The first hints of spring are just tickling the senses and there is a real desire to wake up properly from a winter buried deep in a well insulated sleep. That is how I sometimes feel in the morning – especially when not finding it bedraggled with slush, sleet and drizzle. And it is how the hedgehog, deep in its hibernaculum, or nest, is also beginning to stir into action.
The winter is not a great time for a hedgehog to be out and about. Long ago they sacrificed the insulating fur that protects other small mammals and invested in remodelling the hair as spines: an evolutionary gamble that requires energy to be preserved through inaction.
Other animals continue to hunt and forage as the ice spreads; or they store reserves of food in caches. Old natural history guides will tell you that the hedgehog does the latter, collecting fruit on its spines and storing it up to consume through the long dark nights of winter. But despite bestiaries containing artful images of apple-carrying hedgehogs, this does not happen. Hedgehogs are carnivores. And while they do store up food, they do it in a much tidier fashion: in reserves of fat.
There are two types of fat: white fat, which is for keeping the animal ticking over, and brown fat, there as the starter motor. One of the many risks facing a hibernating hedgehog is running out of this source of energy. Every time the environment changes to stimulate a hedgehog to emerge from its slumber, a little more of that ‘starter motor’ gets used up. If it is disturbed too often, the hedgehog will run out of that fuel and will not be able to crawl back to consciousness when spring truly arrives.
The time when hedgehogs are at their most vulnerable is while in this state of deep torpor. But those that do survive will, on the whole, start emerging in March and April.
The actual date of when hedgehogs peek their noses out from their nests of leaves is of great interest. Last year we, at the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), ran a study – which many of you may have contributed to – looking at the dates when people first saw hedgehogs.
We were wondering whether we could compare this to historical data collected by the world’s leading hedgehog scientist, Dr Pat Morris, back in the 1960s. The idea was to see whether a change in the climate could be measured through an expected earlier emergence. But the results were inconclusive, we think because the spring of 2012 was atypical.
So we are trying again, and people all over the country are recording the first sightings of hedgehogs (see www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk to join in).
Hibernation has always been something of a mystery, as the mythology surrounding the food collecting habits of the hedgehog indicates. It is no wonder that the ancient Egyptians fashioned amulets in the shape of the animal – an indication, it is thought, of the mistaken belief that hibernation was actually a form of death and, in the spring, rebirth. So for cultures deeply wedded to reincarnation, the hedgehog must have seemed a powerful animal.
Closer to home, but still 3,000 years ago, a child was buried at Stonehenge in Wiltshire with a small chalk hedgehog. Why? Could it be to do with a belief in sympathetic magic? An animal that apparently comes back from the dead, imparting some of that capacity to the lamented child? Or was it a favourite toy? I love the thought that all those years ago the children were not so very different to mine.
Whether it is in children’s stories, cuddly toys or advertising, hedgehogs are everywhere. They have inveigled their way into the heart and consciousness of the country. Which is a little surprising when you consider how many people still think of them as riddled with fleas. In reality, they have no more fleas than other animals their size, it is just that the hedgehog you are most likely to see is going to be a sickly one, out in the day time. These are nocturnal creatures and, on the whole, if they are out in the day, something is wrong. They are probably ill or injured and therefore more likely to be infested with parasites such as fleas.
But why has the hedgehog charmed us so much? I think it is because it is the most approachable of wildlife. The hedgehog retains a sense of wildness, yet it lets us get close. Nearly everything else in Britain has, as its first line of defence, flight. But the hedgehog hunkers down, frowns (the muscle that we use to frown, on a hedgehog, reaches down to the tail and helps pull the spines up to a jagged defence) and, if really bothered, rolls into a ball.
This approachability is coupled to the fact that hedgehogs have moved into suburbia. As the agricultural landscape has become hostile, they have found our gardens particularly amenable. And by frequently living so close to us, we can have an enormous effect on the quality of their lives.
The needs of a hedgehog are quite simple, in that they are the needs of all animals: food, water and shelter for basic survival, and then the ability to meet a hedgehog of the other sex to reproduce. So to improve the lot of a hedgehog, all you need to do is shift your perspective; start to look at the garden from the point of view of a small spiny mammal.
There is much you can do – see Four ways to help hedgehogs, below. Changing your gardening habits can be of vital help – we know that there has been a 25 percent loss of hedgehogs in just the past 10 years. And there is evidence emerging to suggest that this could be a substantial underestimate.
But all your efforts will come to naught if your garden is isolated. If your plot is ringed by a desert of industry or industrial agriculture, it will be difficult to lure hedgehogs in your direction. One of the biggest problems facing hedgehogs is habitat fragmentation. This happens when, for example, a road is built through a patch of hedghog habitat turning it into two smaller patches. While that might not seem very dramatic, have a look around you and consider how these patches have become smaller and smaller.
Then look into the fields and consider how hedgehogs are named – they hog the hedges. Where are the hedges? Thousands of miles of hedgerows have been removed since the Second World War. Without those edge-features, the fields are harder to navigate; and more dangerous. And the presence of badgers (see below) further fragments the already embattled hedgehog’s land.
Many of these broader issues can only be tackled through Government and conservation bodies working together. But we as individuals are never helpless. Now, as hedgehogs are emerging from hibernation, we must put our own gardening efforts into action if this charming, fascinating small mammal is not to become a creature of stories only. So get down on your hands and knees, imagine life as a hedgehog and work out ways to help ensure that hedgehogs will be gracing our lives for generations to come.
Badgers v hedgehogs
Badgers eat hedgehogs (I know, having lost hedgehogs I was radio-tracking to badger predation). Where there are lots of badgers there are few or no hedgehogs. The presence of badgers in a hedge inhibits the movement of hedgehogs along it, fragmenting the habitat. But it is not simply a case of badgers eating hedgehogs. Theirs is a complex association, known to zoologists as an ‘asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship’.
It seems likely that when conditions are good, when there is enough food for both species, badgers and hedgehogs are simply competitors for worms and beetles, with the badger being at something of an advantage, able to eat as many worms as six hedgehogs. But when conditions deteriorate, the relationship becomes predatory.
The amount of macroinvertebrate food, such as beetles and caterpillars, available to both species has been massively reduced by industrial agriculture. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species are funding a research project at the University of Oxford to try to find ways for farmers to manage their land better to accommodate these two wonderful creatures.