There have been many stories about hedgehogs, especially in children’s literature, from Beatrix Potter’s, Mrs Tiggywinkle, to Alison Uttley’s, Fuzzypeg. But how do these iconic and adored mammals actually spend their time?
The hedgehog’s life is mainly a solitary one spent busily foraging by night and safely sleeping by day, or so it once was. Did you know a hedgehog can live to the ripe old age of ten, however in the wild it is more often 2-3 years.
The Common hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) is no longer common but on Great Britain’s Red List for mammals vulnerable to extinction. The only spiny mammal to exist in the UK they have an interesting way of life that has seen numbers decline massively due mainly to the loss of natural habitat and food.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal and begin life in a litter of about 4 to 6 babies called hoglets. The mother hedgehog rears the hoglets on her own, suckling them and keeping them safe inside a nest of leaves and twigs, hidden in the undergrowth.
The gestation period is 35 days with the hoglets usually born towards the end of summer, when food should be at its peak. The hedgehogs need to put on enough weight, over the summer and early autumn ,to survive the winter.
Sometimes there will be a second brood, however these little ones are seldom big enough and will struggle to make it through a winter.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, meaning they do all their foraging, breeding and nest-building during the night. Very occasionally a mother may be seen moving her babies to a new nest site; but more often than not a hedgehog out in the day is not okay.
After around a month in the nest, the young hoglets begin to go on night time foraging excursions with mum. After a couple of weeks learning what’s good to eat and what’s not, they will be able to hunt for their food independently and shortly afterwards mum will be an ‘empty-nester’!
Hedgehogs can roam as far as 3km in search of a mate. If a male hog manages to find a female he attempts to woo her by snuffling and jiggling around in front of her. The female often ignores this amorous song and dance but the commotion can attract other males, who may try to muscle in on the action. This can lead to some hedgehog head-butting until the strongest contestant wins the girl.
If you hear strange snorting and grunting coming from the back border on a summers night, it could well be two hedgehogs in a lovers tryst.
Hedgehogs are insectivores meaning they subsist on insects, a favourite being beetles and their grubs. A log pile left to rot down in your garden is especially great for encouraging beetles. Hedgehogs also love to eat leatherjackets (the larvae of craneflies) which often live below the lawn surface feeding on grassroots.
As dawn approaches hedgehogs will look for somewhere safe to sleep during the day. By daybreak they will have crawled into a pile of leaves, a stack of sticks or long tussocky grass at the back of a bramble bush. This is why it is so important to check bonfires before lighting them. A freshly laid bonfire looks like a 5 star hotel to a hedgehog!
Hedgehogs typically hibernate through the winter months when insects are scarce. This is usually from the end of December until March, although it depends on the weather and individual hedgehog. For their winter sleep, solitary hedgehogs will build themselves a cosy nest using dried grass, stems, leaves and twigs, called a hibernacula.
RIGHT TO ROAM
A tightly fenced garden is no good to a hedgehog, they need to be able to travel. Opening up a 13cm hole at the base of a fence, to connect gardens with a ‘hedgehog highway,’ has ben proven to really help hedgehogs forage and breed successfully.
See Roly The Hedgehog modelling his Seedball Hedgehog Highway below!
If you do find a hedgehog out in the day they need help right away, they will either be starving, dehydrated or poorly with ringworm or fluke – a disease picked up from slugs, (which they only eat if they are starving).
These poor hedgehogs need taking to a specialised hedgehog hospital or centre for helping wildlife, where they will be able to give them the treatment they need.
The British Society for the Protection of Hedgehogs has a helpline for local hedgehog hospitals and the People’s Trust for the Protection of Endangered Species runs the fabulous and informative Hedgehog Street.
If you or your dog accidentally disturbs a sleeping hedgehog cover them back up and leave them be.
For more information and ways to help hedgehogs in your spaces: How To Make Your Garden Hedgehog Friendly
IMAGES © Coatsey Shutterstock; Frank Jaroslav, iStock; Anne Stratford, Hedgehog Street;