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European Hedgehogs

Hedgehog Illustration by Bart van Oijen

It is important to remember that hedgehogs are not just pets.  In the United Kingdom and Europe hedgehogs run wild and are a very important part of their native ecosystem.

European Hedgehog - photo courtesy of Bart van Oijen Protected by law in most European countries, one would think hedgehogs are safe and secure, but in reality they are in constant danger of extinction at the hands of humans..

Often misunderstood and steeped in folklore, hedgehogs are as much at risk from do-gooders as they are from those who wish to see them dead.

In ancient times, and as late as the fifteenth century, hedgehogs (or urchins as they were then known) were sometimes accused of being witches in animal form.  They were also appearing on menus of the day. Conrad of Megenberg considered their flesh to be good for a variety of ailments:

"...the flesh of the hedgehog is wholesome for the stomach and strengthens the same. Likewise it hath a power of drying and relieving the stomach. It deals with the water of dropsy and is of great help to such as are inclined to the sickness called elephantiasis"

Although conditions have improved somewhat for the poor hedgehog,  people still have misconceptions that lead to their illness and death on an almost daily basis.

Countless hedgehogs are killed on roadways every year despite efforts to educate the public and the building of special "hedgehog tunnels" under roadways, built in an effort to give the animals a safe way to bypass busy roads.

Many homeowners still put out a dish of milk and bread to encourage hedgehogs to stay in their gardens.  Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant, making this tradition more harmful than beneficial.

Two European Hedgehogs

Care must always be taken before burning a pile of leaves or when turning over mulch piles since hedgehogs like to burrow into them to sleep and hibernate. Many hapless hedgehogs have been carelessly burned to death or impaled on the end of garden forks as a result of failing to first inspect the pile.

Swimming pools can likewise prove a source of danger since hedgehogs can fall in and, with no way out, drown. Pool owners should install a wooden ramp  or a piece of thick rope to allow hedgehogs that might fall in to climb out on their own.

Slug bait should never be used as it can poison hedgehogs two ways.  Hedgehogs will sometimes eat the pellets as well as bait-poisoned slugs. In either case, the result is a slow, terrible death.

Care should also be taken when using lawnmowers, strimmers and garden netting.  All of these can injure, maim and kill hedgehogs without you even knowing it.

European Hedgehog Statistics

Description

The hedgehog is easily recognized as it is the only British mammal to have spines They have short tails, long legs and small ears. They have pig-like noses and commonly live under hedgerows, hence their name.

Life span

Approximately five years.

Size

Body length: 15-30 cm, Weight: 1.5-2 kg.

Reproduction

Females rear the young exclusively. Males and females only meet briefly during the breeding season. Females produce one or two litters a year. Gestation period is 35 days. Litter size varies, but 4-5 is the average. The pups are weaned at five to six weeks.

Diet

Hedgehogs have a mainly insectivorous diet consisting of slugs, snails, earthworms, beetles and earwigs with them preferring one food type over another through the year.  They have also been known to eat frogs and mice as well as eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds.

Distribution

European hedgehogs range across Western Europe, including Britain, from Scandinavia to Romania. They were introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century.

Behaviour

Hedgehogs are mainly solitary animals and are nocturnal by nature, but are most active in the evenings and mornings and after fresh rainfalls.  They can travel up to 2-4 km per night while foraging for food.

By day, hedgehogs seek shelter in temporary nests of leaves, twigs and grass, venturing out at dusk in search of food. As the summer progresses, hedgehogs put on weight in preparation for hibernation in October. Hibernation nests (hibernacula) are typically situated in leaf piles or under hedgerows.

During hibernation the body temperature drops to as low as 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit) and the heart rate drops dramatically, from 190 to about 20 beats per minute. Mortality is high during the hibernation period. By March or April the hedgehogs come out of hibernation.

Conservation status

Hedgehogs are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Britain, and may not be trapped without a licence. They are not considered to be endangered, although their numbers are in decline due to habitat loss.

European Hedgehog face view

Links

For more information on European hedgehogs, try the links below:

  • St. Tiggywinkles

  • Hedgehog Friends of Denmark

  • Spikey's Hedgehog Rescue

  • British Hedgehog Preservation Society

  • Wildlife Gardener - information on attracting hedgehogs to your garden

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    All photos on this page are provided thanks to the kind courtesy of Bart van Oijen www.bartvanoijen.exto.nl

    and Carl Leigh www.bramblewood-hedgehogs.co.uk

     

     

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