European Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)
You might be aware of our long running series of “All About…” bird species, but we thought we’d mix it up a little this time. To celebrate our favourite spiked garden visitors returning fully rested after an especially bitter cold spell, we decided to bring you a comprehensive guide to all things Hedgehog: All About the Hedgehog.
Our native UK hedgehog is Erinaceus europaeus, which is one of seventeen species of hedgehogs. These different types are found in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, and have also been introduced in New Zealand.
Hedgehogs are unmistakable with their pointy, snuffling snouts and spiky exterior – the spines of which are essentially hollow hairs stiffened by keratin. When a hedgehog instinctively rolls into a ball, this contortion sends the spines pointing outwards to create a spiked shield – it fully surrounds the softer fur around the head and belly to deter predation. An adult hedgehog typically reaches 23-25cm in length, and has a very short tail of only a few cm. A hedgehog’s legs are around 10cm – which is surprising considering how they seem to disappear beneath their bodies, but less surprising when you see how fast they can move!
During the twilight hours and deep darkness of the night, hedgehogs can travel miles, looking for a mate or rooting through hedges and undergrowth in the search for food including insects, worms and snails. Lack of sightings could partially be due to their nocturnal activities not aligning with our own typically diurnal society.
Typical habitat for hedgehogs is woodland – with hedgerows and overgrown areas of our traditional British countryside providing suitable shelter for them. Sadly, with the proliferation of urban development, this natural habitat is diminishing, which has meant that the need for hedgehog homes has increased over the years. These provide a place of safety for hedgehogs in our own gardens.
According to The Guardian, “More than half of people surveyed had never seen a hedgehog.” While this research is potentially skewed by how the survey was conducted, and whether in an urban or rural populace, it remains an unmistakably shocking finding. In fact, studies reveal there are only about one million Erinaceus europaeus left in the UK.
Hedgehogs roam far and wide – up to two miles a night – in search of a mate. As you’d expect, when it comes down to it, the actual mating process requires some careful consideration. It involves the female lying down with her belly flat to the ground, as she flattens her spines to allow for the male to mount from behind. Without this careful arrangement of spines and particular positioning of bodies, it’s essentially impossible for mating to occur.
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.
Hedgehogs especially enjoy snacking on earthworms, caterpillars and beetles, however you can supplement their diet with specially formulated hedgehog food – available in crunchy or semi-moist varieties – see our top picks at the end of this article.
Hedgehogs are often thought of as big slug eaters, but they actually eat very few slugs. In fact, slugs could give them lungworm, so they’re generally eaten as a last resort. If you’re looking to keep those pesky slugs at bay, you might want to look elsewhere.
While we have discussed hibernation in our other hedgehog articles, we couldn’t publish a feature entitled: “All About the Hedgehog” without touching upon this yearly phenomenon.
Hedgehogs start to prepare for hibernation as early as mid-October, however it is not unusual for some to delay hibernating until as late as Christmas. You might also be surprised to discover that most hedgehogs will emerge from hibernation for a few days at a time during the winter months to feed and replenish their supplies. Contrary to popular belief, they do not enter a constant state of hibernation.
Due to mild winter and urban sprawl, typical hibernation habits are affected – hedgehogs are coming out of hibernation earlier than ever before, or not hibernating at all. Typically, hedgehogs return to their active lifestyle at the beginning of spring, however we are increasingly seeing fluctuations in this schedule.
If you want to know more about hedgehogs hibernating click here.
To view the article in its original online format, click here. Originally published in GardenBird magazine, Spring 2018