A Prickly Affair

This article was originally published in The Northumbrian Magazine and is republished with permission. Author John Steele previously worked as a long serving Northumberland National Park Ranger.

An illustration of a hedgehog

Hedgehog Illustration by John Steele

While I was pondering the subject for this page one evening, into the room slid a pair of giant hedgehog slippers, with one of my daughters sleepily providing the propulsion. The soft, comfortable facsimiles bore little resemblance to the real beast but hedgehogs they certainly were, and enough to recall many interesting encounters of the prickly kind.

A variety of peculiarities amaze me and set them apart from any other native animal. Instead of normal mammalian fur on its back, the hedgehog has modified its hairs into spines and instead of warmth, its gain is in protection. It’s a quite bizarre yet clearly successful adaptation. Usually 5000 spines are found on an adult, but up to 8000 spines have been known on the largest animals.

I remember a tiny orphaned hog which had a pair of white spines that slowly but surely seemed to migrate up its flank as it grew. In truth, the spines stayed while new spines were systematically added to the edge of the ‘skirt’ as the animal grew larger.

When relaxed the spines lie slicked back in a reasonably orderly fashion to allow it to slide through tight gaps and vegetation without getting snagged up. However, when it becomes uneasy the head is lowered and the spines on the head and neck are lifted. As it becomes more alarmed the rest of its body spines rise but not in an orderly way. They can point in all directions, each spines crossed with adjacent ones forming an impenetrably thick mat, ready to repel attackers.

Protection

A thick layer of muscles underlies the skin and controls the erectile spines which themselves have a cunningly formed waist near their base. This allows the spines to bend, and often helps them to cushion a fall during one of its many climbing expeditions. These muscles not only raise prickles but allow the animals to curl up to safeguard its surface.

If the hog is turned over, final protection of belly limbs and head are completed by the contraction of a drawstring-type muscle which surrounds the skirt and completes the closure of the body bag. This clearly works well by deterring predators like stout and fox but apparently not badger, which is said to be capable of opening the bag with its strong claws.

It may seem to us that the spine could have some disadvantages; having several hundred fleas living safely among them might send a shiver up your spine, but not the hedgehog’s. The presence of so many lodgers doesn’t seem to disturb their host at all, and it is not necessarily due to the hog’s apparent inability to groom the spines. With its long, well-articulated hind legs and long claws, it’s quite capable of reaching all parts of its body for a scratch if so required. Please note – no self-respecting hedgehog flea would be seen dead on a cat, dog or human, as they only have the taste for their host.

Mating

Hedgehogs are solitary creature, avoiding each other until a female is in season, and then the suitors come from far and wide, attracted by her scent. At this time many males are killed on the road simply because they are out searching for the more sedentary females.

“How do hedgehogs mate?” I hear you ask. Very carefully is the answer. After much lengthy courtship circling and sniffing the male may attempt to mount the female. If she is unwilling she flinches or even snaps at or butts the approaching male. Only when she is ready will she prepare herself by arching her back and slicking down her spines.

She can be mated by several males, and when to give birth after 32 days’ gestation she builds a large heap of grass and leaves in a safe place, the climbs inside, and combs out a spherical cavity inside the material using her spines. About five youngsters are born very easily (for her sake) because they have no spines at birth. A thick white fluid-filled skin covers the spines and only pimples show their location. Very quickly after birth white prickles appear as the fluid in the skin is absorbed and deflates. After about a week a second set of normal spines appears between the white ones.

The youngsters have a strong sense of self-preservation as they can roll up before their eyes open at 14 days or so. Females are reported to have eaten tiny youngsters when disturbed, but the large young are transferred to a safe haven. They begin to leave the nest at 22 days and follow their mother on foraging excursions, piping with a shrill note. This is no procession, as all the little ones are easily waylaid by a new smell or taste, but usually reconvene for a suckle, or if mum hits a rich source of juicy titbits in the leaf litter. Slugs, beetles, other insects and earthworms seems to be in greatest demand, but not woodlice in my experience. The aftermath of this gluttony is those long black cylindrical dropping you quite often find on lawns or playing fields.

Top Tips

Pop out on still night, sit and listen. You will soon heart snorting, snuffling (hence the name hog) and rustling as your spiky pest control officer wanders about, mopping up all those undesirables. At one time hedgehogs were believed to suckle cows at night, but it seems more likely that all they were doing was lapping at the overflowing udder of a sleeping cow.

Incidentally, cow’s milk is not at all good for hogs, and can upset them badly. If you intend to feed them regularly, it’s best to go for goat’s milk, or better still offer cat or dog food.

Finally, just a few tips to help these fascinated creatures:

  • Don’t be tempted to user certain types of slug pellet in the garden; those containing metaldehyde can kill hedgehogs.
  • Put hedgehog ramps in cattle grids and garden ponds to allow an exit for the midnight swimmer.
  • If you have a compost heap take care not to spear a hibernator with your pitchfork.
  • Check bonfires before lighting for that sheltering hog.
  • Keep to speed limits and don’t drive so fast that you cannot take appropriate avoiding action. I’m sure when hedgehogs have developed a harder superspine the spate of punctures will have the desired effect!