It has never been more important to encourage and help hedgehogs which visit our gardens, with numbers down by half since the start of the last century.
As well as providing them with highways for free movement between gardens and creating places in which they can hide or sleep, giving them food and water could be vital. They can struggle to find suitable food in the wild which gives them the correct nutrition, so leaving out some kitten biscuits and water in a small non-tip dish could literally save their life.
It can also help attract them to your garden if you have set up hedgehog-friendly spaces for them, or want to help keep an eye on their wellbeing as part of a local conservation programme.
What do hedgehogs eat?
Many people may think that a hedgehog would naturally eat purely greens, but studies have shown they are mainly omnivores. Caterpillars, slugs, beetles, millipedes, earthworms and earwigs make up most of their diet but they can also eat frogs, toads, small mammals, carrion and the eggs of ground-nesting birds.
More housing and fenced/paved gardens mean a shortage of food for many hedgehogs
With the loss of habitats and insects in the wild, particularly within their own living area, they may wish to look for food elsewhere. This can bring its own challenges, on top of the lack of food and a balanced diet.
Providing food for hedgehogs
Cat food is not natural for them, of course. But it provides cats with balanced nutrition and does the same for hedgehogs. Plus, it is the most accessible way for you to help.
Tinned cat food is one of the easiest ways you can feed them. Crushed cat biscuits are also a good choice, and many wet and dry dog foods are also fine for them if this is instead what you have to hand. If you want to cater a bit more to their needs, dried kitten biscuits are the best option but try and give them a mixture of brands so they get everything they need through this alone, just in case they can’t find anything else.
You can also now buy dedicated hedgehog biscuits from wildlife suppliers
Never give them milk. Contrary to the myths saying they like it, this can cause severe diarrhoea. Provide them with fresh water instead.
Can hedgehogs eat fish cat food?
There is a belief that fish-based cat food is bad for hedgehogs. People say it can cause an upset stomach, and make them ill.
There is no proof of this. Fish protein is good in balanced diets (hence why it is found in dog and cat food). Too much of this could pass through a hedgehog quite quickly but it doesn’t mean that the protein is not ingested.
Hedgehogs have a good sense of smell and might be put off the strong fishy smell, as it is not something they would naturally eat or smell in the wild. This will likely be the only big issue.
Whatever you put out, if they are hungry, they will eat it
Variants such as chicken or beef food may be best to avoid any issues, but fish cat food will not harm your visitors as much as is believed.
When to feed hedgehogs
They should never be fed if they don’t seem to need help. Think about the current weather, how well the hedgehogs look and their seasonal behaviour.
What we feed them needs to be supplementary to their natural food sources. They can’t become too dependent, as they could start to rely on your food as opposed to exploring for it.
But it can be helpful just before or after hibernation season (November to March) or if the weather has been bad or very dry. Providing the food in Autumn when they need to store fat reserves is best.
Other foods suitable for hedgehogs
You can’t replicate a hedgehog’s natural diet, but you can still give them enough nutrition for a balanced diet. Providing them with food which they can eat to boost their natural diet feeding is important for encouraging their numbers in the future.
Never give them anything which is not suitable for animals. Anything sweet or salty can cause severe dental disease in these animals, which will affect their future ability to eat and can cause teeth to wear away. They cannot brush or clean their teeth, and their natural diet doesn’t give them tough food which can do it for them.
Treats don’t exist in a wild animal’s world, so bits of fruit or human food is not appropriate. If they have eaten grass or wild berries, it will likely have been by accident when eating their insects and slugs. They won’t eat it naturally and it provides no natural nutrition.
There is also talk out there that they can eat sunflower hearts or unsalted peanuts. Hedgehogs have been seen to be attracted to birdseed which contains these. They do provide high-fat content which can be good around hibernation, but they can have too much so you should avoid giving them altogether and allow them to find seeds or grains naturally.
The same applies to mealworms. Granted, hedgehogs do love them but given the choice, it is all they would eat. As a human would when faced with a choice between a lifetime of chocolate or cabbage, they will pick the nice option. A hedgehog would pick mealworms over even their traditional insects, becoming addicted.
For this reason, you should ditch the expensive worms and focus on dedicated food or cat/dog dinner – they wouldn’t naturally find mealworms in the UK wild, anyway.
What else you can do to help hedgehogs
The most important thing you can do for a hedgehog is to make them a home. Leave areas of your garden wild, with logs, leaves and dark spaces. This will attract the insects they can eat, as well as giving them shelter.
Helping to attract their natural foods is great because they are still showing wild traits and not relying on supplementary food. Remember to cover drain holes and fence off ponds. Remove any netting which they could become tangled in, and never use slug pellets.
Did you know that a hedgehog can walk up to three miles every night, possibly more when searching for a mate?
Give them room to roam by not filling your garden with storage, accessories and too many walls and plants. Encourage this and you may see some tiny hoglets wandering through your garden during the Summer months…
If you ever see a hedgehog that you feel needs further care and attention, ring a local wildlife sanctuary or a charity such as the RSPCA for further advice.