Description: Unmistakable coat of several thousand spines along the back, speckled brown and cream. Brown pointed furry face, small black eyes and nose.
Size: 150-300mm head and body length, dependant on age; tail: 10-20mm.
Weight: Up to 2kg, heaviest in autumn.
Lifespan: Up to 10 years (but this is exceptional). Over half die within their first year, and average life expectancy is 2-3 years in the wild.Breeding: Females have litters of 4-5 young (sometimes more), between April and September. Males do not assist in rearing. Young born late often die, being too small (at least 450g) to survive hibernation.
Habitat: Hedgehogs prefer woodland edges, hedgerows and suburban habitats where there is plenty of food for them. Intensively farmed arable land is probably a poor habitat, as are moor lands and dense conifer forests.
Diet: Hedgehogs eat beetles, worms, caterpillars, slugs and almost anything they can catch, but little plant material. They can also take eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds though rarely in large numbers and much less so than foxes and crows.
General Ecology: Hibernation usually begins about November and ends around Easter, but is much affected by the weather. Hedgehogs normally wake up several times over winter and often build a new nest. In the spring they commonly spend a few days active then enter hibernation again during a cold snap. The winter nest (“hibernaculum”) is made of leaves, tucked under a bush or log pile or garden shed, anywhere that offers support and protection. Hedgehogs travel about 1-2km each night, males more so than females. They return to the same daytime nest for a few days then use another, perhaps returning to an old nest at a later date.
Distribution and main sites: Native. The hedgehog is common in parks, gardens and farmland throughout mainland Britain and Ireland. It has also been introduced to many islands including Orkney, Shetland, Isle of Man and some of the Channel Islands. Shropshire records are distributed across the county with most in the more populated areas which may in part reflect the distribution of recorders.
Local survey history: Market Drayton in 2018 and another by the Strettons Area Community Wildlife Group in 2019.
Conservation Status: Hedgehogs are partially protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act and may not be trapped without a licence from Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage. Hedgehogs appear to be in decline and the total population is unknown.
Threats: The biggest threat to hedgehogs is thought to be habitat loss and fragmentation, with the change from pastoral farming to arable crops, and increasing field size with the removal of hedgerows over the last 30 years. The use of chemicals in gardens and for intensive farming kills the creatures hedgehogs need for food and may also poison them directly. Many are also killed on the roads.
Hedgehogs survive well in gardens, particularly assisted by food put out for them, as modern tidy gardens may not otherwise provide sufficient food. Gardens can also be hazardous. Strimmers cut back rank vegetation in the very places hedgehogs lie up during the day, causing serious wounds to the sleeping animals. Hedgehogs hibernate under garden bonfire heaps. These should always be turned over before being burnt. Hedgehogs swim well but easily drown in smooth-sided garden ponds, being unable to escape from them. Ponds (and swimming pools) should have a piece of chicken wire dangling into the water to help the animals climb out. Garden netting is also dangerous unless staked down tightly to avoid hedgehogs becoming entangled.
Action: Encourage habitat continuity including hog-friendly fencing with holes for hedgehogs between gardens.
Main recording methods: Camera traps, direct sightings, droppings and footprint tunnels.
Did you know? Pliny the Elder and the Roman author and teacher Aelian maintained that hedgehogs have two nest holes, North and South, and block one or the other as the wind changes and can therefore foretell a change of wind. Irish lore associated the hedgehog with witches who could take its form to suck cows dry. In China it also had a sinister reputation as one of the Five Animals (along with Fox, Weasel, Snake, and Rat) sacred but not to be trifled with (Terri Windling, Hedgehog Myth & Moor 2016).
There is generally great wisdom associated with the hedgehog. The Ancient Greek poet Archilochus said: “The fox may know many things, but the hedgehog knows just one, and it is a good thing” and whilst the cleverness of foxes will only get you so far; it is the wisdom of the hedgehog we should embrace (Hugh Warwick, November 2015 – The Guardian).
Hedgehog tracks are best identified by using a footprint tunnel. They are five-toed, with a sharp claw on the end. They are 2.8cm in width and 2.5cm in length. To record footprints, a tunnel can be placed alongside hedgerows and in gardens. A footprint guide and protocol are both available from The Mammal Society.
They can be found in grassland and farmland, and in people’s gardens. They are crinkly, often studded with shiny fragments due to their diet of insects. Variable size, 15-50mm long, 8-10mm thick.
Smell: Sweet smelling, hint of linseed oil.
Acknowledgements: The Mammal Society
Text: Craig Baker
Photos: Emma Jones & Kathryn Jones
© Shropshire Mammal Group 2020