A Prickly Visitor Returns!

In April, I was pleased to see the return of a very welcome visitor – a hedgehog!

A neighbour had an old shed removed which I suspected the hog was using as a nesting place and that very night I was thrilled to see one turn up in the garden!

I already had the hedgehog feeder in place – which I’d made out of some old slabs and bricks left by the old owners of our house, so started leaving food out nightly and the hedgehog soon seemed to work out the way in and that the bowl magically refilled with food each day! I always leave a bowl of water at that end of the garden too, as hedgehogs drink a lot.

It seemed to be an opportune time to invest in a hedgehog house, so I quickly ordered one which arrived a couple of days later and I set about creating a home fit for a hog. Hedgehogs like to create their own nests so some hay placed inside the house to start it off, and some left in a pile outside for the hedgehog to bring in itself, then the house was ready for guests and all I needed to do was wait.

In the meantime, I was curious as to how the hedgehog was getting into the garden. It’s fenced all the way around with concrete baseboards, but there were some small gaps where the fences met and also a larger hole where some of the boards had come loose. So I set up a trailcam next to the gap in the fence to see if this was the favoured route, and bingo.

I was very impressed by the hedgehogs upper body strength as it hauled itself over the baseboard, and I hadn’t realised what good climbers they were. All the same, I wanted to make it a little easier for our nocturnal visitors so a quick trip to an orange-logo’d DIY warehouse and several block paving slabs later, and a hedgehog step was born!

Within a couple of weeks of the house being in place, I started noticing that the hedgehog was spending time in there each night during it’s visit – apparently they do this when checking out potential nest sites. A few nights of this and I was over the moon to see the hedgehog return in the early hours of the morning and start taking big mouthfuls of straw and leaves into the nest!

Once it was to it’s liking, the hedgehog promptly checked in and fell asleep! Since then, it’s stayed over on a regular basis. Not every night though, as hedgehogs apparently have a few nest sites on the go at once. Which makes sense I guess, as if something happens to one of the nest sites they always have somewhere else to go.

I put food out in the feeder when I return from work each evening. I started to notice that on the days that the hog stayed in the house, it would often get up in the early evening to have an early snack, before going back to bed until a more hedgehog-appropriate hour after dark. The major benefit of this is that I’ve managed to get some colour footage of the hedgehog, especially while the evenings are quite light.

The most extreme example of this was one weekend where I was only at the house sporadically and would be away in the early evening, so I put food into the feeder at lunchtime. Only for the hedgehog to rise at 1pm for it’s snack! This worried me initially as hedgehogs should NOT be out in the day unless they are a nursing mother, but it returned to it’s normal routine as soon as I did, so I assume the smell of food woke it up!

One weekend evening in May, after a day of glorious sunshine stormclouds rolled in and it went really, really dark. This seemed to confuse the hedgehog into thinking that dusk had fallen, and it came out for food. Seeing movement by the feeder, I ran for my camera and longest lens and hid at the end of the patio. I didn’t want to disturb it by getting too close, but managed to get a few shots as it emerged from the feeder. I will always treasure these, along with a spine I found in the water bowl one morning.

As the weeks passed, I began to think that maybe there were two hedgehogs visiting, rather than just one. Some convenient scratching of hedgehog nether-regions in front of the camera made me think there was at least a male and a female visiting. Then one evening a hedgehog was drinking from the water bowl when it visibly bristled – it was fascinating to see this reaction, and something I’d never seen before.

On watching the footage from the trail camera on the lawn, I realised that there was another hedgehog foraging on the lawn at the same time! It was a while before I caught them on camera at the same time but the reaction was not friendly, and somewhat akin to an episode of Robot Wars played with hedgehogs.

Hedgehogs are very solitary creatures, and apparently reactions like this are fairly common. I’ve seen hedgehog interactions a couple of times now on the cameras, and each time the aggressor is the smaller male hedgehog. He’s been christened Tiny Thuglife and I wonder if he’s a youngster that hasn’t quite worked out appropriate social interaction with other hedgehogs yet.

Last week there was an incident of hedgehog fisticuffs outside the feeder. For a while afterwards the bigger hog stayed balled, while the smaller one went to eat. Eventually it uncurled but remained wary as Tiny Thuglife came out of the feeder and ran into the house – I like to think this is some kind of progress?!

I am loving having the hedgehogs visit. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I realised we had hedgehogs in the area – I have fond memories of watching them feed on my gran’s patio when I was a child, and had hoped to do the same in my own home. I’m hoping the hedgehog house remains in use, and maybe is a hibernation spot this Winter and even a nursery next year… Their antics are great to watch, be that pulling a worm out of the lawn like spaghetti, or using their water bowl as a foot spa!

Help Your Hedgehogs!

There are some simple ways that you can encourage hedgehogs into your own garden, and make life easier for any visitors you do have –

  • Provide a hedgehog highway, a 13 x 13cm gap to provide a route under or through any fencing round the garden. Hedgehogs are capable of roaming a great distance every night in search of food, some people estimate that they can travel up to 3 miles nightly.  Opening up our back gardens to them not only makes it easier for them to do this but also helps keep them away from roads and cars!

 

  • Provide water. Hedgehogs drink a great deal and so water is essential, especially in hot weather.  A shallow bottomed plant pot saucer is ideal.

 

  • Provide food. Cat biscuits are an ideal option (Tesco kitten biscuits are a good choice), or a hedgehog specific food.  Please don’t feed mealworms – hedgehogs love these and will eat them to the exclusion of everything else if given a chance, and too many of them causes a imbalance of calcium and phosphorus in the bones, which ultimately can case Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) which is similar to rickets and fatal to hedgehogs.  It weakens the bones to the point the hedgehog is in severe pain and won’t be able to forage for food, meaning a slow, lingering death.

 

Some say that a few mealworms can be provided as a treat, but I avoid them altogether as if a hedgehog is feeding from a few gardens where a few mealworms are provided, it can still be eating enough to be harmful.  I still feed mealworms to the birds in the garden but only under a ground feeder cage which the hedgehog can’t get into, never in hanging feeders where there is the possibility of spillage.

 

The risk of MBD to hedgehogs has only recently been widely publicised, and there are a few manufacturers still putting mealworms in hedgehog food, so check the ingredients before you buy.

 

  • Pond safety – if you have a pond, make sure it’s always full and that there is access out such as ledges or a slope on each side should a hedgehog fall in. They are great swimmers but if they fall into a pond and can’t get out they can still tire and drown.  I used a length of coated chicken wire to provide an access route out of the long edge of our pond that didn’t have an easily available ledge.

Early Spring at NQ Growboxes

I think it’s safe to say that last year at NQ Growboxes was a tough one. The plants and wildlife were thriving, but against increasing opposition from the human species of Manchester. The boxes were installed in 2011 and so were showing their age. This seemed to prove irresistible to drunken people leaving the nearby bars and clubs, and it seemed that after every weekend the boxes were a little more destroyed. The boxes were literally being pulled apart. The manager of a nearby apartment block tried to patch them up as much as possible but it felt like a losing battle. It was so sad and dispiriting to see such a wonderful place in such a sad state.In early March though, the boxes were repaired and a lot of rotten wood replaced. And they looked smashing! The old wood was piled up at the edge of the site which allowed any inhabitants that had made their homes in the wood to escape.

Though I’ve made an effort to get to the boxes at least once a week over Winter, my beewatch began in earnest in March. It was still quite cold so not many insects around but my visits did not go unrewarded. There are plenty of birds around at this time of year, including a lovely Blackbird pair who nest somewhere nearby each year. As city dwellers they seem to be quite used to people, so will come quite close to you if you stay quiet and still (or if they are distracted by the tasty treats on offer in the boxes).

There was also a beautiful Dunnock who seemed on a personal mission to soundtrack my March visits with his Very Best Song.

Slowly, invertebrates started to arrive. I was pleased to see this beautiful gold Honeysuckle Sawfly return, I saw one for the first time here last year. Sawflies are a strange one, they are often described as Stingless Wasps but though they look a bit like wasps or flies, they are neither. Their name comes from the female’s ovipositer (egg-laying apparatus) which unfolds like a jacknife and is used to saw into a plant stem to create a space for her to lay her eggs.

The ladybirds started to emerge too, including this one with a really interesting pattern. Normally this would be a sign that the adult ladybird had freshly hatched, and it’s shell was hardening and pattern developing. But it seemed way too early in the year for this, so I’m not sure what had happened here!

Finally, my first bee arrived. A beautiful queen Bombus terrestris (Buff-Tailed Bumblebee). One of the first bee species to start nesting each year, I found her warming up on a leaf at the edge of the boxes.

Another queen arrived a couple of days later and I found her snoozing on the edge of one of the boxes. Her eyes were really beautiful, they seemed to be dark blue with black patches in them. I’m not sure if it was a mutation of some kind, there are some solitary bees that have patterned eyes like this but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a bumblebee.

Quickly following the bumblebees, the first solitary bees of the year arrived! These were Andrena or Mining Bees, part of the UK’s biggest bee genus with 68 species found here. These arrive at the boxes each year and must nest somewhere nearby – although I keep my eye out every year I haven’t yet discovered where. They like to nest in light soil so I think they may nest at the edge of the carpark or on the canalside somewhere.The males emerge earlier than the females and first to arrive was this male Andrena bicolor (Gwynne’s Mining Bee), a seriously tiny bee covered in black hair.

There was also a male Andrena haemorrhoa (Orange Tailed Mining Bee) who sports an excellent golden moustache.

The males were quickly followed by the females who I usually found sunbathing on the rhubarb on chillier days.

I also found a female Smeathman’s Furrow Bee, Lasioglossum smeathmanellum. These tiny metallic bees are one of the longest flying bees at NQ Growboxes – they can be around from April right through to the end of the season. This might not be that surprising though as the growboxes is their ideal habitat – they love brownfield sites with plenty of wildflowers and composites. It’s rarer in the North of England than the South though so it’s another species we are lucky to have.

April ended with the emergence of the apple blossom which brought with it the Mason Bees! The first male Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) are attracted to apple blossom like a magnet, normally a rear end sticking out of a bloom is the best sighting you can hope for!

Also spotted were the first Blue Mason bee females, which is unusual. The males emerge first and so it’s unusual to see females this early. Like most bees they are often to be found warming up on the side of the boxes and the seat between boxes 5 and 6 is a popular sunbathing spot for a variety of bees.

All in all, a great start to the NQ Growboxes year!

Frogspawn!

While the garden has always had more than it’s fair share of frogs in all sizes, from mini to maxi, there’s always been one thing lacking in the Spring – Frogspawn!

Each year I’ve hoped to see a mound of jelly-like globules in the water, and every year so far I’ve been disappointed. I’ve always assumed that our frogs disappeared off to the ponds they were born in to spawn there and then return.

So it was with great excitement in March that I came home from work one day and found a small lump of spawn in the water! There then began a nerve wracking few weeks where I had my fingers, toes and everything crossed that the weather wouldn’t turn again and kill the spawn.

I took a few photos as the spawn developed over the weeks, it was really fascinating to see the black blobs turn into something reminiscent of a tadpole inside the egg.

I also bought a cheap, second-hand waterproof point and click camera to get an idea of what was going on under the surface. This was incredible to see, and good timing as just a few short days after I took these shots the tadpoles hatched!

At time of writing (July) our tadpoles still haven’t turned into frogs. They have become enormous however, so I don’t think it’s far off. They did seem to take a long time to develop even at the egg stage, and I think the weather had a lot to do with this. We’ve had some quite dramatic temperature fluctuations here in Spring and early Summer – at one point we had temperatures between 4 degrees and the early 20’s within the same week! I think this may have affected their development. I’m not too worried though and am looking forward to seeing the young frogs climb out of the pond for the first time later in the year