Hedgehogs always bring a smile to my face – they strike me as characterful, little creatures, who go independently about their own business, snuffling around in our gardens and kindly helping to keep the slug and pest population down (as slugs happen to be a favourite food of these omnivores).
Hedgehogs are an ancient species, who have changed little in 15 million years and are part of the Erinaceinae family. There are in fact 17 species of hedgehogs found in the world – they live in Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand. None are found in the wild in the USA, although in some states, they are a popular choice as pets, with the Pygmy African species being the most favoured.
If you were wondering how hedgehogs got their name, it’s because they favour living in hedgerows and it’s suggested that their snouts are hog like (although personally I favour it being more down to the snuffling noise that they make, which is impressive enough for any porcine-being to be proud of!) Believe me, they are quite loud!
Hedgehogs are the only spiny wild mammal found in Europe and although you’d be forgiven for thinking they must be related to either porcupines or echidnas, they most definitely aren’t.
Hedgehog’s spines are called quills and they are made of the same substance as our finger and toe nails (keratin). The quills are not poisonous or barbed, but are used as a form of protection, as the hedgehog has a nifty trick of being able to curl itself into a spiny ball, with its quills pointing outward and its soft underneath and face tucked safely inside.
Hedgehogs have inspired writers and artists – just think of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle – a charming childhood story; or The Hedgehog and the Fox – a philosophical essay by Isiah Berlin and then of course there’s Sonic the Hedgehog – a well-loved computer game. Many wildlife paintings and drawings feature hedgehogs and their image adorns calendars, mugs, greetings cards etc.
Although I should add that not all writers saw the hedgehogs in such a favourable light. Shakespeare used them as a term of insult – calling some a hedgehog indicated that they had no feelings for others. Maybe it is the look of these creatures that was behind this unflattering use of their name. In my opinion, they may look prickly, but their nature is otherwise.
Historically, Hedgehogs were seen as a delicacy by some – with evidence that they were enjoyed for dinner by our ancestors back in 6,000 BC times. Happily, times have moved on and they are now protected and most definitely off the menu!
I’ve been very blessed to have seen hedgehogs in our own garden and have even been treated to the sight of a mum and hoglet, as well as a thirsty individual taking a drink from our little garden pond.
Despite our good fortune to have hedgehogs visit our homestead, it has to be said that the sight of a hedgehog in the UK today is now pretty rare. At one time, it was fairly usual to spot these prickly individuals bumbling around at dusk; but now there are a growing number of children, who have sadly never had the pleasure of spying a hedgehog in the wild. This is hardly surprising when you look at the staggering decline in their numbers, going from 30 million in the 1950s to less the one million today. Hedgehogs are now on the endangered – at risk of extinction list and we are in danger of losing one of our dearest little native species for good.
The reasons for their decline are: loss of habitat – modern farming methods have favoured the removal of traditional hedgerows and trees, thus taking away available homes for the hedgehogs. Another issue is our use of pesticides – these can remove the chosen food source of the hogs and can lead to poisoning. Added to that are casualties on the roads, making for a bleak outlook for these poor, little critters.
Ways to help hedgehogs in the garden are: not to use pesticides or slug pellets so that there is no risk of any poisoning; leaving a pile or two of leaves and twigs for them to use as a nest; cutting a little hole in a fence to allow them access; putting a ladder or step into your pond to ensure they can climb out if they should fall in; only putting out water for them to drink (not milk) and checking long grass before trimming.
Hedgehogs hibernate in the winter, when the temperature drops – for this they need the right spot where they can curl up and sleep, protected from the worst of the winter. A pile of twigs and leaves makes a welcome hibernation sight – so don’t be too tidy in the garden!
I promise that the delight of spotting a hedgehog visiting your garden, will repay your efforts and definitely bring a smile to your face.
It’s my hope that we can all try to do our best to help save our native hedgehogs before they disappear altogether – the loss of these much-treasured icons of our countryside would be truly tragic, so let’s all get hedgehog friendly!