West European hedgehog, Common hedgehog
The European hedgehog is amongst the most instantly recognizable of native mammals. Each hedgehog has about 7,000 spines, each 2-3cm in length, covering most of the animal’s body except underneath. Its characteristic spines are not barbed or poisonous, but are thick, hollow hairs which act as a defense when a hedgehog rolls up a tight ball. The young are born with soft, white spines that are underneath the skin in order to protect the mother at the time of birth, emerging after a few hours.
European hedgehogs are commonly found throughout Europe and central Asia. Native to these areas, it occurs from the Azores Archipelago as far to the east as Kazakhstan and is commonly seen across northern Europe, up to Scandinavia. Though not generally found south of the Mediterranean Sea, it has been seen in Lebanon. It also lives in New Zealand, having been introduced there in the late 1800s. These hedgehogs occupy a variety of lowland habitats that provide sufficient cover for allow nesting. They are commonly found in parks, gardens and farmland.
Habits and lifestyle
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, non-territorial and predominantly solitary. They can go as far as one to two kilometers in a night when foraging for food. They can run fairly quickly, are good swimmers, and are well known to roll into a tight ball as a defense. In winter they hibernate in a nest of leaves, usually under log piles or sheds. As with all hedgehogs, the European hedgehog has the interesting habit of 'self-anointing', where it produces foamy saliva in large amounts and licks this over its spines. The reason for this behavior is unknown, but it is triggered by new foods, strong smells, and being in the presence of others of their species. These animals are not particularly noisy, making mostly grunts, snorts, and hoarse squeaks. Adults make these sounds during mating and feeding, and sometimes when captured. The young may whistle and squeak while in the nest.
Diet and nutrition
European hedgehogs are omnivores, but feed mostly on insects. They prefer beetles, earwigs, ants, bees, wasps, butterflies and moths, and will also eat snails, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, eggs, lizards, frogs, snakes, small rodents, and carrion.
European hedgehogs are polygynandrous, males and females having multiple mates each season (promiscuous). Mating starts when they emerge in April from hibernation and continues until September. The males emerge first, 3 to 4 weeks prior to the females, and will expand their home range in the mating season to increase their chances of finding a female to mate with. Gestation is for about 35 days and four to six young per litter are born, often two litters per year being produced. 24 hours after birth the spines of the young are revealed, and within 2 to 3 days their muscles are strong enough for them to hold their spines erect. These white spines are replaced with darker ones after about 1.5 days. After 2 to 3 weeks, pigmented adult spines replace this second coat of spines, and around this time the young start to open their eyes and can learn how to roll up into a ball. The young are weaned by the age of 4 to 6 weeks, and then become independent of their parents, being able to mate around the age of 1 year.
Threats to European hedgehogs today include agricultural change such as the loss of hedgerows and grasslands, and pesticide use, and falling into cattle grids, drowning in garden ponds, road deaths, poisoning with garden chemicals, and being killed by mowing machines.
European hedgehog is common and abundant throughout its wide range, but no overall population estimate is available. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species resource, the best estimate is under a million hedgehogs in the UK. Currently European hedgehogs are classified as Least Concern (LC) and their numbers today remain stable.
Being omnivorous, eating a wide range of animals (especially insects), European hedgehogs may contribute to controlling insect pest populations in certain areas.
Fun facts for kids
- The name of the hedgehog is due to its peculiar foraging habits: rooting through hedges and similar undergrowth in search of its favorite food, making pig-like grunts as it goes.
- When foraging, hedgehogs rely primarily on their senses of smell and hearing because they have weak eyesight, though their eyes are good for night-time vision.
- Hedgehogs in a group are referred to as an “array”.
- The inside of a hedgehog’s spines are mostly hollow, having a series of complex chambers of air, making them strong and light. They are neither barbed nor poisonous.
- On the channel island of Alderney about 1,000 European hedgehogs exhibit a rare recessive gene, giving them blonde spines as well as beady black eyes. "Alderney Spike Girls" is their nickname and although they appear elsewhere within their range, this is very rare.