ABOUT three weeks ago the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) staged its 39th annual Big Garden Birdwatch and Worcestershire families were encouraged to take part.

I duly replenished the bird food on and around the bird table in my garden and to my utter delight and surprise got up one morning over that weekend to witness a great spotted woodpecker attacking the fat balls with gusto.

I was thrilled. I regularly see robins, tits, sparrows, thrushes, collared doves, magpies, crows and wood pigeons in my garden but I’d only seen a great spotted woodpecker in any garden once before.

And if that wasn’t enough, I’ve seen a great spotted woodpecker – the same one I presume – back at the same fat ball bird feeder twice since. I had started to wonder why these avian delicacies were vanishing so quickly – now I know.

I’m unlikely to be joining the British Ornithological Society any time soon, but there is something completely magical and exciting about seeing unexpected wildlife in your own back yard. And I am pleased to be making a small contribution to the survival of creatures from our natural world in an urban environment.

It was therefore with a little concern that I heard recently of the continuing decline of the hedgehog population in Britain.

A report, called The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018, was published last week by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) based near Tenbury Wells. It stated that these timid little creatures are in serious decline with numbers in rural areas plummeting by half since the Millennium.

It attributes much of the downward trend to modern farming practices. Emily Wilson, hedgehog officer for the Hedgehog Street campaign run by the two organisations, said: “There are many reasons hedgehogs are in trouble.

“The intensification of agriculture through the loss of hedgerows and permanent grasslands, increased field sizes, and the use of pesticides which reduce the amount of prey available, are all associated with the plunge in numbers of hedgehogs in rural areas.”

She added: “Farmers play a vital role in producing food, but they’re also well placed to help protect, maintain and enhance our countryside.

“The Government recently reiterated plans to reform the EU Common Agricultural Policy to reward landowners for delivering environmental benefits. Many farmers already have a sustainable approach to agriculture and we think there’s a great opportunity to work more widely with them to stem the alarming decline of our country hedgehogs.”

On closer inspection of the report and other information about hedgehog numbers, it is clear that collating accurate evidence about hedgehog numbers is fraught with problems.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal creatures and rarely seen during daylight hours unless they are unwell or in fact dead. Also a lot of the statistics rely on anecdotal evidence/sightings and a good proportion of the public, including farmers, are not going to be on the look-out for these animals, which conveniently blend well into their environment.

However Wendy Carter, communications manager for the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, confirms that although it is very difficult to know exact numbers, there is most definitely a decline from hundreds of years ago because the countryside has lost many of it features that would provide food and the number of reported sightings are down.

“There are stories from the 1800s of there being so many of them that people were employed to get rid of hedgehogs. In the long term it is known there is a decline in numbers. There are people who used to see them regularly and now they never see them. There are definitely fewer of them.”

She pointed out that the difficulty in gathering accurate figures makes it even more important that sightings are reported. This can be done by completing the form on the bottom of the page at www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/hedgehogs. This is then submitted to Worcestershire Biological Records.

“It helps to build up a picture of how many there are and where they are so we can see any trends in their activity,” said Wendy.

While hedgehogs in the countryside are struggling due to lack of their own habitat and suitable conditions for their food to flourish, the story seems to be different in urban areas where the decline has not been quite so acute. In some cases there is evidence to suggest numbers are increasing.

In 2011 the PTES and BHPS launched a campaign called Hedgehog Street which aimed to inspire the British public to help hedgehogs and other wildlife that depend on their gardens. So far 47,000 people have signed up to become Hedgehog Champions making their own gardens and encourage neighbours to make theirs more hedgehog-friendly.

Wendy explained that, when they are not in hibernation, hedgehogs travel between one and two kilometres every night to find food. “It is most important people create connectivity between gardens. If people get together with their neighbours and put hedgehog-sized holes in their fences between gardens it is easy for them to go foraging.

“It is like going from one dining table to another in people’s back gardens. Hedgehogs are gardeners’ best friends as they eat slugs and snails. They also like beetles, worms and caterpillars.”

She added that families can create hedgehog-friendly habitats too. “We are quite obsessed with tidiness but if we can leave a small are of the garden a bit untidy, they might move in. A little scruffy patch of garden like long grass can be enough.”

She said hedgehogs need somewhere that is warm, and gives shelter from the elements. Anyone who wants to go the extra mile can build a hedgehog home. The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust has advice on how to build a basic hedgehog home and a luxury version. Information is available by visiting http://www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/gardening-factsheets and clicking on creature_features for the basic build and fury_furniture for the top-of-the-range accommodation.

Other things to remember are to avoid putting down slug pellets and that planting a hedge is more beneficial to garden wildlife than a fence. Hedgehogs may be tempted to choose a particular garden if wet dog and cat food is put out at night or dried dog food with a dish of water. Never put out bread and milk – hedgehogs are lactose intolerant.

Anyone who is really keen to have hedgehogs living in their garden can make sure they have the right sort of environment and then contact one of the hedgehog rescue centres in the county and apply to foster a rescued hedgehog.

Wendy said people can volunteer to help an injured or ill hedgehog recuperate and give them a home. She said hedgehogs are wonderful to watch in the garden and great characters.

To find out more about giving a rescued hedgehog a home contact the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust on 01905 754919 or email enquiries@worcesershirewildlifetrust.org.