The Latin word for hedgehog is Erinaceus and our own British hedgehog is scientifically known as Erinaceus Europaeus: it is the same species that occurs throughout most of Europe and belongs to the family, Erinaceidae. In Britain they are found almost everywhere except some of the Scottish islands.
Like most nocturnal creatures, hedgehogs have poor eyesight but good hearing and an excellent sense of smell.
If frightened or disturbed a hedgehog will roll up into a tight ball – gaining protection from its dense covering of spines, they don’t automatically run away which puts them at risk on roads, near machinery and if they are resting bonfires as they are lit.
Hedgehogs aren’t territorial and have nest sites their nests and hibernation sites in a variety of places including gardens, under hedgerows, in woodland and farmland.
Hedgehogs put on lots of weight in autumn ready to hibernate through the winter. Hibernation nests are typically built under sheds, in sheltered areas and in hedgerows.
What do they look like?
The upper parts of their heads and bodies are covered in spines. The rest of their body is covered in brown fur.
They are mostly recognised by their 5000-7000 spines which cover their backs and their thick grey/brown fur which makes up the skirt. An orange tinge to their skirt can be a sign of an ageing hedgehog. They have a long pointed nose, little ears on the side of their head, four legs and a tail. They are usually between15-30cm. They defend themselves by curling into a ball which make it difficult for any would be predator to penetrate there sharp spines. In my experience of handling hedgehogs the spines can either stand upright or go criss cross depending upon how threatened the hedgehog feels.
An adult hedgehog can weigh between 650 grams to 2kg, they can live up to eight years but often in the wild this is greatly reduced to 2-3 years
Hedgehogs are so named because of their pig-like snout and their habit of noisily rooting through the undergrowth for food. The ‘hedge’ part is more obvious, the hedgehog inhabits hedgerows. The name hedgehog was first used in the 15th century.
What is their natural diet?
Hedgehogs eat many of the insects, beetles and grubs that are found in and around our gardens. They also eat earth worms, snails, slugs, millipedes and caterpillars.
They are very noisy eaters and they don’t have good ‘table manners’ they can often be seen n trampling through their food or sitting in the middle of it.
What does being nocturnal mean?
Nocturnal means being awake during the night. Hedgehogs are nocturnal often getting up at dusk and returning to their nest sites by dawn; they spend the night foraging often travelling up to a 2km each night. The males will often travel further in search of a female. They can return to the same nest site but often they will know of a number of different sites. They are not territorial but they will often stay close to a good food supply and return to good nesting sites.
What is hibernation?
Hibernation occurs when the outside temperature drops usually below 8c and the hedgehog’s natural food becomes scarce. Hibernation is the general closing down of the body to preserve energy and fat reserves. In the UK Hedgehogs typically hibernate during the coldest winter months of November through to March when their natural food source is scarce. The visiting hedgehogs’ in my garden can stop coming to the feeding station from October sometimes earlier depending upon our autumn weather. The larger males are inclined to begin hibernation before the females. They build a hibernacula usually under a shed, piles of leaves etc. Their heart rate goes from a steady 90bpm to a 20bpm and the body temperature drops from 35c to 10c. They feel cold to the touch and the only way to tell if they are still alive is to tickle their spines and they will lift slightly to give protection.
When is the breeding season?
The breeding season usually begins in May and the golden question is how hedgehogs mate, with great difficulty with all those spines. The courting ritual can go on for hours and hours and often without mating occurring, many of you may have been awoken by very strange noises coming from the undergrowth in the garden. When the time is right the female will lay her spines down and will allow the male to mount her without getting injured. The male and female do not stay together and for this reason the female can be mated a number of times throughout the night.
Females can give birth to up to six hoglets, they remain with their mothers until they are about six to eight weeks of age when they wander off and become independent. Hoglets are born without any spines and after a few hours tiny white spines begin to emerge. The hoglets eyes start to open at two weeks and their front teeth appear at three weeks. By the time they reach four weeks of age they look like miniature hedgehogs. Female hedgehogs can have two litters in a year, the second litter are usually born in the late summer so by the time they are weaned winter is approaching and there is a high chance that they will not be able put on enough weight to survive hibernation, sadly many of these young hedgehogs do not survive until the following spring. Hedgehogs born as part of a late litter are known as
An autumn juvenile is a hedgehog that has recently left its mother in the autumn and is too small to hibernate. Autumn juveniles are very vulnerable. As the weather turns colder and their natural food supply becomes scarce they often struggle to reach the hibernation weight of 650 grams. They are picked up by members of the public who come across them during the day foraging for food, they quite often have a heavy intestinal worm infestation and lung worm. These little hogs need to be picked up, kept in the warm and passed to a local hedgehog carer, as soon as possible to maximise their chances of survival, who can administer the specialised care they require. These hedgehogs are then treated and supported all the way through the winter by carers and released in the spring when the weather is mild and their natural food supply is in abundance.
Any hedgehog under 650 grams in October will need to be rescued and overwintered. These hedgehogs are kept warm through the winter and released (usually where they were found) when the weather warms up in the spring and there natural food supply is plentiful.
Some hedgehogs carry fleas but they are host specific meaning they only live on the hedgehog and not your pet dog or cat. I have cared for a large number of hedgehogs and I have to say I haven’t seen many with a flea problem. In my experience the sick and injured hedgehogs that I have cared for often carry a large number of ticks. These are usually picked up by sick or injured hedgehogs, particularly if they have been laid up for a while.
Strange smells or tastes, maybe a change of diet, could trigger this strange behaviour known as self- anointing. The hedgehog flicks frothy saliva over its spines, contorting itself into awkward positions so that it can reach every part of its spiny coat. This can last from a few minutes up to an hour or so and will suddenly stop.