The European Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) is our only native spiny mammal here in the UK. The term native describes a species that recolonized after the last ice age without intervention. You will also hear the term naturalised of other species which describes a species which was introduced through man but which has been in the UK for a long enough time to be regarded as part of natural fauna or flora.
So the hedgehog is our only native spiny mammal and it's closest relations are mammals such as shrews and moles not rodents with whom they may seem to have a superficial similarity. Hedgehogs are insect eaters, rodents are mainly seed and plant eaters. Our European Hedgehog is not the only species of hedgehog with 17 other species around the world including Asia and Africa, the Americas and Australia do not have a native hedgehog. Hedgehogs are found in New Zealand but they are the European Hedgehog which was introduced.
The hedgehog as we would recognise it has been around for about 15 million years and during periods of glaciation has retreated and returned to the UK. The ending of the last glacial period around 10,000 years ago and the separation of the UK by water to become an island saw the final return of the European Hedgehog to our shores. It is fascinating to think that hedgehogs would have been ambling alongside Sabre Toothed Tigers and Woolly Mammoths and in more recent times in the middle ages would have be present alongside bears and wolves (until of course we purposely drove bears and wolves along with other species to extinction in the UK)..
A hedgehog is a mammal, it is nocturnal and insectivorous.
Hedgehogs give birth to live litters of young called hoglets or 'urchins' normally in spring however they can have a second late litter in late summer / early autumn. Normally a litter will consist of between 5 and 7 hoglets which are born weighing only a few grams, blind and with a set of white spines present at birth but beneath a membrane to protect the sow during birth and erupting within a few hours. (A female hedgehog is a Sow, the male a Boar). At around 14 days their eyes open and around 21 days their teeth start to erupt. They stay with mum for around 6 weeks initially
relying on the mum’s milk then slowly being weaned making trips out with mum at around 4 weeks and finally dispersing after 6 weeks.
Adult Hedgehogs normally weigh between 600 grams and 1.2kg and although they are seen as ambling little creatures they can move very quickly with very long legs for their size. A hedgehog can scratch right in the middle of its back with its hind legs which is quite a thing to see as it seems almost impossible. Most adult hedgehogs weigh in at around 800 grams with males heavier than females. Hedgehogs will be heavier in the autumn as they try to put on fat reserves to allow them to hibernate during the winter months.
Hedgehogs are most easily recognised by their spines of which an adult has around 7000 on average. The spines are modified hollow hair and they provide protection for the hedgehog. Their underside is covered with course hair. The spines normally lay flat along the hedgehog’s body and the top of its head but when threatened an impressive set of muscles raises the spines in all directions. This along with a muscle system around the tummy area which allows the hedgehog to ball and then draw these muscles tight (a bit like the drawstring on a pump bag) gives the hedgehog a great defense against would be threats. This defensive strategy doesn't always provide the best solution though; as the many found squashed on our roads by cars attest. Hedgehogs can be aggressive and they will barge into another hedgehogs side with their head mainly over hedgehogs of the opposite sex during the mating season and sometimes over food especially when brought together at food left out in gardens.
The spines also serve another useful purpose- they enable a hedgehog to bounce! Hedgehogs it would seem don't really have a fear of falling and they will quite happily walk off the edge of something. As they fall they curl and the muscles at the base of the spines act as a kind of shock absorber saving the hedgehog from injury. After a short pause the hedgehog will unball, twist and flip over and wander off as if nothing had happened. Hedgehogs incidentally are quite good climbers and swimmers as well.
Hedgehogs are solitary by nature and males (boars) and females (sows) do not pair bond to raise young (hoglets). The sow is responsible for the raising of the hoglets and the boar won't be seen again after mating occurs. Of course animals don't always read the books written about them and we have observed one case of wild (and free roaming) hedgehogs in a suburban garden when the boar did stay with the family, this was extraordinary behaviour and not the norm. The boar was removed as boars may kill their own hoglets.
Once the hoglets leave the nest (at around 6 weeks and at ten times their birth weight) they will separate, however we have also observed that some late autumn juveniles may stay together throughout the first winter hibernation period.
Hedgehogs become sexually mature in their second year. With the decline in hedgehog numbers sadly siblings interbreeding is becoming an issue and often these result in hoglets that do not reach maturity.
Hedgehogs are not territorial, however they do seem to follow a regular routine, visiting the same gardens and even specific areas at roughly the same time each night. They will tolerate other hedgehogs and conflict is normally only over food at feeding bowls and over opposite sex hedgehogs during the mating period. Boars can be quite aggressive and I have witnesses a boar charge and roll another boar about 20 ft down a garden. Hedgehogs will also clamp onto another hedgehogs spines with their teeth and shake quite violently. (So much for our ambling hedgehog!).
We have made other observations of behaviour in litters of hoglets that have to be hand raised in captivity before release once the required weight is gained. We have observed hoglets bullying other siblings in order to get all of the food even though there is enough for all the litter. Hoglets have also shown protective instincts for other siblings in the litter, with one hoglet trying to block our access to another hoglet. We have also observed a kind of separation distress if for some reason a hoglet has to be removed from a littler with hoglets refusing to eat until the litter is reunited. (sometimes juveniles in a litter have to be separated especially if large weight differences occur). Hoglets also seem to need the company of other hoglets and when single hoglets come in they do far better if introduced to other hoglets of a similar age.
Hedgehogs are a nocturnal as opposed to a diurnal species which includes us human beings. Being nocturnal although they can see they predominantly rely on their sense of hearing and smell to get around and find food. Why nocturnal? There is safety in darkness and the hedgehogs preferred insect food is mainly out at night in the cooler, damper conditions that night time brings. The name hedgehog partly comes from their snuffling around to find food as a pig or hog might do. Their main food source are insects including; beetles, caterpillars, earth worms as well as less desired insects such as slugs and snails. They however will eat a range of food from fallen fruit and fungi to bird’s eggs and dead birds and small mammals.
Hedgehogs don’t really have any natural predators although birds of prey would possibly try to snatch a hedgehog if out in daylight and corvids (birds such as magpies, crows etc) will peck at an injured or ill hedgehog out in daylight.
Badgers are the only mammal that is strong enough to physically un-ball and kill a hedgehog however a badgers diet mainly consists of earth worms and it is more of a threat in competing for food source than the occasional attack on a hedgehog (We do however have video footage of a badger picking up and moving off with a hedgehog in its mouth). We also find that hedgehogs tend be absent in areas heavily populated with badgers. There is a lot of press about badgers at the moment with regards to TB in cattle and they have been wrongy demonised by some individuals with regards to hedgehog decline, I would recommend that anyone interested in Badgers reads Badger Behaviour, Conservation and Rehabilitation: 70 years of getting to know badgers by George E Pearce.
Some foxes have learnt some tricks to unball hedgehogs and we do get cases of fox attacks in, the injuries sustained will always be back leg loss (often both legs) and the scent of fox will be evident on the hedgehog.
The simple answer is no. Hedgehogs can suffer from fleas but the majority of hedgehogs that we see do not have fleas. Even if they do, the flea you will find on a hedgehog is hedgehog specific, i.e. it will only live on a hedgehog. Hedgehog spines are banded between dark brown and fawn, when you disturb a hedgehog it will raise its spines and it can appear that it is crawling with fleas between the spines, this is most often an optical illusion from the movement and banding of the spines.
Hedgehogs especially ones that are already ill can and often do suffer from tic infestations and we have removed over 250 tics from a single hedgehog.
Sadly not that long at all. Life isn't easy and at least one of a litter of hoglets will not live to even start to go out to forage with its siblings. Of those that do leave the nest around half will not get to see a second winter and of those that do the average life expectancy is around 2 to 3 years, a few living for 5 years, possibly one in a thousand 7 years. They can live up to 15 years and one has to wonder if their short life spans are due to modern pressures.
The name gives us the clue once again Imagine a country before intensive farming of small farms with small fields surrounded by hedgerow. The 'hedgehog' is naturally a woodland edge creature however with the clearance of woodland many thousands of years ago they would have adapted to this man made woodland edge of hedgerow. Things were good for them. Farms were multipurpose being both pastoral (having livestock) and agricultural (growing crops). Agriculture was not very efficient (in modern terms), there was crop wastage, fields had to be left to recover from crops. So this habitat was idea for the fauna that came to rely on it, plenty of spillage and berries for birds and plenty of insects in the soil for our native hedgehog. Hedgehogs in the middle ages and up to the 18th century were counted as vermin (along with a lot of our wildlife), but hedgehogs as they were deemed to drink milk from cows lying down in the fields. In fact hedgehogs were actually snuffling about turning over cow pats to find insects.
In the 20th century this idyllic vision of our countryside started to change. Pressures from an ever expanding population demanded much more efficient farming. Pastoral and agricultural farming split with farms dedicated to one or the other. Hedgerow was ripped out to allow for much larger fields to allow larger mechanised farm machinery and smaller farms became swallowed up into larger farms. Pesticides were used to kill insects that effected crops, herbicides to stop any other growth, nutrients were pumped onto the soil to allow constant crops with no need for a fallow period and in these large fields mono crops were sown. This also coincided with the end of woodland management such as coppicing as the demand for wood products declined. This had the result that rather than the diverse woodland structure we now had even aged, closed canopy woodland suitable for less species. There was also a move to plant dense coniferous forest (plantation) for fast growing wood often on and to the detriment of other types of important habitat. It is in the countryside that the largest population declines of many species including hedgehogs have been seen.
The 20th century also saw massive urbanisation. Look at any old map and any new map and you will see that towns and villages that once were separated by fields are now just suburbs of larger towns and cities. This reduced and segregated suitable habitat for our native wildlife. The hedgehog can do quite well in urban areas and indeed the majority of its present population is now in urban areas; however things are not at all well there. More roads, large scale urban complexes, large houses and established gardens giving way to flats and small houses with small gardens with gravel boards and impenetrable fences have all made the hedgehogs life a lot more difficult. The eighties and nineties gardening ethos of slab it, deck it, gravel it has removed a lot of the foraging ground for hedgehogs. Fences have replaced hedges where a hedgehog could make its home. Garden pesticides have reduced insects. The front garden given over to tarmac or gravel for the multiplying car parking.
Hedgehogs will travel around a mile a night foraging to find food and to find places to nest. As the wider countryside has become more barren and less suitable for hedgehogs (and many species) the stronghold of the hedgehog now seems to be in our urban and suburban areas. Hedgehogs need to be able to visit a number of gardens a night and may well be tucked in a snug nest somewhere in your garden during daylight.
A summer nest is a loose affair of leaves under a hedge or shrub in a secluded corner, a winter nest a much tighter affair maybe down in the root-ball of a shrub with leaves and grass and twigs dragged in. But for our hedgehogs it is getting harder to find these habitats and that is even if they can get into the garden in the first place. We have had a number of instances of hedgehogs making their nests under garden sheds and summer houses so if you plan to remove a shed or summer house then please try to do this outside of the breeding season. Hedgehogs in urban areas will also make nests in compost heaps and may use that pile of wood meant for a bonfire as a ready made home. Please always check compost heaps before putting the fork in and always move bonfire piles before lighting. It is important to always check for hedgehogs when gardening, sadly many each year sustain awful injuries from activities such as strimming.
Rescue for a disturbed and destroyed maternity nest below!
The reality is that as for other wildlife things are getting pretty desperate for our native hedgehog. The numbers in the UK just fifty years ago were estimated at 36 million (most likely an over-estimation). The present estimation from surveys is a meager one million and declining rapidly. The majority of these are now most likely urban dwellers. Hedgehogs are a good indicator of the health of our habitats being insectivorous. Large numbers of hedgehogs would indicate good numbers of insects which would then point at good ground habitat and plants needed by insects. Sadly hedgehog numbers are not telling us that this is so.
We need for the future to see changes in the countryside for our native hedgehog. These however are not simple matters and require the input of governments and land owners to see these changes, (of course public opinion will also have a part to play). However anyone with a garden is a land owner no matter how small that garden and if you link twenty small gardens together that becomes the area a hedgehog will need to forage. When you garden think about habitat for insects- no insects no hedgehogs!
So this isn't the end and alarmist headlines don't really help in my opinion. hedgehogs are still around and there are plenty of simple and FREE things that every individual can do to help but it needs to be the beginning of a change of attitude that happens now. If a creature so well known and often seen (even if it was on the road dead), has now become a rare sighting then nothing can be taken for granted and everyone needs to get involved in making our countryside and urban places the natural spaces that our wildlife needs to have a future. If you wan't to read a little more about who it is in my belief that needs and has the power to act and how we need to remove separation in language from our 'natural world' if we are going to really make a difference then please read this You broke it.. so who fixes it
Lots of the information above is explored in more detail on other pages on our website so please do check out other areas. See the following pages on our website for more information and ways to help in the following specific areas..
Gardening for wildlife- simple and often free ways to help in your garden
Pledges4Hedgies- our 4 point plan Access, Habitat, Food, Safety.
Strimmer & Gardening Awareness- raising awareness of potential dangers from working.
Charlie. 2013 (updates 2016)
Some ways to get involved in making a future for our wildlife.
- By gardening for wildlife, leaving wild areas, planting hedges.
- Creating access into your garden and encouraging others to do the same.
- Join a Wildlife Trust or organisation such as the RSPB and why not volunteer some time.
- Support national initiatives.
- Support or volunteer with a rescue unit.
- Get involved with local hedgehog awareness and projects ran by your local rescue.
- Most parks and country parks have friends groups, why not get involved.
- Support your local parks and ranger services, they are often seen as the soft option when cuts have to be made. Rangers are almost an endangered species themselves!
- Introduce children to the natural world from an early age.
- Purchase ethically, look for suppliers that work towards environmental sustainability.
- Support by buying from local farms that operate ethically in supporting natural biodiversity on their land.
- Support local businesses and buy products that will last resulting in less transportation and less throw away products.
- Take time to find out what is happening and have a voice.
This section of the site is still under construction so please visit again for updates and please let me know if there are any glaring errors.