When my childhood summers were particularly hot, my friends and I would sleep out in the garden. The slightest breeze or twig snap would shatter my mind with terror, until one night, when I heard what sounded like a dog playing with a squeak toy.

So thank you, western European hedgehog, for making sure I didn’t always bolt straight back into the house.

Just reading about it can be a mood switch, to be honest. It’s a ball of spikes, but delicate. It might survive a hot wash, but not winter. It’s well loved, but also poisoned. And for such a little creature, it’s surprisingly vocal too.

Noisy neighbours

Photo by Alexas_Fotos

Its prickly, rounded hunch can be seen waddling through many a European garden at night, crunching up snails and worms, or snuffling through bushes looking for additional snails and worms. The high pitched squeaks I heard were probably Mum looking for her babies – adults are strictly solo otherwise – because when hedgehogs are in the mood for love, they make more of a hectic grunting noise. This can also inform other local hedgehogs that there’s a party going on.

Before we go any further, let me answer your first question: very carefully.

Since its 5,000 or so spines sit on top of loose skin, it’s easy for an amorous female to flatten them. To further increase her odds, she will lower herself on to the ground. The lucky male then clambers aboard, sometimes biting her shoulder for a good grip and to avoid any unfortunate accidents. They then part ways, but may or may not romp with another partner if the opportunity presents itself.

If the weather’s especially mild, a female can pop out two litters in a year, and this might explain the sudden influx of rescued baby hedgehogs in the UK back in 2015. It’s a bit of a party animal to say the least, and is far from sluggish and slow. I mean, you can’t outrun a speeding car either.

Hardy hog

It’s not only a good swimmer, but surprisingly agile, sometimes found at the tops of walls, and can easily scale wire fences of about a metre (4 feet). If that doesn’t sound too impressive, I should remind you it has short limbs and a hefty haul of spines to carry around.

When faced with danger it famously curls into a ball, and by constricting its panniculus carnosus muscle – no, not a Harry Potter spell, an independent, outer layer of skin – its spines stick outward. They make a handy cushion too, should it fall while climbing, or be pushed off by some enterprising predator. I was going to say they’re less helpful against hot, soapy water and a rotating drum, but the jury’s still out because the poor hedgehog survived!

Back in 2007 in West Sussex, England, a female made the mistake of wandering into a house and snuggling in a pile of dirty washing. She was then scooped up for a 40°C (104°F) wash, and was only discovered when the home owner felt her spikes while gathering up the clothes. Despite it being the worst day of her life, the hedgehog just needed a short stint at an animal hospital before a “soft release” back into the wild.

In 2013, an injured male had a “soft arrival” at Shepreth Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire, arriving by taxi from 40 miles away. Disappointingly he wasn’t driving, but there was only the taxi driver and a pre-paid fee to accompany him. This sounds adorable, but the hedgehog hasn’t always been loved everywhere.

Sinister snacks?

Being an opportunist, it won’t turn its snuffly nose up at the odd baby bird or bird’s egg. In the early 2000s, an abundance of hedgehogs in Scotland’s Western Isles had begun to affect the local feathered population, so in 2003, there was a controversial hedgehog cull.

This would be my reaction. Image by congerdesign.

An old wives’ tail also held that hedgehogs stole milk from udders (You too? Haha!—Egyptian nightjar), which might be why some well-meaning people have left dishes of milk out for them. Unfortunately the hedgehog is lactose intolerant, and so this makes it incredibly sick. Leavings of bread aren’t much better either, so if you want to help a ‘hog, stick to water and (non-fish) cat food. After all, it needs all the help it can get for its winter sleep.

Seasonal snooze

Unless food and warmth are incredibly abundant, the western European hedgehog usually hibernates.

Surprisingly, while the female Kodiak bear will zonk out all winter and wake up with a family, the hedgehog still gets up every two weeks for a wee. After a day or two of bladder-emptying and restocking, it will snuggle back down again, but if it’s too underweight, it won’t wake up again.

A shortage of slugs and other energy boosting pests – mainly due to pesticides, as well as inaccessible gardens and fences – haven’t helped of late, and although it’s not endangered globally, the hedgehog has seen its numbers make a huge, uncushioned drop of up to 50% in the UK since 2002.

Honestly, you’d think we’d be in favour of a natural, cute form of pest control. Even a very confusing one.

TLDR

Latin: Erinaceus europaeus

What? Small snuffly mammal with short, protective spines.

Where? Clue’s in the name. Mostly in orchards, dry woodland, farmland and parks.

How big? 20–25 cm / 7.8-9.8 inches long

Endangered? Considered Least Concern, but under threat locally in the UK.

Probable motto: As tough as a ball of spikes. Sometimes.

They look adorable. Do they need my help at all?

Although considered Least Concern, the western European hedgehog is at risk locally in the UK, mainly thanks to pesticides, inaccessible gardens and/or isolation, and traffic. World-famous animal hospital St. Tiggywinkles would never turn away help, but there are some practical things you can do if hedgehogs make their home near you:

  • Leave out water and/or (non-fish) cat food.
  • If you have a garden, make a wood pile/compost heap in a quiet corner to attract bugs and therefore hopefully hedgehogs!
  • Make said garden accessible by making a small hole in your fence or a tunnel underneath it.
  • It’s nocturnal, so if you see one during the day, it’s probably very unwell and should be taken to your nearest wildlife hospital.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Activity patterns, self-grooming and navigation behaviour with literature reports for the west European hedgehog“. No date. Wildpro.

Amori, G. 2016. “Erinaceus europaeusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T29650A2791303.

Bald hedgehog gets stress-busting massages“. 2019. BBC News.

Cox, Tom. 2013. “Some surprising facts about hedgehogs“. The Guardian.

Dunning, Hayley. 2019. “European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)“. Natural History Museum.

Hedgehog“. 2008. The Guardian.

Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)“. No date. Woodland Trust.

Hedgehog fact sheet“. No date. Tiggywinkles.

Hedgehog survives 40 degree wash“. 2007. BBC News.

Martin, James. 2019. “What do hedgehogs eat?” Woodland Trust.

Morris, Steven. 2014. “RSPCA reports sharp spike in number of hedgehog rescues“. The Guardian.

Roberts, Colin. No date. “Erinaceus europaeus“. Animal Diversity Web.

Featured image credit: Photo by COATESY COATSEY