Category Archives: Wildlife

Winter care for hedgehogs

Erinaceus Eurpaeus

Back in June last year, I wrote an article about hedgehogs because we found one in the lane.  I talked about their habitat, breeding cycle, what they like to read, how they starch their little pocket hankins without tearing them on their prickles etc etc and how to encourage them into the garden.

But now that autumn is approaching, we might want to give some thought to how to care for them during the winter.  Although hedgehogs don’t usually go into hibernation until the end of October or the beginning of November, hoglets that have been born later in the year, called autumn juveniles, may not have grown sufficiently to allow them to hibernate and will need extra care and it is at this time of the year that we need to keep our eyes open for these smaller animals..

Autumn Juveniles:
Autumn juveniles need to weigh at least 1lb / 450g to have enough weight to see them through the winter.  If you find one wandering around after about the end of September, it might be a good idea to put some food and water out to give it a fighting chance.  You can buy special hedgehog biscuits and a canned food called ‘Spike’s Dinner’ if you’re really dedicated, but there are some menu ideas below.

Many baby hedgehogs

Baby Hedgehogs or Hoglets:
If a hoglet is under 6oz / 160g it will need food and warmth during the winter or it will die.  It will need to be placed in a box with lots of clean straw, old towels or scrunched up newspapers.  If it’s really cold, a little hot water bottle could be placed in the box as well.  Make sure you don’t put the little bods on a concrete or mesh floor as their feet are very sensitive and they will get chilled.

Feeding:
Hoglets will need to be fed. An appropriate diet would consist of meat pet food, without gravy, chopped cooked chicken without bones, minced beef or lamb or even a bit of bran or unsweetened  muesli cereal with a bit of water to moisten it.  They also like banana, raisins, unsweetened crushed digestive biscuits and dry cat or hedgehog biscuits.  They will need a drink of fresh water but cows’ milk must not be given as it gives them diarrhoea.  If in doubt, contact your vet or the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Hibernation:
Adult hedgehogs start to hibernate around the end of October or November and their hibernacula are similar to their nesting sites but thicker and more protected. These nests are often sited under tree roots or piles of brushwood, old rabbit burrows, piles of garden waste or under sheds and outbuildings.  These nests can be up to 20” / 50cm thick.  They do occasionally wake up during hibernation but rarely leave their nests.

The main problem with their nesting sites is that often choose places that humans have earmarked for bonfires.  As November 5th approaches, take great care to check heaps of garden rubbish and if you’re preparing a bonfire in advance, check it before the night and, ideally, move it on the day of the bonfire.

They usually start to emerge from hibernation around the middle of March to early April but this will depend on the weather.

Hedgehogs are the gardener’s friends and should be encouraged.  If you go onto the BHPS website they may be able to advise you on how to obtain a hedgehog for your garden and there is useful information on how to care for hedgehogs and how to build a simple nesting box to keep them safe and warm.

By the way though, they don’t really read or wear aprons… they’re fantastic at croquet though.

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Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle, bicycle … rack

A splendid summer evening

Yesterday evening the boys went to Pitsford with the Scouts for the annual 7-mile cycle round the reservoir followed by a barbecue.  Until recently, the boys’ bikes have been small enough to get both of them into the boot of the car, but they will persist in getting taller, and Boy the Elder’s bike is now bigger than mine.  I was forced to buy a bike rack.

A couple of months ago I bought a large tent in the sales and a bike rack, with the intention of attempting a brief camping trip with our bicycles in the summer holidays.  I hate camping with a passion I find hard to express, but I figured that if I had a tent I could actually stand up in and a covered area for cooking if it rained, it would be marginally more tolerable.

Naturally, there is always a part of me which is utterly convinced that our holiday will be like a Famous Five novel, pedalling gaily down country lanes, picnicking on sardines, heaps of tomatoes and ginger beer.  We will then retire, tired but happy, to our tents pausing only to climb into crisp winceyette pyjamas before sleeping the sleep of the innocent.  Will it bollocks.  But I digress…

I had forgotten about the bike ride and, just as it started to rain, I realised that I needed to assemble the damned bike rack.  I opened the box and pulled out a large piece of metal and a couple of bags of straps and metal bits, which I laid out neatly on the grass by the car.

I have never owned a bike rack, and because I haven’t needed one, I haven’t paid the slightest attention to the assemblage of such items on the cars of others.  I instructed the boys to go far away from me, with the gravest of threats should they utter a single sound, and set to work.

I always read instruction booklets and never fail to be amazed at how easy it is to do things when you already know how to bloody do them!  I dutifully followed the booklet, step by step, strap by strap, ratchet by ratchet.  Then I undid all the straps and re-assembled them in the correct wotsanames.  I turned grippy things with one hand whilst trying to balance an unwieldy array of metal tubing exactly two inches above my bumper, whilst avoiding another metal tube which hovered exactly one inch in front of my right eye..

Having finally got the rack in the right position with all the metal sticking out at the correct angles, I crawled under the car in search of a hole in which to hook the bottom straps.  I drive a 12-year old, hag-ridden Ford Escort which I have decorated to look a bit like a Spitfire – the underside is not a pretty sight, particularly on a muddy, stony track, just as it has started to rain.

In all honesty,  neither was I a pretty sight by this time; dirty from the proximity to my car, sweaty with exertion, my long skirt tucked into my knickers, my wet hair plastered to my head and now covered in mud and gravel from crawling under a pseudo-Spitfire.  But England wasn’t built on glamour and competence! No sir!

After an hour of swearing, cursing and ratcheting, the thing was done, the bikes were strapped on and we were going to be 20 minutes late.  I had no time to change my clothes and we headed for Pitsford.  As the rain became increasingly torrential, badgers and rabbits started appearing in the hedgerows in pairs, holding paws and looking expectantly at the rising puddles.

I parked the car and the boys set off at top speed to catch up with the others.  I squelched across the car park in strappy sandals, my rain sodden skirt clinging to my legs in the fashion of an unpleasantly mis-shapen mermaid.

‘At least there’ll be hot dogs’ I thought, but the barbecue was wet and the Scout Leader was manfully erecting a tent in a desperate attempt to bring the spitting, smoking pile of charcoal under canvass.  I stood sullenly with damp, corned-beef arms wrapped around my dripping torso in a futile attempt to fend off certain consumption and probable mildew of the extremeties.

Eventually, thanks to the good spirits and efforts of other people, the barbecue was lit and the heavenly scent of sausages and burgers wafted through the air, just as my boys hove into view.  Boy the Younger claimed to have had a heart attack half way round and Boy the Elder had torn his trousers.  Despite my misery, I was terribly proud of Boy the Younger who has never cycled 7 miles in one go before, and I patted his soggy head and wiped the rain from his little pale cheeks as he munched on his hotdog.

‘Enough of this,’ I said ‘I’m going home, and if you want hot cocoa you had better come at once.’  They jumped into the car whilst I wrestled the bikes back onto the rack.  We drove home with all haste, wipers struggling to hold back the rain and narrowly avoiding a large wooden boat parked at the side of the A508, small animals gratefully ascending the gang plank…

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Filed under Children, General DIY, Leisure, Outdoor Activities, Wildlife

Let’s hear it for … The Beetles

In which the Wartime Housewife discusses the importance of leaving a bit of your garden messy to attract beetles.

The other night I heard a great crashing on my kitchen window.  I ran though, assuming that, at the very least, that it was an eagle  who had missed the last bus.  What I saw was an incredible furry creature with bright orange fans on the end of its antennae, brown wing cases and a sort of black and white diamond pattern on its furry sides.  It was flinging itself with gay abandon against my window but was unable to get any purchase on the thin spars.  I ran for my camera.

Cockchafer or Maybug at my kitchen window

Look at those amazing antennae and the astonishing condition of my window frames

I consulted the insect book and discovered that it was a Maybug or Cockchafer beetle (No sniggering at the back, Jennings).  Melolontha Melolontha is often seen in British gardens in May and June.  They are super flyers and on summer evenings they often fly around houses, and inadvertently crash into windows or wander into your living room.

They are quite big – around 3cm/1.3” long – which can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re not expecting them, but they are completely harmless.  Although my mother didn’t think this when one got tangled up in her formal hairdo in the 1960s.  I think, in England, we’re just not used to seeing big insects but they should be a cause of joy and interest and must be encouraged.

A cockchafer - my picture's much more exciting

The cockchafer is found all over Britain and its habitat is woodlands, fields, hedgerows and gardens.  There are more of them in the south but their numbers are declining.  They eat deciduous leaves and flowers but they rarely cause much significant damage in Britain.

Another beetle which I used to see a lot as a child is the Stag Beetle, Lucanus cervus, but I have only seen one beetle since 1973.  The stag beetle is a protected species and it is the largest beetle in Britain at between 2.3-7.5cm / 1-3”.  The larvae love rotting wood and vegetation and they lay their eggs underground by logs and tree stumps – the larvae can spend as long as seven years chomping away on the rotting wood, although the adults don’t seem to need to feed.

A stag beetle - sadly I don't have a photo of one of these

Of the UK’s 4000 species of beetle, 250 haven’t been seen since  the early 1970s and could be threatened with extinction.  Beetles are terribly important in nature.  They recycle dead and rotting wood, some pollinate flowers whilst others are the refuse collectors of the wild, clearing up dung and sometimes even small dead animals.  Their habitats are precarious and even small changes can be catastrophic, not only for them, but for the animals that predate them.

‘All of the terrestrial ecosystems would collapse if you removed the beetle,’ said Max Barclay, beetle expert at the Natural History Museum. ‘Beetles are fundamental to most of the land environments on earth’.

We are all terribly keen to attract birds and mammals into our gardens, but insects are just as exciting and it can be tremendous fun finding and identifying them.  I used to read nature books as a child and would get terribly huffy when they claimed that such and such was common all over England.  Not in Staines it wasn’t.  I remember the excitement of seeing a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle for the first time in 1998 in Oundle and thinking ‘At last!’

All sorts of beetles can be attracted to your garden by the simple expedient of leaving a bit of it to go its own way; leave a patch wild.  Try to leave an area which has a pile of leaves, some fallen branches and a rotting log, a pile of stones and some dead stems which will provide a fabulous feeding and over-wintering site for beetles and other insects such as bush crickets, malachite beetles, mint leaf beetles, common red soldier beetles, shield bugs and our friends, the stag beetles.

A small wild area can create a haven for insects

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Filed under Slider, The Garden, Wildlife

Natural Home Remedies: Part 4 – Bee Propolis

 

This jar cost £5 and should last at least 3 years

In which I discuss the origin and medicinal usefulness of Bee Propolis, it being anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, emollient and cicatrizant.

 Back in September, I reported on our trip to Audley End in Essex for Boy the Elder’s 13th birthday.  One of the groups of people we encountered was The Essex Beekeeping Association.  I think Beekeeping is a practically magical pastime that has so many positive association; nature, honey, waggle-dances*, the inexplicable ability to fly and their vital role in the ecological balance of Earth.

For humans the medicinal effects of propolis are most efficacious and it is available directly from beekeepers and from health food shops in various preparations including raw propolis, creams, lozenges and tinctures.

Propolis is routinely used for the relief of various conditions, including inflammation, viral diseases, ulcers and superficial burns or scalds. It is also believed to promote heart health, strengthen the immune system and reduce the chances of cataracts. 

Old beekeepers recommend a piece of propolis kept in the mouth as a remedy for a sore throat and I can attest to the value of this.  Put a small lump of propolis into your mouth and press it firmly into one of your back teeth.  Allow the propolis to dissolve slowly throughout the day or overnight and the soreness or phlegm is significantly reduced or gone completely.

Claims have been made for its use in treating allergies but propolis may cause severe allergic reactions if the user is sensitive to bees or bee products.  As always, I would never recommend treatment for this kind of condition without consulting an accredited Naturopathic practitioner.

Propolis has also been the subject of recent dentistry research, since there is some evidence that it may actively protect against caries and other forms of oral disease, due to its antimicrobial properties. 

There are also clinical investigations being undertaken in Japan for the use of propolis as an anti-tumour agent as it would appear that propolis may induce cell cycle arrest and have an anti-proliferation effect on C6 glioma cells.

But what exactly is Propolis?

Propolis is a mixture of various amounts of beeswax and resins collected by the honeybee from plants, especially from flowers and leaf buds. Bees have been observed scraping the protective resins of flower and leaf buds with their mandibles and then carrying them to the hive like pollen pellets on their hind legs. It is assumed that at some point during the collection and transport of these resins, they are mixed with saliva and other secretions of the bees as well as with wax.

The resins are then used by worker bees to reinforce the structural stability of the hive.  It lines the inside of nest cavities and breeding combs, and is also used to repair combs, seal small cracks in the hive, reduce the size of hive entrance and to mix small quantities of propolis with wax to seal brood cells.  These functions also have the associated advantage that the antibacterial and antifungal effects of propolis seem to protect the colony against diseases.  It also reduces vibration and can be used to seal off any waste matter that is too big to remove from the hive and might otherwise putrefy and cause disease.

Further reading:

http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/news-healthiest-insect-produce-you-could-wish/    

* Five Boys by Mick Jackson – essential reading if you want to know about Waggle Dancing.  No, not the beer.

 
 
 

 

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Erinaceus Europaeus: all about hedgehogs

I haven’t seen a live hedgehog for years.  For that matter I hardly ever see them squashed on the roads either.  I had begun to wonder whether their numbers were in decline, but according to The British Hedgehog Preservation Society, their numbers are healthy and they are common throughout Great Britain.

They live for about 5 years and they are solitary and nocturnal.  In the summer hedgehogs spend the day in temporary nests made of leaf litter and twigs. They hibernate during the winter, in a small nest (a hibernaculum) – most hedgehog deaths occur during this hibernation period. Their 6,000 spines, which are about  1” long offer protection from predators as they roll up into a tight ball covering the head and soft underside. Their underside is covered in coarse fur and I bet you didn’t know they have little tails.  Oh they do!  They have a good sense of smell and hearing but have poor eyesight and see only in sepia tones.

Hedgehogs have up to 2 litters a year, of about 4 – 5 hoglets.  When hedgehogs are born their spines are just below the skin, so they don’t cause their mother pain. They are blind at first, but after about 2 weeks their spines begin to show more, and their eyes open. Hedgehogs also have baby teeth, just like humans. These fall out by about 3 weeks. Hedgehogs leave their nests when they are about 4 to 5 weeks old, and they then must learn to fend for themselves. 1 out of 5 hedgehogs die before they leave the nest.

The Boys found this little hoglet wandering away from the hedgerow towards the road and after several minutes of ooh-ing and aah-ing over its utter gorgeousness, it was returned to the hedgerow.  A neighbour reported having seen an adult hedgehog snuffling around a few yards down the road, so we left nature to sort itself out.

Hedgehogs are the gardeners’ friends as they eat slugs, beetles and caterpillars but does no other harm.  You will not find them gathering your strawberries in tiny wicker baskets or carefully laundering your underpants when they fall from the line. Neither do they read books about rabbits because of their poor eyesight.

If you want to encourage hedgehogs into your garden, this is what you need to do:-

  • Don’t be too tidy.  Leave wild areas and maybe a small pile of logs or brushwood and dry leaves.  This will also attract interesting beetles and other wildlife
  • If you build fences or walls, leave small holes in overgrown corners for hedgehogs to get in and out of
  • If hedgehogs start visiting, a tiny bit of meaty cat food or muesli mixed with water in a dish will encourage them, and water will be welcome in hot weather.  Hedgehogs don’t care what their food tastes like but, believe it or not, you can buy cans of hedgehog food called ‘Spike’s Dinner’ but research into that is down to you.  Do not, however, give them bread and milk – it’s very bad for them.
  • The jury is still out on the use of slug pellets but to be on the safe side:-
    Purchase only pellets that contain blue dye and taste nasty to hedgehogs and use them sparingly. Try hiding them where slugs can easily get, but hedgehogs can’t. Under a propped up paving slab is a good idea, as this sort of shady place actually attracts slugs, but hedgehogs can’t get here.Remove and dispose of dead slugs.

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Filed under Animals, The Garden, Wildlife