Hedgehogs: Beloved Yet Threatened.
Cute and photogenic: prerequisites if man is to love you!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Who hasn't got a soft spot for a hedgehog?
Only Little Chaps, but what big pricks!
So well loved that McDonalds changed the design of its McFlurry containers to stop hedgehogs getting stuck in them!
Note: Please check Guy Fawkes Day (and all garden) bonfires to see no hedghogs have nested within while you were building them..
Hedgehogs - as we all are - are getting something of a reprieve in the warm weather of Autumn. They are, like most of us, stuck with the British weather; perhaps they were unlucky in evolution’s lottery and they should have been given wings instead of spikes to head for warmer climes like the birds (and bankers…in their Gulfstreams).
Hedgehogs actually prefer a meat diet than the bread and milk you kindly left on the patio last night, although they will eat these items, and as hedgehogs are really lactose intolerant, you may well be doing more harm than good, even poisoning them, with cheese and milk, etc. But there again, many of the bugs, beetles, snails and worms, etc., might eat some of your offering, enabling them, too, to stick around longer and appear on the hedgehog’s menu. You might try some meat next time: dog food is fine; the brand with the lowest fat is best.
Hedgehogs have formidable defence, no doubt about that; few predators can harm them. But there is no substantial fur coat underneath: rather like you having a covering of knitting needles instead of the warm sweater that gran was knitting.
I don’t see many hedgehogs these days from my second-floor pied de terre (read council dump), but I expect they have felt the warning chill in the wind and some are in a cosy nest somewhere, lined with leaves and grasses they have collected. It’s winter home is known, rather grandly, as the “hibernaculum.” That’s Latin for “hide your knackers in a warm place this winter.“ These heaps of leaves, etc., are built inside dense hedgerows (another good argument for preserving our hedges), or even inside a rubbish dump in your garden. If you did find the little “hedgepig’s” (old name for them) nest and carefully preserved it, thanks, kind of you, but they very rarely return to a nest used previously for hibernation: Perhaps because they think it might more easily be found the second year by a predator, or because it is fouled and full of mites and fleas, which hedgehogs do suffer badly from. Or maybe they just want a change from last year’s abode.
Once they are tucked into their cosy winter home, they are relieved from trying to maintain their normal 35 degree C. body temperature, a struggle for a chap without a winter coat; with the insects sparse on the ground, and even the earthworms going deeper underground as the soil gets colder. It likes to keep its temperature during hibernation at around 10 degrees C., when it gets really cold near freezing point, the hedgehog has an automatic body warming system which it switches on by burning stored fat to keep it from freezing to death. Unfortunately, many hedgehogs, like the young born late in the summer and the aged and sickly, not able to store enough body fat, don’t make it through our winters. They are then consumed by insects and bacteria, etc., that also share their environment and so nature’s harmonious plan: the biters becoming the bitten; the eaters, the eaten. And writers, the boring belabourers of the point!
Whatever the hedgehog does to stay alive through the long winters and the warm, active times in between, its simple plan is effective as they have been around for nearly 16 million years, before many of the much more sophisticated mammals such as big cats, all the apes, among millions more creatures. This includes many that have come and become extinct, like sabre-toothed tigers and the wooly mammoth - and man of course, who may be heading towards an early demise hinself.. This includes surviving through any ice ages where we can imaging the poor little fellows waking up under a sheet of ice after going to sleep in the Autumn sunshine. “Too early, Erin, back to sleep!” (Erin might be a good name for your pet hedgehog as the Latin name for the subfamily is Erinaceinae).
Its bristles or spines are marvels for both defence and protection against falling. Formed from modified hairs, the roughly 1 inch-long spines have a follicular bulge in the flesh of the animal which act like a kind of shock absorber, soaking-up blows without damage to the owner. These moult constantly but never in large amounts at any one time, ensuring the hedgehog always has his suit of amour ready. Each spine is hollow which makes for strength without a lot of energy-expending bulk for the animal to carry around. Our British hedgehogs only use their spines for defence, usually rolling an a ball, but some desert species actually charge predators, attempting to impale them and drive them away. This is due to the fact these hedgehogs sacrifice some of their defensive capability by carrying less spines to save weight and allow them more speed over the ground.
It won’t do you much good to capture a hedgehog found on the street and put it into your garden. Unless you pen it, or your patch has a wall like Fort Knox, the hedgehog will be off around the neighbourhood just as he had intended when you interrupted his plans. They have to go where food is, their family, buddies and nubile females await. They are mainly nocturnal, as their prey is to avoid birds. The exception is, or course, if you live on a large estate, as I do, but mine belongs to the council, and they seem apathetic about filling the place with hedgehogs. Geriatric, octogenarian Homo sapiens are the preferred inmates around here, not half as interesting as hedgehogs, but possibly sharing their preference for dog-food during these hard times. You might be well advised not to bring them indoors unless they are hurt, ill, or young and cold (the hedgehogs, not the cotton buds). For one thing, they won’t like it much but their full and abundant compliment of parasites will, indeed, like to explore your nice warm lounge suite or king-sized bed, biting you for a blood meal when they find their host missing later on. Incidentally, hedgehogs themselves are not equipped for aggressive biting, their teeth are flat and blunt and they rely exclusively on rolling into a ball, and their spikes, which they can elevate into repel-the-enemy mode, for protection.
Many things in a hedgehog’s life will produce the curious and little explained behaviour of “self-anointing,” during which the hedgehog, mystifyingly, emits a large volume of foam-like spittle which it proceeds to dollop all over its body! Some experts have said any unusual substance: taste or smell, can set off this behaviour which might be a form of protective, organic pesticide or similar. Many people have seen the hedgehog as having been poisoned, but this is less likely; it may also be a sort of territorial scent-marking.
Hedgehog mating is a very casual affair after the few minutes of quite violent (and noisy) passion. The partners then go on their merry way and never seek each other out again; each may have a dozen matings in any season, the female until she becomes pregnant; the male bears no part in bringing up the kiddies (why can’t I learn to practice such insouciance!). The female enjoys a 35 to 58 day gestation period and will give birth to up to five fuzz balls: two or three is more common. The average life span is quite long for a small mammal: 4 to 7 years and as much as 15 years in rare cases.
Man is the hedgehog’s chief enemy, generally unwittingly, as he squashes thousands on the roads and kills still more with pesticides. Gamekeepers turn a jaundiced eye on the hedgehog as they have been known to eat the eggs of pheasants and other ground-nesting birds. I personally turn a jaundiced eye on gamekeepers, who I see as generally establishment toadies protecting the animals and birds his lawdship likes to blow away with shotguns and doing what the flick they like away from the public gaze. Badgers regularly kill and eat hedgehogs, especially the young, but no other British predator is a match for the spines except in rare cases. They have a natural immunity against venomous snakes; the British adder wouldn’t even give one pause. Dogs who attack them only do it once, although its nothing like the suffering dogs go through at the hands, or rather, the spines of the North American porcupine; that is a beast of a different colour. Some of the North American readers of this hub article will have experienced the horror of having to spend hours removing the spines of a porkie from their screaming pet. Hedgehog spines are much more firmly rooted than those of the porcupine.
Watch out for old wire, wire fencing and discarded tin cans as hedgehogs aren’t too bright and can get easily stuck, their barbs acting like those on a fish hook and preventing the animal from escaping. Same applies to pits, holes and ponds: they have trouble scrambling out. I have heard that slug pellets are dangerous for them. Why not forget the pellets and let the hedgehogs clear up the slugs, which they will do in a clean, chemical-free garden.
The hedgehog managing to stay away from the main roads has a good life and a bright future in Britain and many other places where they are at least tolerated if not loved outright. They can be pets and get on well with cats and dogs, once all have become used to each other’s strange ways. But they really belong in the wild; can be messy feeders and might not take well to the kitty-litter tray. I always think, “Why do we have to own a wild creature to enjoy it?” The exception being if the animal is sick, young and abandoned, or obviously poorly. How marvellous is nature - evolution - though, that has fashioned so many curious and wonderful creatures to share our world and allowed them to transact with us in a golden moment of time?