Hedgehog’s in the UK are in trouble. Their numbers have plummeted in recent years. One of the significant challenges for our spikey friends is a shortage of their natural foods.
In this article, we are going to look at:
- what they eat in the wild
- changes in hedgehog diet over time
- what they shouldn’t eat
- how you can help by feeding hedgehogs
- making your garden a hedgehog buffet
How Much Food Do Wild Hedgehogs Eat Each Night?
Hedgehogs are, well, quite hoggish to be honest. They eat an enormous amount of food. They like to fill their stomachs twice each night.
An adult hedgehog needs around 130 calories a day to survive. To get this, they will eat roughly 75grams, or 3 ounces, of food a night.
To put this in perspective, hedgehogs eat about 8% of their body weight each night. An adult man would need to eat 30 large jacket potatoes, or 15 lbs of food in a day to eat 8% of his body weight. That’s a lot of grub!
How do Hedgehogs Find Their Food?
Hedgehogs find their food by foraging through undergrowth and leaf litter and digging. They have very poor eyesight, but a fantastic sense of smell.
They work systematically over quite large areas each night, eating whatever suitable food they can find. Traditionally, damp and churned up fields grazed by cattle were a favourite feeding ground.
They can smell a worm or other tasty morsel 3 inches underground and will enthusiastically dig it out.
Hedgehogs have also evolved some sophisticated feeding methods to get the best out of certain types of food.
One of the most well-documented examples of this is the way they deal with slugs. They roll them up to remove the slime before eating. Take a look at this video of a very young hog eating a slug.
The bottom front teeth of the hedgehog slope forward, a bit like a shovel. These strange front teeth are probably something that has evolved to support their food rolling behaviour.
Though foraging is the primary feeding method, some hunting goes on as well, more on this later!
So what do Hedgehogs normally eat in the wild?
Pretty much anything they can find is the short answer.
Hedgehogs don’t seem to discriminate much in terms of eating things that are good or bad for them. The diet varies through the seasons and has changed over time. They are quite happy to take food from a feeding station and rummage through human food waste as well.
Invertebrates make up around 75% of the diet of a wild hedgehog. Proportions vary greatly depending on the time of year and what’s available in the area. But beetles are a favourite food, closely followed by caterpillars and earthworms.
Other invertebrates eaten include slugs, snails, earwigs and millipedes. Bees are occasionally taken, as are grasshoppers. Grasshoppers though are a very occasional treat, generally being too fast on their feet for a hog to catch.
Studies have shown that a hog will take up to 100 invertebrates in a night and thousands over a year. So it’s easy to see what a help hedgehog will be with pest control in your garden.
Birds eggs are also a favourite food. In the spring and early summer, the eggs of ground-nesting birds, or eggs that have fallen from the nest, make a convenient, high protein meal.
Hedgehogs are short-sighted, noisy and pretty slow-moving. They also have weak jaws and fairly blunt teeth. So its something of a surprise to find that they will prey on small mammals and birds.
It’s difficult to see what they’re eating as they mostly dine in the dark. So, much of our information comes from looking at hedgehog poo and examining stomach contents.
Fragments of birds, rabbits, shrews and rats have been found in stools and stomachs. There is some debate about whether these are carrion (animals that the hog has found already dead) or prey that they have killed themselves.
There are enough eye witness accounts though, for it to be clear that hunting does go on, although the hedgehog isn’t the main predator to any of our other mammals or birds.
For a more detailed, scientific look at hedgehog diet, you could read this fascinating article from Wildlifeonline.
Changes in Hedgehog Diet
Just as the hedgehog population has declined in recent years, so have the populations of many of the creatures hedgehogs eat.
You only need to think about how few butterflies and moths we see these days to realise how caterpillar numbers have decreased. The same goes for beetles and of course bees.
This decline is primarily due to loss of habitat through intensive farming, destruction of hedgerows and the use of pesticides.
Hedgehogs have had to turn to other foods. And we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of slugs (and snails) in the diet.
Although this might be good news for gardeners, it’s not such great news for hedgehogs.
Firstly because so many gardeners still use slug pellets to control these slimy beasts. And a hedgehog eating a slug who has had slug pellets will ingest those toxins itself.
Secondly, because even healthy slugs and snails are intermediate hosts for certain parasites, particularly lungworm and fluke. These aren’t a problem for the slugs. But they do cause trouble for hedgehogs when slugs form too large a part of the diet.
Human Food and Rubbish
With traditional food sources in decline and the hedgehogs’ natural tendency towards hoggishness, it’s no surprise to find that they will happily root through our rubbish.
But this can also get them into trouble.
Pat Morris, in his excellent book Hedgehogs, describes how hedgehogs love to lick the dregs from tins fruit, cups of coffee, yoghurt pots or McFlurry containers. Leaving aside whether this stuff is good for them, there is an obvious problem.
The hedgehog pokes its snout as far into the container as it can to get every last drop of yummy goodness. Then the hedgehog tries to back out, only to find its prickles have caught on the container and it is wedged into the container.
With most containers, but not tins, the hog may eventually be able to break them open and fight its way out. But even the best-case scenario is a stressed and confused hog that’s eaten something it probably shouldn’t.
Morris also describes problems the rubber bands often dropped in the street by postmen. These look a lot like worms, so might be eaten by mistake.
But more importantly, rubber bands get tangled around the feet of hedgehogs and birds. This can cause severe problems for wildlife.
What to Feed Wild Hedgehogs
With the growing scarcity of their natural food sources offering food to wild hedgehogs is a great way to help them.
Studies have shown that hedgehogs will not become dependant on the food you leave out for them. It will simply be a useful supplement, especially it times of hot, dry weather, or on the run-up to hibernation.
So, what food should you offer to hedgehogs visiting your garden?
You should be aiming for high protein food that mimics the natural diet.
These specially made foods give the balance of vitamins and minerals the hog needs. They also come with clear instructions on portion size, which can be very helpful.
Failing this, wet or dry dog or cat food makes a good substitute. If using cat food, we’re told not to use fish flavours. We can’t find any concrete evidence as to why, so this might just be an old wives’ tale. But better safe than sorry.
Along with the food, it’s a good idea to leave out a shallow dish of water, especially in dry weather.
Serve food and water in heavy, shallow dishes like this one. Hedgehogs can be clumsy creatures. A heavy dish helps to stop them from spilling everything.
What Not to Feed Hedgehogs
Hedgehogs will eat pretty much whatever you offer them. They’re not bothered about a healthy diet. So you need to choose carefully.
Here’s a shortlist of what not to offer your hedgehogs to eat.
- Bread and cakes; Hedgehogs will happily munch on bread and cakes. They are yummy, and so filling that the hedgehog may not feel hungry after eating them. Bread and cakes don’t have much nutritional value for a hog though. So although he may feel full, he could also be under-nourished.
- Milk; Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant. Milk cheese and any other dairy products can cause them serious digestive problems. They will happily lap milk up, but end up with severe issues in the bottom department later.
- Mealworms; High in protein but also high in phosphorus. These tasty little snacks can make it difficult for hedgehogs to absorb calcium. Lack of calcium can lead to fractures and bone deformities, especially in hoglets.
- Sunflower seeds and Peanuts; Although you may find seeds in hedgehog poo, it’s not a good idea to leave these out as food. Like mealworms, they are also high in phosphorus, which can cause bone problems. But they can also become wedged in the hedgehogs’ mouth, making it difficult for them to eat and even possibly leading to starvation.
Setting up a Hedgehog Feeding Station
Leaving out a dish of food and water will be a great help to your local hogs. Setting up a feeding station that protects the food from the elements and other animals like cats and foxes is even better.
To make your feeding station:
- Take a plastic storage box, or an old recycling box will do.
- Cut a hole about 5 inches square in one end at ground level.
- Tape the edges of the hole to cover any sharp bits.
- Place your food dishes inside.
- Place a brick on top to hold the station in place.
- Put a large, heavy object, like a big plant pot or a couple of bricks about 4 inches in front of the entrance. Creating this sort of a baffle, or tunnel will let the hedgehog get in, but stop any larger animals.
Take a look at this short video to see how exactly how to make your own hedgehog feeding station.
If this all seems like too much of a palaver you could always choose to buy a hedgehog house and use that as a feeding station.
Remember though; hedgehogs don’t like to eat and sleep in the same place. So you will need to provide two separate structures for eating and sleeping.
Gardening for Hedgehog Food
There are plenty of easy ways to make your garden a great, natural restaurant for hedgehogs.
Essentially you need to focus on making the garden insect-friendly. An insect-friendly garden will help not only your local hedgehogs but also plenty of our other native species.
Here are our top tips on filling your garden with hedgehog food.
- Avoid slug pellets and chemical weed killers.
- Dig a pond. Water in your garden is the foundation for a healthy, diverse eco-system. It doesn’t matter how small it is, and even a container pond will do the trick.
- Make a log pile. Rotting logs are a favourite home for beetles.
- Let a corner go wild. A wild corner will allow plenty of insect-life to develop.
- Plant a patch of wildflower meadow. Again, even a small patch can attract a host of insects. You can buy special butterfly-friendly seed mixes, which will give you lots to tasty caterpillars.
- Get a bug hotel.
Take a look at this BBC Countryfile Article for more tips on Hedgehog-friendly gardening.
Conclusion: Helping Hedgehogs Eat Well
British hedgehogs are in trouble. A decline in their natural sources of food is a major problem for them.
Intensive farming, the destruction of hedgerows and the use of pesticides have led to a considerable drop in the numbers of invertebrates that hedgehogs like to eat.
Luckily you can help by leaving out food to supplement their diet and by making your garden a natural hedgehog larder.
- Wild hedgehogs eat beetles, caterpillars, earthworms, slugs, birds eggs and other bugs and insects.
- Roughly 75% of the hedgehog’s diet is invertebrates.
- They also occasionally eat small mammals, birds and frogs.
- You can help them by supplementing their diet with specialist hedgehog food, meaty or dry cat or dog food.
- They should not be given milk or bread to eat. Bread does not have enough protein, and milk is bad for them.
For more information on how you can help hedgehogs visit:
And if you spot a hedgehog in trouble, you can find your local hedgehog rescue project by clicking here.
Do you have more questions on what hedgehogs eat? We’d love to hear from you, leave us a comment below.