William Shakespeare – The Tempest
Clearly Prospero’s slave, Caliban, knew the pain of treading upon a prickly hedgehog with no shoes on. I doubt it was pleasant for the hedgehog either.
Hedgehogs are native everywhere except for Australasia and the Americas. In the UK we have the West European hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus. Their most characteristic feature being their spines, they are unrelated to porcupines. These spines are hollow hairs stiffened by keratin; when a hedgehog feels threatened it rolls into a ball and uses two large muscles in its back to control the direction of the outward pointing spines. They do not eject their spines as missiles. Only the badger with its powerful paws is able to successfully predate the hedgehog. The neighbourhood cats know better than to poke their noses into their prickly business.
As hedgehogs are nocturnal, you are more likely to hear their loud snuffles in your undergrowth than to see them. A fun game is to guess what they are eating, crunchy beetle or sticky slug? During the long days and short nights of summer you may see them at dawn or dusk while it is still quite light. They may even be happy to pose for a photograph. Most of these photos are from a camera trap which uses infrared light to capture nightime garden visitors. The neighbour’s black cat is rendered as white in one of the infrared images
They are only one of three British mammals that hibernate, the others being dormice and bats. Hedgehogs usually hibernate between the end of October and March. They make a nest, often of leaves or grass and go into a state of torpor, living off their fat reserves. A hedgehog will often wake up several times during hibernation and change its nest site.
If you find a hedgehog out in the middle of the day or during the winter then it is probably in trouble, especially if it seems lethargic. You will need to pick it up (using gloves or a towel), put it in a box somewhere warm and contact a vet or hedgehog rescue. There is some advice here and here. Our local hedgehogs managed to have two litters this year, the hoglets born later in the year don’t always grow big and fat enough to survive hibernation. Hopefully these will, we are supplementing their natural food and they seem to be getting bigger and they are certainly very active.
Hedgehogs are the UK’s favourite mammal and were once a very common sight in our gardens. They are renowned for scoffing large numbers of garden pests such as slugs. They are predominantly insectivores, eating any insects they can get hold of, but they also eat fruit, bird eggs and the birds themselves given the opportunity. However, hedgehog numbers are declining, some estimates suggest their numbers may be down by up to 40% over the last decade. It is thought that more intensive agriculture and the loss of hedgerows have contributed to their rural decline. Increasing urbanisation and road traffic also take their inevitable toll.
In urban areas the biggest problem is fencing in gardens. Hedgehogs need to be able to amble through several gardens each night to find enough food. Gardens are also becoming too tidy with compost heaps being replaced by decking etc. Perhaps the most important thing that we can do to help hedgehogs is to link our gardens by cutting a hole in the bottom of the fence 13x13cm. We can also leave a “wild” patch in the garden such as a log pile, or leaf pile; plant leafy plants that create a damp sheltered environment that encourages the invertebrates that they eat and limit our use of garden chemicals, especially slug pellets. There are lots of ideas to make your garden hedgehog friendly here and here, and other resources to download here. You can also supplement their diet with mealworms or meaty cat food and it is also important to leave fresh clean water out for our garden wildlife. There is more advice on feeding hedgehogs here including how to make a simple cat proof feeding station. We put out mealworms, suet pellets containing mealworms and sultanas; whatever the hedgehogs leave will be gratefully received by the birds and squirrels during the day.
There are also other hazards for hedgehogs in our gardens. Always check before lighting bonfires that there isn’t a hedgehog nesting and never mow or strim unless you have first checked for hedgehogs.
Of course, being creatures of the night, there is a lot of mythology surrounding hedgehogs. A folk remedy for insomnia involves frying and eating the left eye of a hedgehog and their melted fat was considered a cure for deafness. They were thought to steal milk from cows at night, unlikely as hedgehogs are lactose intolerant. However, this was why they were included in the Tudor Vermin Act in the 16th century, with a bounty on their heads. Pliny the Elder fancied that they climbed trees to steal apples which they carried off on the spines on their backs, clearly he’d never seen a hedgehog attempt to clamber over a low flower border. In Eastern European folk tales the hedgehog is often portrayed as wise. The exquisite animation “The Hedgehog in the Fog” by Russian animator Yuri Norstein surrounds the simple premise of a hedgehog taking a trip to meet his friend the bear. On his way he is intrigued by a number of incidents which he views with a naive wonder and later clearly thinks deeply about the events. It is well worth tracking down and viewing.
Hedgehogs get their name from their habit of snuffling and snorting around in hedgerows. They are also known as hedgepigs, furzepigs, Gráinneog (Irish meaning “little ugly thing”) and hotchi-witchi in Romany. Whatever you wish to call them they are a delightful and useful little animal that we should all, particularly in the UK, be doing our best to help.
You might also like to read my post Guy Fawkes, Bonfire Night and Hedgehogs