Every now and then I love to do a post on an animal that I love. Now the hedgehog is one of my all time faviourites. Unfortunaley in the UK (where I live) the numbers are declining. There are many factors to why this is but a large contributor to this is down to the lack of safe places for the Hedgehog to live. This post is going to be dedicated to giving lots of information about the hedgehog and how YOU can help them by giving them food in your garden and even helping them to have a safe home to live in.
General Information on the Hedgehog
G. Fischer, 1814
A hedgehog is any of the spiny mammals of the subfamily Erinaceinae, in the order Eulipotyphla. There are seventeen species of hedgehog in five genera, found through parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and in New Zealand by introduction. There are no hedgehogs native to Australia, and no living species native to the Americas (the extinct genus Amphechinus was once present in North America). Hedgehogs share distant ancestry with shrews (family Soricidae), with gymnures possibly being the intermediate link, and have changed little over the last 15 million years. Like many of the first mammals, they have adapted to a nocturnal way of life. Hedgehogs’ spiny protection resembles that of the unrelated rodent porcupines and monotreme echidnas.
Hedgehogs are easily recognized by their spines, which are hollow hairs made stiff with keratin. Their spines are not poisonous or barbed and unlike the quills of a porcupine, do not easily detach from their bodies. However, the immature animal’s spines normally fall out as they are replaced with adult spines. This is called “quilling”. Spines can also shed when the animal is diseased or under extreme stress.
Hedgehogs are primarily nocturnal, though some species can also be active during the day. Hedgehogs sleep for a large portion of the day under bush, grass, or rock, or most often in dens dug in the ground, with varying habits among the species. All wild hedgehogs can hibernate, though not all do, depending on temperature, species, and abundance of food.
A defense that all species of hedgehogs possess is the ability to roll into a tight ball, causing all of the spines to point outwards. Since the effectiveness of this strategy depends on the number of spines, some desert hedgehogs that evolved to carry less weight are more likely to flee or even attack, ramming an intruder with the spines; rolling into a spiny ball is for those species a last resort. The various species are prey to different predators: while forest hedgehogs are prey primarily to birds (especially owls) and ferrets, smaller species like the long-eared hedgehog are prey to foxes, wolves and mongooses.
The hedgehog’s back contains two large muscles that control the position of the quills. The average hedgehog has about 5,000 to 6,500 quills that are strong on the outer surface but filled with air pockets on the inside. When the creature is rolled into a ball, the quills on the back protect the tucked head, feet, and belly, which are not quilled. This is the hedgehog’s last but most successful form of defense.
Hedgehogs are fairly vocal and communicate through a combination of grunts, snuffles and/or squeals, depending on species. Actually just on this, where I live we have quite a few hedgehogs, and to say they are fairly vocal is an understatement. I am often outside in the early hours, stargazing. While the early morning quiet sets in, you can often hear them shuffling about and grunting quite loud. The first time I heard it, I nearly wet myself. Upon finding a torch, low and behold was a little hedgehog going about his own business, snuffling about near my feet. To be fair he didn’t even seem too concerned that I was shining a bright light in his face, he/she just kinda looked as if to say “and what?!” I swear, if he could raise his middle finger up at this point…I think he would have.
Hedgehogs are omnivorous. They feed on insects, snails, frogs and toads, snakes, bird eggs, carrion, mushrooms, grass roots, berries, melons and watermelons. Berries constitute a major part of an Afghan hedgehog’s diet in early spring after hibernation.
***IMPORTANT NOTE*** You should never leave ham and milk out for a hedgehog. People often do this as they think they will help fatten the hedgehog up for winter; however, ham does not agree with them and they are lactose intolerant. The best thing is a bowl of water in a shallow dish and some chopped up worms or slugs, but if you’re not an avid gardener, some meat based cat and dog food (not fish-based), crushed cat biscuits, or chopped boiled eggs can be great.
Hedgehogs are one of the few mammals that are true hibernators. During hibernation hedgehogs are not really asleep, instead they drop their body temperature to match their surroundings and enter a state of torpor. This allows them to save a lot of energy but slows down all other bodily functions making normal activity impossible.
Hedgehogs usually hibernate from October/November through to March/April. Research has shown that each individual is likely to move nesting sites at least once during this period and so can sometimes be seen out and about. During mild winters hedgehogs can remain active well into November and December.
While in hibernation the hedgehog’s fuel supply comes from the fat stores it has built up over the summer. Eating enough before hibernation is vital and this is when supplementary feeding (as mentioned above) can prove important to hedgehogs.
Hedgehogs reach sexual maturity in their second year of life, and after this can breed every year until death. Reproduction occurs any time between April and September, but the period of greatest activity, ‘the rut’, occurs in May and June in Britain.
Males attempt to woo females in lengthy encounters that involve much circling and rhythmic snorting and puffing. The commotion can attract rival males to the scene and courtship can thus be interrupted as interlopers are confronted and rival males square up to one another; head-butting and chases are not uncommon.
The actual process of mating is a predictably delicate operation, with the female having to adopt a special body position with her spines flattened as the male mounts from behind. Radio-tracking studies have shown hedgehogs to be promiscuous with both males and females often having several different mates in a single season.
Hedgehog babies are called hoglets Most baby hedgehogs are born in June and July, with an average litter size of four or five young, of which two or three are usually weaned successfully. The mother is liable to desert or even eat the young if she is disturbed. Young hedgehogs will leave the nest when they are around three to four weeks old to go on foraging trips with their mother. After around ten days of foraging with their mother the young will wander off on their own.
Females are capable of having a second litter in late September or October but these young are unlikely to survive the winter. In Britain it is thought unlikely that female hedgehogs ever manage to successfully rear two litters in a season as the young from the second litter are unable to put on enough weight to survive hibernation. These late litters can lead to ‘autumn orphans’ still foraging around well into winter sometimes in the day time and often looking underweight.
- The hedgehog got its name because of its peculiar foraging habits. They root through hedges and other undergrowth in search of their favourite food – small creatures such as insects, worms, centipedes, snails, mice, frogs, and snakes. As it moves through the hedges it emits pig-like grunts — thus, the name hedgehog.
- The hedgehog is nocturnal, coming out at night and spending the day sleeping in a nest under bushes or thick shrubs
- Their coats are thick and spiny, providing them with a formidable defence against predators such as the fox. When they feel alarmed or intimidated, they will curl up into a spiny ball to protect its vulnerable stomach.
- They have about 5000 spines. Each spine lasts about a year then drops out and a replacement grows.
- The spines are hollow and springy with a flexible neck and they are erected by muscles. At the base there is a smooth ball which bends on impact.
- There may be up to 500 fleas on one hedgehog but the specific hedgehog flea (known as Archaepsylla erinacei) rarely bites humans.
- They also have a habit when stimulated by a strong smell or taste to self-anoint – this means they cover their prickles in foamy saliva. No-one is certain why it does this.
- While hunting for food, they rely primarily upon their senses of hearing and smell because their eyesight is weak though their eyes are adapted for night-time vision.
- They have a particularly long, extending snout beyond the front of their mouth which they use to help them forage for food.
- The diet of a hedgehog has claimed it the reputation as being the ‘gardener’s friend’ as it includes so many ‘pests’. Frequently food put out for dogs and cats in town and city gardens also provides a meal for them and it is certainly a good way to encourage one into your own garden.
- Hedgehogs are usually solitary, usually pairing up only to mate. When they mate they often make loud snuffling noises. The male circles the female, sometimes for hours, to persuade her to mate. They will separate thereafter and the male takes no part in rearing the family.
- The young are born in litters ranging from one to eleven. They remain with their mothers for only four to seven weeks before heading out on their own. Among the predators females must guard against during this period are other male hedgehogs, which will sometimes prey upon the young of their species. Hedgehog mothers have also been known to eat their young if the nest is disturbed, though they sometimes simply move them to a new nest.
- Baby hedgehogs are born blind after 32 days and their spines are soft. However a late litter born in September seldom survive their first winter. The young are suckled by their mother until they are able to hunt for themselves. After about four weeks, the mother will take the young out on their first foraging trip and after ten days, the family will separate.
- European hedgehogs in the UK hibernate throughout winter. They feed as much as possible during the autumn and in around October build its nests of leaves and grass in which to hibernate.
- There are 17 species of hedgehog.
- Hedgehogs in cold climes hibernate over the winter. In warmer climates such as deserts they sleep through heat and drought in a similar process called aestivation. In more temperate areas they remain active all year.
- A group of hedgehogs is called an “array.”
- Hedgehogs are illegal in Maine, Arizona, California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and New York City.
- Hedgehogs rely on hearing and smell because they have very poor eyesight.
- Unlike porcupine quills, hedgehog spikes are not barbed, and they’re not poisonous.
- Hedgehogs are largely immune to snake venom.
- The sea urchin is actually named after the hedgehog. Before the more adorable name came into use, the spiky mammals were called “urchins” and thus inspired the name of the similarly spiky sea creatures.
- When exposed to pungent smells or tastes, hedgehogs exhibit a behavior called “self-anointing” in which they rub frothy saliva on their quills. When the animal encounters a new scent, it will lick and bite the source, then form a scented froth in its mouth and paste it on its spines with its tongue. The purpose of this habit is unknown, but some experts believe anointing camouflages the hedgehog with the new scent of the area and provides a possible poison or source of infection to predators poked by their spines. Anointing is sometimes also called anting because of a similar behavior in birds.
How to help the Hedgehog
Encouraging hedgehogs into your garden
- Place a small dish of dog or cat food (although no fish varieties) alongside some water to encourage hedgehogs into your garden.
- If you have a garden wall or fence, remove a brick from the bottom or cut a hole (roughly 15cm/6in in diameter). This will allow the hedgehog to roam freely in and out of the garden.
- One way to attract these friendly creatures is to place a wooden nesting box in your garden. Cover the box in vegetation and place in a secluded corner. You can buy nesting boxes here (third party link, however if you google “buy hedgehog home” you will find something) or why not try making one yourself. Here is an awesome link from the rspb with some great instructions to make a home for hedgehogs and other animals to. Another site to help you build a simple home for your little hog’s from Gardener’s World Alternatively, you can leave an area of your garden to grow wild, as hedgehogs like to nest in long grass, shrubs, flowers and nettles.
Most people don’t think or see just how valuable and important our little spiny friend is to our natural eco system. However, if you are gardener like myself, then they are an invaluable resource for helping to remove all those pesky slugs.
Hedgehogs are on a decline sadly and it is up to everyone to help in some way. Our friends at DIYGarden have lots of information and a great selection of ideas on how you can help our little friends and lots of information on other animals that you may find in your garden.
For more information on hedgehogs and how you can help, check out DIYGarden (link here).
I would personally like to thank Clive from DIYGarden for getting in contact with us at Scientia and hope together we can all raise awareness to get more people building some homes for the friendly and insanely cute hedgehog.
How to make a Hedgehog Home Videos
Video One: Hedgehog Homes from Laura Brady and her Father
Video Two: Making a Hedgehog House (Walk through)
Hedgehog Information Videos
Hedgehog Mating Rituals – Attenborough – Life of Mammals – BBC
Hedgehogs! What, Where, and How
Helping Wild Hedgehogs UK
Hedgehog PDF Documents
- Hedgehog Fact sheet 1
- Hedgehog Fact sheet 2
- Hedgehog Fact sheet 3
- Hedgehog Fact sheet 4
- Hedgehog Fact sheet 5
- How to Make a Hedgehog Box
- Make a Hedgehog Home
- Creating a Home for Hedgehogs
- Hedgehog Home Plans
- How to Care for an Injured Hedgehog
- Helping Hedgehogs in the Garden RSPCA
- Helping Hedgehogs Through the Winter
- Hedgehog Hibernation
– Credit and Resource –