Hedgehogs have been around for over 15 million years and have survived and thrived in a diversity of climates and have changed very little in that time!. (Modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years) There are 16 different species of hedgehog, spanning 5 genera, which are found natively throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Introduced hedgehogs are also present in New Zealand. The species found in Britain is Erinaceus europeaus and it tends to live among woodlands, hedgerows, scrub and cultivated land. They are also commonly found in human-modified environments like gardens and parks.
In the wild, hedgehogs have a life span of about 5 years, though they can live as long as 8 years in captivity. The Western European hedgehog, E. europeaus, has five toes on each back foot and five on each front foot to help them forage and burrow. Their legs are surprisingly long, hidden underneath their loose skin, and allow them to reach speeds of up to 9 kilometres per hour. Hedgehogs are roughly between 15 and 30 centimetres in length and weigh between 700 and 1000 grams, though some can weigh up to 2 kilograms. Hedgehogs are most readily identifiable by the 5000 to 7000 individual spines—which are actually stiff, hollow hairs—covering their body, with which they defend themselves. In response to perceived threats, the hedgehog will pull loose folds of skin over its head, and curl into a spine-covered ball using drawstring-like muscles to protect its face and underside. At the base of each spine, below the skin, the spine-end rounds into a ball. This allows the spines to bend and prevents them from impaling the hedgehog upon impact. Each spine typically lasts about a year before being shed and replaced (though not all at once) in a process called quilling.
Physical description: Hedgehogs are the only mammal in Britain to have spines.
Diet: Hedgehogs mainly feed on slugs, beetles and snails.
Behaviour: Hedgehogs are nocturnal and will come out at night to hunt. Their sight is fairly poor but their hearing and sense of smell is very strong so they rely on these to find food. You can usually hear them making a snuffling sound in the hedgerows; this is where they get their name from. They can run at a speed of 2 metres per second, climb up walls and are very good swimmers. They are known for being able to curl up into tight balls when startled.
Hibernation: Hedgehogs hibernate from October to April during the winter months. They will find somewhere warm and dry and build a nest from leaves. They are one of three native animals in Britain that hibernate. The reason they hibernate is because during winter they need extra food for calories, however, there is less food for them during winter so they would not survive.
Reproduction: In their second year, after hibernation, they will begin to breed. Males will circle the female making loud snorting noises to grab her attention; this courting can last for hours. The male will have no role in the hoglet’s upbringing. Females will build a nest in the ground under leaves, grass or sheds. A hedgehog’s gestation period is around 4 weeks and she will give birth to between 5-7 young, twice a year. Hoglet’s are born covered with white hairs; these will eventually become spines as they grow. The babies will start to hunt with mum at around 1 month old and after 2 months they will be independent.
Conservation status: Their numbers have declined from over 36 million in the 1950’s to now just over 1 million. Pesticides, roads, cattle grids, lawn mowers, yearly bonfires and the loss of hedgerows are all major factors leading to this decline. In the UK they are listed as a Priority Species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. They are also partially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
These are a wonderful addition to our native wildlife and like the rest need help to ensure their survival. They are such small, unique creatures with such large personalities.