Animals Blog

Looking Sharp For Spring at Fota Wildlife Park

Looking Sharp For Spring at Fota Wildlife Park

February 2nd is Hedgehog Day

Within the coming weeks, one of Ireland’s most distinctive mammals, the hedgehog, will awaken from its winter slumber. The hedgehog was named because of its peculiar foraging methods while rummaging in the undergrowth, it emits pig-like grunts—thus, the name hedgehog!

The hedgehog's main line of defence is the possession of spikes which cover all of the upper body with the exception the face, chest, belly, throat and legs which are covered with a coarse, grey-brown fur.  An adult hedgehog possesses an average of 5000 spikes.

The hedgehog is described as being omnivorous, feeding on a varied selection of invertebrates and such as slugs, snails, beetles and caterpillars.  They also feed on fruits and berries, especially in the early autumn when these food sources are readily available.

Hedgehogs typically breed between March and October.  After a gestation period of about 32 days, three to five hoglets are born!  All wild hedgehogs can hibernate, though not all do, depending on temperature, species, and abundance of food. 

Conservation Tips

The following are some tips to help encourage and protect these welcome garden visitors:

• Avoid interfering with hedgehog nests which are often located in hedgerows, compost heaps and leaf litter.
• Avoid the use of slug pellets and pesticides in your garden
• You can offer hedgehogs an overwintering site by providing a pile of hay, leaves or straw under a dry shed or log pile


Mating Season for the Native Red Squirrel


Globally the red squirrel is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. However, in Ireland, the red squirrel numbers continue to decline from forests into which the grey squirrels have invaded. Grey squirrels not only out-compete the smaller red squirrels, the species also carry squirrel pox virus, which is almost always fatal to red squirrels.

Grey Squirrels are not present on Fota Island. As a result, Fota Wildlife Park hopes to maintain its own environment as a safe haven for the red squirrel, which is often seen within the woodland areas of the wildlife park.

Red Squirrels consume a wide variety of fruits and berries but also need to eat large quantities of seeds as they need to ingest 5% of their bodyweight each day to match their high metabolic rate!

The red squirrel has excellent eyesight, their wide angle of vision and sharp focus allows them to move quickly when foraging. They use their large bushy tails as a balancing aid and as a result are agiler than the grey squirrel.

The red squirrels can have two litters in a year. During the mating season (January, February) the males will fight for mating rights. After the gestation period of five to six weeks, the female will give birth to a litter of kittens, the usual being a litter of three but can be as many as six.

(Thanks to Henry O'Brien for use of the above images)

Additional information on both species below:

Hedgehog

Fossil remains confirm the presence of hedgehogs on the European continent 15 million years ago.  Their existing home range has seen the spread of this species to as far as Northern Russia.  The origins surrounding the arrival of the hedgehog in Ireland is often disputed with many naturalists suggesting that it arrived via a land bridge after the last Ice age. Alternatively, it may have been introduced by humans at a later date.  The hedgehog is now found throughout the island of Ireland having originally been restricted to only occupying deciduous woodlands.  The presence of a sufficient prey population coupled with its adaptability has facilitated the movement of this species into an array of habitat types in recent centuries.  Uplands and mountainsides are not popular, probably because they lack both suitable food and suitable nesting places.  Hedgehogs are well established in our urban habitat and can, somewhat surprisingly, survive very well in our cities, making extremely good use of cemeteries, railway land, wasteland and both public and private gardens. 

There are some 15 species of hedgehog in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Hedgehogs have also been introduced into non-traditional ranges such as New Zealand.

If attacked they will curl into a prickly and unappetizing ball that deters most predators with the exception of the badger and a selection of birds of prey. They usually sleep in this position during the day and awaken to search for food at night.

Within two to three weeks of the hoglets being born, their eyes start to open and spines begin to grow on their backs.  Hoglets become independent at six weeks old and then pursue a solitary lifestyle.

During hibernation, the body temperature of a hedgehog can decrease to about 2 °C (36 °F) and its heartbeat and metabolism slow down. When the animal awakes from hibernation, the body temperature rises back to its normal body temperature of between 30–35 °C. In Ireland, the period of hibernation tends to run from November to March! Hoglets born late in the breeding season must attain a minimum body weight of 450g if they are to survive their first period of hibernation.  Otherwise, they may not have accumulated sufficient fat reserves to allow them to withstand this period of deep sleep.

Hedgehogs can be of great benefit to both gardeners and farmers alike.  Its preferred diet of slugs and snails reduces the need to use synthetic pesticides.  However, deaths from poisonings are well documented as the hedgehog feeds on a large variety of pest species resulting in prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals and inevitably death. Despite being afforded legal protection (Irish Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000 & Bern Convention Appendix III), changing land use practices coupled with road construction and increased levels of traffic has meant that hedgehog populations have begun to decline.  Furthermore, the re-introduction of a number of large predatory species in Ireland such as the Golden Eagle has also threatened hedgehog populations.

We all have a role to play in protecting and ensuring the long-term survival of this unique species.  Easy steps can be taken to help conserve hedgehogs some handy tips are given in the blog piece above.

Red Squirrel

One of the two species of squirrel in Ireland the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgarius) is a native species that has been present since the last ice age.

As their name suggests the red squirrels have a fur coat of a reddish brown colour with a darker tint on the back. In winter this coat is moulted and they change to a warmer brown with a greyish hue.  A noticeable difference between them and the other species of squirrel in Ireland, the American grey squirrel, is that the red squirrels are distinctively smaller than the grey squirrel, weighing approx half of their grey counterparts. Reds can also be distinguished by their long ear tufts. Adults can grow to 23cm in height with a tail length of between 15 – 20cm. 

Distribution
Globally, the red squirrel can be found throughout Europe and eastward to Japan. It has a large range in the Palaearctic, extending from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain and Portugal in the west, through continental Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and north-west and northeast China to the Pacific coast. The species is currently absent from the Mediterranean islands and Iceland.
The red squirrel is widespread throughout Ireland however as they are dependent on woodland as a habitat its population is patchy, they can be found in pockets around the country in areas of woodland or large parks.

Life Cycle
Their young (kittens) are born blind and furless and are usually fully weaned seven to ten weeks after birth. The average Irish red squirrel lives for three years, with some living to six years of age.

Conservation Status
Globally the red squirrel is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. However, in Ireland, the red squirrel numbers continue to decline from forests into which the grey squirrels have invaded. There is competition between the two species, albeit never through direct aggression, for shared food resources in which the grey squirrel usual wins out. Grey squirrels also carry squirrel pox virus. While grey squirrels can carry the virus without being affected, red squirrels usually will go blind and then perish within a few weeks of infection. In Ireland the red squirrel is protected under the Wildlife Act 1976).