Reddish Vale Country Park
Hedgehogs are easily recognized by their spines, which are hollow hairs made stiff with keratin. Their spines are not poisonous or barbed and, unlike the quills of a porcupine, cannot easily be removed from the hedgehog. However, spines normally come out when a hedgehog sheds baby spines and replaces them with adult spines. This is called "quilling." When under extreme stress or during sickness, a hedgehog can also lose spines.
Hedgehogs are primarily nocturnal, although they can be active during daylight. The hedgehog sleeps for a large portion of the daytime either under cover of bush, grass, rock or in a hole in the ground. Again. All wild hedgehogs can hibernate, although not all do; hibernation depends on temperature, species, and abundance of food.
The hedgehog's back is made up of two large muscles, which control the positioning of its quills. There are about 5,000 to 6,500 quills on the average hedgehog, and these are durable on the outside, while being filled with air pockets on the inside. The hedgehog uses its quills to protect itself from predators, using muscles which draw their quilled skin to cover their full body, and pulling in the parts of their bodies not covered, such as their head, feet, and belly. This form of defense is the hedgehog's most successful, but is usually their last resort.
Hedgehogs have many alternate defense mechanisms. In most situations a hedgehog will flee rather than confront a threat, rolled up in a ball or not. All hedgehogs possess the stamina to run, many can make 4.5 miles per hour or better, and are particularly adept at climbing steep walls, trees, and fences and even swimming.
The hedgehog is thought to be one of the oldest mammals on earth, with estimates dating the hedgehog to around 15 million years ago. It is believed that the hedgehog has changed very little over that period of time.
Hedgehogs are fairly vocal and communicate through a combination of grunts, snuffles and/or squeals, depending on species.
The name 'hedgehog' came into use around the year 1450, derived from the Middle English 'heyghoge', from 'heyg', 'hegge' = hedge, because it frequents hedgerows, and 'hoge', 'hogge' = hog, from its piglike snout. Other names include 'urchin', 'hedgepig' and 'furze-pig' .
Beetles, caterpillars, earthworms, slugs and snails are the hedgehog's favourite food, but the diet is varied and they will also eat cereals, pet foods, and fresh meat. They can weigh up to 1.5kg. A male hedgehog heavier than this is overweight and needs to diet! Before hibernation, a hedgehog should weigh at least 0.5kg to survive the winter. Do not put milk out for hedgehogs, they cannot digest it and it can prove fatal.
Most of us see more dead hedgehogs than live ones. Their natural defence of rolling up into a ball is, of course, useless against road traffic. The best way to reduce hedgehog road casualties is to drive more slowly, especially at night when hedgehogs are most active.
In the garden, hedgehogs may nest in long grass, and are sometimes injured by strimmers and lawnmowers, so check long grass before you cut it. Slug pellets can be deadly to hedgehogs too, but if you encourage hedgehogs into your garden they will eat the slugs. Bonfires can sometimes conceal a sleeping hedgehog, so check underneath before lighting.
Litter is dangerous to hedgehogs. They can become entangled in plastic rings that hold cans together, or become wedged in yoghurt pots or empty tins. Dispose of litter carefully and squash all your tin cans before recycling them.
Despite all these hazards, the biggest threat to hedgehogs is habitat loss. Over the last 30 years, agriculture has favoured large fields and the habitats of the hedgehog, particularly hedges, have been lost. Pesticide usage also puts pressure on hedgehog populations. With more hedgehog-friendly gardens however, the mammal's future should be fairly secure.
All images, copyright, Stockport Nature.Com
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