Hedgehogs will certainly eat eggs and even small birds if they get the chance. But hedgehogs do not pose a threat to the ground-nesting birds found in the UK mainland. Put hedgehogs in other situations, though, and they can become a real menace to the bird population.
Will Hedgehogs Harm Ground Nesting Birds?
This question has caused plenty of controversy over the years, And as with so many matters hedgehog-related, the answer is “it depends”.
Do Hedgehogs Attack Birds?
Hedgehogs certainly eat birds, but whether they attack live birds is unclear.
Hedgehogs are insectivores, and their primary food sources are beetles, insects and other invertebrates such as slugs and snails.
But they are also opportunistic eaters and give almost anything a go. This is why they take so readily to the hedgehog food that many of us leave for them. It’s also why they will eat things that are bad for them, like bread and milk.
Evidence of birds and small mammals have been found in many studies examining the contents of hedgehog stomachs. So there is no doubt that hedgehogs do eat birds and chicks.
But what’s less clear is whether hedgehogs kill birds or simply eat carrion – birds that are already dead.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal and go about their business at night. They also like to stick to undergrowth and hedgerows, places where they have plenty of cover, as much as possible.
So it can be challenging to see exactly what a hedgehog is getting up to during the night, and sightings of hedgehogs actually attacking birds are few and far between.
This isn’t altogether surprising. Birds, after all, move pretty quickly and have the advantage of flight. So a hedgehog’s chances of catching one are probably pretty slim.
Though there is little evidence, it would seem reasonable to expect that as well as eating carrion, hedgehogs will predate sick, weak, or small birds and chicks. Those that they have a chance of catching.
Do Hedgehogs Eat Eggs?
Oh yes, hedgehogs will most certainly eat eggs. As will pretty much any other animal that gets a chance.
Eggs, as any dietitian will tell you, are nature’s perfect food—full of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals.
So who really can blame the hedgehog for taking such a nutritious treat when they get the chance.
But in our gardens, that chance doesn’t come that often.
Hedgehogs Are Not A Threat To Birds In Our Gardens
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, hedgehogs can only tackle relatively small eggs with thinner shells. Their teeth and jaws just aren’t strong enough to crack open a hens egg, for example.
Secondly, though many of our garden birds, like robins, thrushes and blackbirds, are ground feeding, they mostly nest higher up. Even robins, who do sometimes nest on the ground, like a very well concealed hollow that would not offer easy access to a hedgehog.
The eggs (and chicks) that hedgehogs eat in our gardens have usually fallen from the nest.
How Do Hedgehogs Eat Eggs?
Hedgehogs tend to eat eggs by piercing a hole in the shell with one of their canine teeth and then licking out the contents. They tend to avoid eating the shells.
So eggs can be difficult to identify in hedgehog poo, and there is very little research on what proportion of the hedgehog diet is made up of eggs in the nesting season. But for hedgehogs in our gardens, eggs are an occasional treat rather than a staple food.
Hedgehogs and Birds in Other Locations
Hedgehogs may occasionally eat a bird, a chick or an egg in your garden if they get the chance. But those chances don’t come that often. Hedgehogs don’t pose a threat to our garden birds, so we don’t need to block up the hedgehog highway to protect our feathered friends!
But this isn’t the case everywhere. Where hedgehogs come into close proximity with colonies of ground-nesting birds, they can cause real problems.
The Uist Hedgehogs
North and South Uist are islands in the Hebrides off the Scottish coast. They are famed for their nesting grounds, supporting thousands of wading birds, including Dublin and redshank, which have become quite rare in other places. About a quarter of the entire UK population of Dublin and ringed plover come to the tiny Uist islands to nest.
There are no native hedgehogs on Uist. In fact, there are very few native land mammals at all. The islands were engulfed in ice during the last ice age, and by the time the ice receded, the sea level had risen, cutting them off from the mainland and making them inaccessible to land mammals.
This, of course, is what makes them such a successful breeding site for ground-nesting birds. There are few predators.
Of course, man has brought mammals with him to the islands. From relatively harmless sheep and cows to cats, rats and eventually hedgehogs.
Seven hedgehogs were brought to the islands in the 1970s to control garden pests. By 2002 there were estimated to be over 5,000.
The same lack of predators that had protected the birds, along with the unspoilt and thinly populated environment on the islands, had allowed hedgehogs to thrive.
And perhaps another contributing factor in the hedgehogs’ success was the banquet of birds nests laid on for them every spring by colonies of ground-nesting birds.
Studies and plenty of photographic evidence showed that hedgehogs were raiding nests, eating eggs and chicks. They negatively impacted bird populations, and under EU law, action had to be taken.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) decided to try to eradicate the Uist hedgehog population by killing them. Not surprisingly, this met with outcry from conservationists and hedgehog enthusiasts, including Hugh Warwick of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.
The hedgehog supporters recognised that the hogs on Uist were a problem but felt that rather than capturing and killing them, they should be captured and moved back to the mainland – where we desperately need more hogs – to be released into more suitable environments.
SNH disagreed, claiming that the process of relocation would be cruel and traumatising for the hedgehogs concerned.
In 2003, the killing began.
At the same time, the Uist Hedgehog rescue group was set up. They relied on public donations, tens of thousands of pounds were raised, and volunteers to capture hedgehogs for removal and release in suitable sites on the mainland.
Nevertheless, in 2004 the rescuers and the SNH combined only managed to catch 500 hedgehogs, 10% of the population. Catching hedgehogs at night in open country is hard work, and it was estimated that each hedgehog captured and killed by SNH was costing the taxpayer £350.
Eventually, under the weight of public opinion and the evidence that the translocated hogs were thriving, the killing was stopped.
But there is little hope of eradicating hedgehogs from the Uists. Though public funding has been removed, volunteer rescuers still catch and relocate hogs back to the mainland each year.
But the proportion of the population captured each year is less than the proportion of mainland hogs killed in traffic accidents. The Uist hogs continue to thrive.
In some areas of Uist where hogs are present, the bird breeding populations have recovered; in others not. But it looks like hedgehogs on Uist and here to stay.
You can read the full story in Pat Morris’ Hedgehog book.
New Zealand Hedgehogs
New Zealand also has a very healthy population of introduced hedgehogs.
Like Uist, New Zealand has no native land mammals. Human settlers in the 19th century found this situation weird, and the New Zealand Animal Acclimatization Act was introduced to allow the import of familiar creatures to make the human settlers feel more at home.
And like Uist, much native New Zealand fauna had evolved in an environment with few mammal predators. So the introduction of non-native species had a devastating effect on local wildlife.
The hedgehog is one of the introduced species which has thrived. He’s done well from a lack of natural predators, an abundance of ground-nesting birds, small lizards and unwary insects.
In the North Island, the climate is so mild that hedgehogs don’t need to put themselves through the rigours of annual hibernation. So they live longer and breed more. There are now more hedgehogs in New Zealand than in the UK.
New Zealand has a plan to eradicate all non-native species by 2050 in an effort to restore the natural balance of the local environment. They’ll have their work cut out. But when it comes to eradicating species like rats and possum, there is plenty of public support.
But eradicating hedgehogs doesn’t go down quite so well. They’re cute, after all.
There had been talk of shipping them back to Europe. But unlike the journey from Uist to Glasgow, New Zealand to the UK really isn’t feasible.
Read more on the New Zealand hedgehogs here.
Conclusion: A Place for Everything.
As nature lovers, we must accept that in the wild, creatures eat one another. But still, it’s good to know that the hedgehogs that we welcome into our gardens aren’t going to harm our nesting birds.
At the same time, the stories of the Uist and New Zealand hedgehogs are a sobering reminder of just how easy it is to upset the balance of nature. And how incredibly difficult it can be to put things right again.
It’s certainly not the fault of these hedgehogs that they are doing damage, but they will undoubtedly suffer in our efforts to preserve native wildlife. Simply because we put them in the wrong place.
Hopefully, we can start to learn from things like this how little we really know of the complexity of nature and that it’s far better not to meddle with things we don’t understand.
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