Prickly Business

European Hedgehog

The European Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), is a small mammal and is one of the UK’s most well-known mammals. It is a uniquely distinctive and easily identifiable species due to its coating of spines as well as its somewhat spherical shape when curled and overall brown colouration.

It is in the family Erinaceidae, which contains hedgehogs occurring in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as moonrats occurring in Asia. There are fourteen hedgehog species globally, and E. europaeus occurs through Western Europe and Scandinavia.

E. europaeus range from between 15-30 cm in length, up to 2 kg in weight, and have a lifespan of 2-5 years on average (The Wildlife Trusts, n.d.). The species is predominantly nocturnal however can also sometimes be found during the day. E. europaeus are best observed between April and October as they go into hibernation during the winter months, spending this time in a hibernaculum (den) amongst leaves and/or logs. Their diet consists of a range of invertebrates, plus birds’ eggs and amphibians, with a preference for large beetles, slugs and earthworms. The European Hedgehog is known to travel between 1-2 km nightly on the quest for food and potential breeding partners.

Their spines (also known as quills) are hollow, modified hairs stiffened by keratin and an average individual has 7000 of them! They curl up into a sphere when they feel under threat, raising these spines as a defence mechanism.

The species is fairly well distributed across Britain (excluding a number of the Scottish islands) and found in a range of habitats including woodland, grassland, hedgerows, parks and gardens, but have unfortunately suffered a nationwide decline in recent decades, including a circa 30% reduction in numbers over the past ten years with lower than a million individuals now estimated to persist nationally. A distribution map of records from 2015-2017 can be found by following this link:

European Hedgehog, UEA, 11 October 2018 (Max Hellicar)

The above individual was found just to the west of the University of East Anglia campus on 11th October 2018, which we rescued from an inevitable perish on busy roundabout during the day. Note the jacket used to handle rather than bare hands as they carry large quantities of fleas and are rather spiky!

Hedgehogs, which are a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework, can be benefitted by the creation of nesting sites (piles of leaves and logs), avoiding pesticide use, installing hedgehog holes in fences so they can transit through a number of gardens, and creating a range of habitats within gardens. Despite seemingly somewhat popular belief, don’t feed them milk and bread! Cat food is a more beneficial food source, and providing water is also beneficial (The Wildlife Trusts, n.d.). And, if igniting a bonfire, always check within for hibernating hedgehogs!

In some parts of the country however, they are not as welcome a visitor as they are in their native range. For example, during the 5 ½ weeks I spent volunteering at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, Orkney, in summer 2018, I assisted in the undertaking of a small number of nocturnal hedgehog surveys on the island. Hedgehogs were introduced to North Ronaldsay a number of decades ago but it is not part of their natural range. Their presence has been linked to the decline of bird eggs on the island which has had massively negative impacts on a range of breeding species. The ideal outcome for this population would be removal from North Ronaldsay and translocation to their natural range to boost numbers within their natural distribution and largely increase the productivity of bird species on North Ronaldsay, however this type of project would require a fair amount of funding. Whilst on North Ronaldsay, it was interesting to see hedgehogs from a different perspective!

References and Sources of Information

Couzens, D., Swash, A., Still, R., & Dunn, J. (2017). Britain's Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland . New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

The Wildlife Trusts. (n.d.). European Hedgehog. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from The Wildlife Trusts: