There are few more familiar and beloved creatures than that spiny nocturnal wanderer, the hedgehog. From infancy we become enamoured with this prickly mammal through its appearance in stories, rhyme and song. Who has not heard of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Harry the Hedgehog, Spiny Norman and Sonic? Every one regarded with affection and a smile. Quite right too, for the hedgehog is one of the few animals that happily shares our gardens and parks, allowing us a close encounter with nature denied by other, more secretive species. We can delight in putting out food for hungry, snuffling locals, can build nesting and hibernation houses for them, help injured or underweight individuals by sending them to specialised hospitals and if we are quiet and patient may get a close look at that cute face and twinkly eye.
Hedgehogs seem to have always featured heavily in our folklore; I was intrigued and slightly dismayed to discover that they, or at least parts of them, were also used as medicinal remedy for a whole range of ailments in centuries gone by. It was believed for example that:
The ashes of a hedgehog could cure boils
The powdered skin prevented hair loss
Burning a hedgehog and breathing in the fumes cured kidney stones
The right eye of a hedgehog could be fried in linseed oil and drunk from a brass vessel to improve night vision
The fat of a hedgehog 'stayeth the flux of the bowels'.
And let’s be honest who wouldn’t want their bowel flux stayethed? I don’t know how widespread the practice of dismembering and cremating hedgehogs was to treat these maladies, but hopefully such butchery was limited.
Perhaps more bizarrely, it was once believed that hedgehogs steal milk from sleeping cows at night. In fact, during the 16th century, there was a 3 pence reward for anyone who could catch a hedgehog milking a cow! More licence for people to persecute and incriminate a poor innocent animal for beer money no doubt.
One of my own first really close encounters with a hedgehog occurred as my friend and I were busy counting the gulls loafing on our local school field. We noticed something moving under a hedge which, on closer examination, revealed itself to be an animated yogurt pot. Further scrutiny showed the discarded pot to have a hedgehog firmly wedged into it, shuffling round in blind circles in an effort to dislodge the imprisoning tub. We obliged the poor creature that had obviously pushed its head into the pot to lap up the creamy residue. Free at last, it kept stock still, regarding us warily with a beady black eye before scurrying away at surprising speed into the undergrowth.
Then there was the time I was removing a bank of spoil at the bottom of the garden. My spade and I got into a rhythm of digging a lump out and depositing it seamlessly into a wheelbarrow behind me. I dug out one particular spadeful and only a couple of minutes later thought it seemed different to the others. I looked in the wheelbarrow and there to my surprise was a hedgehog, intact, surrounded by a ball of leaves. A rude awakening from its slumber, but it was, all things considered, one lucky critter.
Hedgehogs emerge from hibernation during April and waste little time searching for a breeding partner. Courtship can be a noisy affair with the male snorting and snuffling beside his potential mate for lengthy spells. Actually mating takes place carefully, as you would expect, with the female adopting a special position whereby she flattens her spines to allow courtship to be consummated. Both sexes are quite promiscuous and will mate with several different partners through the season.
Young hoglets are born during the summer with a general litter size of four or five. They leave the nest after four weeks and can then be seen following their mother nose to tail as they forage in our gardens. The young become independent after a further couple of weeks.
Sometimes a second litter is born in early autumn and it is these young that form the bulk of the distressed and underweight animals frequently encountered during daylight before the hibernation period commences in November.
In this overcrowded, disconnected world of ours, the fact that hedgehogs are still able to find a niche is something to savour. Sadly though their numbers have dwindled over the past few decades with some areas now seemingly devoid of the animals. Increased road traffic, the concreting over of our green spaces, intensification of farming methods and tidying up of gardens are amongst factors affecting population levels. Overall numbers are difficult to monitor, and it may be that in some urban locations hedgehogs are slowly increasing. What is very clear however is that natural, unmolested open spaces full of invertebrate food items, safe hibernation sites and free from disturbance are very important to the wellbeing of our spiky friends. Our commons therefore represent ideal habitats for hedgehogs, providing a green, safe oasis in a foodless desert filled with potential dangers. We must safeguard these jewels for our own sake and for the sake of the wild creatures that depend on them.