The hedgehog’s best friend
Hedgehog numbers have declined so dramatically that experts predict they could be extinct in some areas by 2050. Sheena Grant meets a woman who has dedicated her life to helping them
When Ros Rumbold started taking in sick, underweight and down-on-their-luck hedgehogs almost a quarter of a century ago she never imagined she may one day have a role to play in the very survival of the spiny species.
But that’s exactly what’s happened.
Earlier this year the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which has been compiling figures about hedghogs’ fortunes for more than a decade, said it believed there were now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK - down from an estimated two million in the mid-1990s and 36 million in the 1950s.
Numbers have plummeted so far, so fast, that the decline is on a par with that suffered by red squirrels and even tigers. If nothing is done to reverse the trend experts predict hedgehogs could be extinct from some areas by 2050.
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The situation puts Ros, who runs Ipswich Hedgehog Rescue, at the coalface as far as conservation of the species is concerned.
Since 1989 she has cared for at least 700 hedgehogs, of which around 470 have survived and been returned to the wild.
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Ros, however, doesn’t think of herself as a conservation warrior.
She just knows she is doing something she loves and feels passionately about.
“It’s hard when a hedgehog I’m caring for doesn’t make it but I look at it like this: none of those I have taken in would have survived if they had been left to fend for themselves,” she says.
At the moment she’s caring for just a handful of young hedgehogs - two of which she’s brought into her sitting room to show me. They are both underweight and were found wandering during the day by members of the public, always a sure sign that something is not right.
The smallest one will stay with Ros for the winter as it won’t be able to put on enough weight to hibernate and survive but the other one may just be big enough to release.
But one thing is certain, they won’t be the only guests at her Ashton Close home over the next few months. She’s expecting an influx of underweight youngsters between now and Christmas and before then, she’s got bonfire night to worry about.
Every year, countless numbers of hedgehogs and other small mammals are thought to perish as they shelter in bonfire stacks built ahead of November 5 and not checked before being lit.
“If people build a bonfire in advance they should check carefully for small animals before lighting it,” says Ros. “The best way to do that is lift sections with a long pole, 12 inches from the bottom of the pile or, ideally, move the pile and build it again just before lighting it.”
Sadly, bonfires are only one of a list of hazards faced by hedgehogs. Tens of thousands are killed on the roads each year and experts say other factors, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, could be partly to blame for the huge decline in numbers. Climate change, which increases the likelihood of extreme weather, is also considered a potential factor.
Despite the odds being stacked against them, Ros wouldn’t want to do anything else but release the hedgehogs she cares for back into the wild when they are ready.
“Anyone who looks after wildlife knows that you are just helping them to return to their natural lives,” she says. “I found it quite difficult emotionally with the first few I looked after but it doesn’t really affect me any more. Releasing them is success as far as what I am trying to do is concerned.”
She’s keen to point there are other ways people can help hedgehogs too.
“Hedgehogs are known as the gardener’s friend and one thing that people could do to really help them is to make their gardens hedgehog friendly,” she says.
That means not using garden chemicals, making sure ponds have exit points should anything fall in and making gardens accessible.
“Each hedgehog needs several gardens to forage for food but there is often no way for them to get from one garden to another,” says Ros. “There’s a great initiative called Hedgehog Street (www.hedgehogstreet.org or call 020 7498 4533) designed to address that.”
When Ros took in her first hedgehog her sons were just eight and four years old. To start with she used to keep her prickly patients in the house but when her family began to complain about the smell a shed was erected in the garden to house them instead.
These days the only hedgehogs that get to live in the house are the very young (anything up to four weeks) and the ornamental variety, of which Ros has several.
Hedgehogs inform almost every aspect of her life - including her clothing. On the day I visit she’s wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘Spike says hug a hedgehog’. Hedgehog pictures adorn her walls and a hedgehog draught excluder rests on an arm of the sofa.
Ros says her love of hedgehogs goes back to childhood and a well-thumbed copy of Beatrix Potter’s tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, given to her by parents in 1965, when she was five.
“It’s been read and re-read quite a lot of times,” says Ros.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that her interest became hands-on. She became a member of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and read a book by a man who had set up a wildlife hospital in Berkshire.
“Then the week before Christmas in 1990 I found a really small hedgehog out and about when it should have been hibernating,” she says. “They need to weigh at least 600g to get through hibernation and this one didn’t. I brought it home and looked after it.
“Unfortuntely that hedgehog died in February 1991 (it had lungworm which can lead to pneumonia). I felt heartbroken but was prepared to try again, if need be. Later that year some babies that had been abandoned by their mother were brought to me by a lady in Stowmarket, who had found them in her garage.”
Since then, Ros has rarely been without hedgehogs in need of care. Often they are just days or weeks old but sometimes they can be older and brought in with injuries, often caused by garden equipment such as strimmers. This year, she had to hand rear a litter of six youngsters.
“You do need to be dedicated but I still think they are easier to look after than human babies,” she says. “Between feeds they just go back to sleep.” She can comfortably care for eight individuals at any one time but at one point last winter ended up with 16.
“I reckon that I have taken in at least 30 hedgehogs a year for the last 23 years and two thirds of those I care for survive,” she says.
“It makes me feel good to know I’m helping a species that is now on the red list of endangered animals. I do it because I love them. It can be hard work and really sad if one doesn’t make it, but this is what I was meant to do. It’s my vocation.”
To get in touch with Ros, email email@example.com. To find out more about Ipswich Hedgehog Rescue visit www.clearwhitelight.co.uk/ihr