quiet satisfaction in seeing them happily disappear unaided into the composting material where they were released. We left a dish of food and water out for the next few nights, but we did not see them return.
Although we missed our adopted family very much, their stay with us left us with a unique understanding of one of our most helpful garden friends and furthermore, without experiencing it for ourselves, who would ever have thought that such prickly animals could be so cuddly.
And just in case you are in a similar situation, it is useful to know that hedgehogs are mammals that hibernate in winter. They are born blind and deaf, without spines. As the skin of the newborn dries, soft white spines appear. The brown spines grow in-between these. They have 36 teeth and grow to around a kilo in weight. Hedgehogs have poor eyesight but this doesn’t worry them as being nocturnal they sleep during the day and at night track food helped by an exceptional sense of smell and hearing. So if you see a hedgehog out and about during the day, it is not well. Hedgehogs can swim, but they do need help getting out, unless the swimming area has gently sloping sides. Some farmers, who appreciate nature’s prickly little helper, incorporate special hedgehog ramps made from timber or concrete on metal cattle stops, so they don’t get stuck.