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Debbie Nelson's hedgehog haven helps wee critters survive winter in Northern Ireland

By Claire McNeilly

Published 11/11/2016

Debbie Nelson with some of her rescued hedgehogs
Debbie Nelson with some of her rescued hedgehogs
Debbie Nelson with some of her rescued hedgehogs
Debbie Nelson with some of her rescued hedgehogs
Debbie Nelson with some of her rescued hedgehogs

There can't be too many people who talk to hedgehogs all day long ... but Debbie Nelson does.

The Co Antrim woman even has a "hedgehog room" in her house for her prickly cohabitors - no fewer than 29 "small, underweight babies" who wouldn't have made it without her tender, loving care.

The main thrust of her work, dating back over three decades, is on saving sick and injured wild animals and birds which are too vulnerable to fend for themselves. And so far this year she has helped 1,500 creatures in need.

Speaking from her home that doubles as an animal refuge near Nutt's Corner, the 38-year-old wildlife worker said she aims to "rescue and release" her little patients as soon as possible.

"They're kept in a hospital-type environment - we want them to be kept calm and quiet and not stressed," Debbie told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We get an awful lot of hedgehogs at this time of year. The weather plays a big part in it because if you get really mild weather through August and September, many hedgehogs will have a litter of babies.

"And then, when the weather turns, often quite quickly, the mothers go off to hibernate because their instincts kick in and they abandon the babies, so I now have an awful lot of very, very, small, underweight baby hedgehogs."

Although she tends to sick and injured members of the species throughout the year, the number of in-house patients has surged to 29 over the last five weeks.

They aren't ill, just extremely underweight, but that could prove fatal.

"The ideal hedgehog weight is 560 grams by the end of September. If they haven't put on enough fat reserves by then and they go to sleep for the winter they won't survive hibernation," she explained.

"One hedgehog I rescued a couple of weeks ago was 143g - he's minuscule; literally the size of a small orange. That's a ridiculous weight for this time of year."

Members of the public are urged to contact Debbie when they come across tiny hedgehogs in the garden or elsewhere - and sometimes they must be removed from their mothers.

"A couple of nights ago a little hedgehog weighing just 320g was found on a very busy road in the middle of Belfast," she said.

"That's just under half the weight he should have been, so he wouldn't have survived the winter. It was very lucky that he was rescued."

She added: "If they're too small they won't survive if they stay with their mum. It's a really tough decision to take an animal away from its family, but when they're in danger they need help."

Once they're taken out of harm's way, these tiny creatures aren't allowed to hibernate and must be "tricked into thinking it's still summer".

"They must be kept inside the house, they have to be kept really warm, they must have loads of food and not realise that it's winter outside, because if they go to sleep they're going to die," she said.

"I have a special room in my house that's heated just for the hedgehogs. They are segregated in cages - some of them are on their own because they can be quite unsociable."

The self-employed Donaghadee native began saving wildlife, including injured seagulls, when she was six years old and finally started her own company, Debbie Doolittle's Wild Life, two years ago.

"It's an education business - teaching young children, groups and adults about wildlife and conservation - and the rescue is done alongside that," she said.

She's not married and has no children - "my animals are my babies", as she puts it - and Debbie is always on the lookout for her next emergency intervention.

"I sometimes spend between 16 and 18 hours a day rescuing, cleaning, feeding, medicating sick animals; it's very busy work," she said, urging the public to keep their eyes open for baby hedgehogs.

"Don't be afraid to pick them up, they aren't bothered about being handled," she said.

"Put the hedgehog into a wooly hat, pop it onto your kitchen scales, then get in touch and let us know what weight it is. If it's too small we'll come and rescue it."

She added: "We'll look after the hedgehogs over the winter and release them somewhere suitable in the spring when they're nice and fat."

Hedgehog care

You should never feed hedgehogs milk as it can cause diarrhoea. Instead provide plain, fresh water in a shallow bowl.

Food and fresh water will encourage hedgehogs to return. Leave out foods like minced meat, tinned dog or cat food (not fish-based), crushed cat biscuits, or chopped, boiled eggs.

Specialist hedgehog food can also be bought from wild bird food suppliers.

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