The hedgehog. Erinaceinae. These lovable spiny creatures which are a common site in our gardens and hedgerows, are Britain’s only spiny mammal.
The UK is home to the West European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). This species is just one of seventeen different species worldwide from Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand.
They were named for their peculiar foraging methods. These mammals search through hedges and undergrowth in search of creatures that compose most of their diet such as worms, insects, centipedes, snails, mice and sometimes even snakes! As they look for their food they snort and grunt in the hedgerows – ‘hedgehog’.
Their specialised coat can contain over 6,000 spines and hangs around their body in a loose ‘skirt’, concealing the grey fur on their undersides, long legs and short stubby tail.
Their spines are hollow and naturally fall out when a baby hedgehog (called a hoglet) grows adult spines. This process is called ‘quilling’ just like when our baby teeth fallout and our adult teeth come though!
They can roam anywhere up to 2km at night and when it is breeding season, males can travel up to 3km. Over small distances they can be surprisingly quick, and they can swim and climb strongly.
They communicate through a series of grunts and squeals but are mainly solitary animals.
Their eyesight is very weak as they are nocturnal and don’t need it to be particularly strong but this means that their hearing and smell is enhanced.
For their size, they have quite a long lifespan and can survive around 4-7 years in the wild or longer in captivity.
They hibernate throughout winter to conserve energy and put themselves into a state of decreased physiological activity called ‘torpor’ which helps them to survive cold environments. This change causes their heartbeat to change from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute.
They only need to hibernate in colder climates whereas in more temperate climates they don’t have to hibernate at all. In the desert for example, instead of hibernating through the winter they can hibernate through heat drought in a similar process called ‘aestivation’.
Although it may be very tempting to try to pick one of these little guys up, it can be quite dangerous as they can sometimes pass on infections and diseases to humans.
Wobbly hedgehog syndrome is a neurological disorder in which the animals lose control of their muscles which has many similarities to multiple sclerosis in humans. Although the cause has not been found yet many people just put it down to genetics and DNA.
In your garden, you may have one of these little guys roaming about so please be aware of them and note that this is their home too.
Many simple ways you can help these prickly creature includes creating access holes so they can come in and out of your garden freely. Avoid using slug pellets. Make your ponds safe so that they can climb out if they fall in -even though they can swim. If you do see a hedgehog and it looks like it is struggling just put out a bowl of fresh clean water and some cat or dog food. NEVER put out fish-based foods or milk as it can cause them health issues such as diarrhoea.