Hedgehogs find bonfires a perfect habitat

Eleventh night revellers have been urged to search their bonfires for hedgehogs before festivities get under way this weekend.

Campaigners said the vulnerable animals were likely to seek out bonfire sites because they were a perfect habitat for taking shelter.

Hundreds of bonfires are set to be lit across Northern Ireland this weekend.

They are built by the members of the Protestant community ahead of the Twelfth of July commemoration of William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) said before the pyres were lit on Sunday night, people should look out for any sleeping visitors.

Fay Vass of the BHPS said hedgehogs were nocturnal and slept during the day.

Hedgehogs tend to hibernate between November and mid March
The Hedgehog is known as 'the gardener's friend'
They like to nest under sheds, hedges and brushwood
They should not be kept in close captivity
Their backs are covered with rows of short prickly spines and their bellies are covered with soft fur
A relaxed hedgehog lays down its spines

"At this time of year, bonfires are an ideal place. They look like a home - or rather they look like a four-star hotel to hedgehogs," she told BBC News Online.

"Bonfires are perfect for them because they offer a lot of protection and are waterproof.

"Unfortunately when a bonfire is lit, the hedgehog's natural defence mechanism is to curl up in a ball. They can also be asleep and they would not notice the fire that quickly."

In order to see if there are any hedgehogs at bonfires, they should ideally be moved to a different site or a few feet over.

"However, given the size of some of the bonfires in Northern Ireland that is not always possible," said Ms Vass.

"So what people should do is take a broom and a torch and take a look a few feet into the bottom of the bonfire to look for hedgehogs.

"Hedgehogs should be collected in a box, given cat or dog food and water, and kept in a quiet and dark place until the bonfires are over and have been dampened down."

Vanessa Reavey of Happy Hedgehog sanctuary in Belfast said given the scale of bonfires in Northern Ireland it was not often feasible to move them to look for the animals.

"I have passed may of them, and with crates piled high there is now way anyone is going to move them," she said.

Dozens of bonfires are set to be lit across Northern Ireland

"However, we would ask people just to look in at the bottom to see if there are any there.

"It is not just hedgehogs - pets also get caught under wood piles.

"At this time, females are nesting and there could be six or seven babies there.

"A lot of hedgehogs have been burnt in bonfires - it is not deliberate, but it can happen."

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