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Autumn hedgehog rescue December 3, 2019

In the autumn, hedgehogs living in the wild are threatened by fires and also, by the lack of time for the young born at the end of summer to reach the right condition before their winter dream begins. Let’s help them together.

With the advent of autumn, some wild hedgehogs face special difficulties. One of them is leaf burning. It happens quite frequently that the leaves gathered in increasing volumes due to the autumn leaf drop that has already started in small gardens are ignited. However, all this is happening at a time when hedgehogs are looking for a place to overwinter, and they pile themselves into such heaps of leaves. So it's important to point out that anyone who burns leaves must first turn over the piles of leaves, to see if there is a hedgehog who has selected that pile without having a clue about burning it. Our zoo strives to raise awareness of this precaution every autumn and, of course, we are also prepared to assist as necessary any hedgehogs that have been injured. It has happened before that a hedgehog rescued from the flames at the very last moment was brought to us. All the spines of the animal were burnt off and for two months he stank of smoke. Our rescue workers had to heal his injuries for two years before he was fully recovered and released back into the wild.

The other major problem with hedgehogs in the autumn is not related to human activity, but to the fact that these animals hibernate from late autumn to early spring, thus overcoming the scarcity of food in the winter. Of course, they have to get prepared for their hibernation. This is also important for animals more than one year old, as they need be in the proper condition and have sufficient fat reserves to provide the energy and nutrients they need to maintain the body's life processes during hibernation. In animals younger than one year of age, their condition should be accompanied by an appropriate degree of development. Achieving the condition needed to go into hibernation is usually a problem for animals that are unable to feed properly due to some injury or other problem, or were born late in the summer (let's say in August), and were unable to reach the right body weight and development in time. Such animals need human help to survive the winter.

Even among professionals, experienced hedgehog rescuers, there is some debate over the body weight, expressed in grams, under which help is needed. One view is that a hedgehog of 400-450 grams may successfully overwinter; and others consider the threshold of 500 g acceptable, but also, some talk about a weight of around 700 grams. The uncertainty over critical body weight is primarily due to the fact that the success of winter survival depends on many factors, such as when the really cold weather begins in any given year, and how long the real cold periods are, as well as what kind of shelter a hedgehog has found, and whether it will be the first winter for the animal or is it at least one year old, and of course it matters what the body of the animal in question is like (because there are differences amongst hedgehogs, the same way as amongst humans). It is not the same at what stage in the autumn we measure the weight of the animals. For example, a 200-gram hedgehog born this year has little chance of surviving the winter, but if its weight is up by early October and nature gives us a long, pleasant fall, even that hedgehog can achieve the desired condition by the time hibernation starts.

In our zoo, where we probably have the most rescue hedgehogs by national comparison, our experience is that animals must weigh at least 350-400 grams by early November. If they fail to reach this weight, it is worth helping them. Of course, we do not recommend that anyone should try this at home, off their own bat. Successful hedgehog-keeping requires expertise and experience, and hedgehogs native to Hungary are protected, so keeping them at home is unlawful, even if it is done with the best intentions. So animals in need should be brought to our Zoo's showroom, the Hedgehog Hospital. Before delivering them, it is advisable to consult via the phone with our rescue team in the Hedgehog Hospital.

We have been dealing with wildlife rescue for decades at the Budapest Zoo. We offer a second chance to specimens of wild, protected or specially protected species living in Hungary that, for some reason, need human assistance. The causes can be diverse; we take care of injured, poisoned, electrocuted, orphaned or debilitated, animals. We deal with 1,500 to 2,000 rescued animals each year, and last year exactly 1,807 were rescued. Half of the rescued animals are birds, but the most numerous species received is the hedgehog: in 2018, 357 hedgehogs were taken care of by our staff.

The centre of the rescue activity at our zoo, the Hedgehog Hospital opened in the summer of 2018 as part of the Once upon a Time Castle, which is essentially a demonstration rescue centre. At this rescue centre, on the one hand, we are able to take care of a lot more rescued animals than before, and on the other hand, most of the rescue work may be presented to the general public.

Hedgehog Hospital is one of the developments that took place thanks to the so-called ZOO4NAT programme. The project, implemented jointly with the Kosice Zoo between 2018 and 2019, was implemented with the support of the European Union and co-financed by the EU Regional Development Fund, as part of the Interreg VA Slovakia-Hungary Cooperation Program.