Prickly Urchin of the Countryside
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BRITAIN
A WHITE mist shrouded the Tyne valley in the north of England, and the cawing of rooks carried far in the still evening air. I was walking along a woodland path when a slight rustling among the fallen leaves—a blaze of reds, browns, and yellows—caught my attention. I glimpsed a pair of short, spindly hind legs just as they were vanishing into a crevice in the dry bank of the stream I was following.
Looking closer, I found a hedgehog carefully preparing its cold-weather quarters, a little burrow known as a hibernaculum. The animal had already carried in leaves, dry grass, and ferns. It was making its bed in order to sleep away the cold winter days and nights.
There is no mistaking this appealing little urchin* of hill, field, and woodland. A hedgehog’s head and neck are covered with a rough brownish-white hair, but its most outstanding feature is its protective coat of yellow-tipped spines. About three quarters of an inch [2 cm] in length and sharp to the touch, the spines emerge from coarse fur and are arranged in radiating groups to cover the trunk of its body. Each spine has between 22 and 24 longitudinal grooves and grows almost at right angles from a hemispheric base. Near its base, each spine has a narrow neck, sharply bent. This means that if a hedgehog falls from a height, it can survive because the spines are angled in such a way that they do not puncture its skin. What a wonder of design!
When alarmed, the hedgehog will take a defensive stance by curling up into a ball. Powerful muscles draw its spiny hide tight over the entire body, in at the sides and down at the margins, rather like the drawstring on a soft leather bag. This protective coat covers the head, the tail, the legs, and the underparts with a mantle of prickly spines. The animal can hold this defensive position for a considerable time.
At dusk the hedgehog is usually ready to eat. Its evening meal of insects and worms may be supplemented by mice, frogs, rats, lizards and, at times, nuts and berries. The hedgehog’s hearing is acute. So is its sense of smell, as you might guess from a glance at its pointed snout and wet nostrils.
Enemies—Natural and Unnatural
Hedgehogs have very few natural enemies apart from foxes and badgers. A badger can easily uncurl a hedgehog with its powerful foreclaws, being unaffected by the spines. A sight I have seen a number of times is a hedgehog skin—likely the only remains of a badger’s evening meal. A fox, on the other hand, cannot contend with the spines but may try rolling the hedgehog into water, where it must either uncurl or drown. Being a good swimmer, the hedgehog has a fair chance of reaching cover, among rocks or in a hole in a bankside, before the fox can claim it as prey.
Gypsies and some other country folk eat hedgehogs baked in clay. When the clay cools and is broken off, the spines come away, leaving the cooked flesh—“a delectable dish,” according to Jean-Paul Clébert’s book The Gypsies. Today, it is sad to see large numbers of hedgehogs killed by road traffic. They seem particularly vulnerable just after they awake from hibernation and begin searching for food. But if a hedgehog can survive in spite of all these natural and unnatural enemies, it can live for six years or so and grow to a length of nine inches [25 cm].
Breeding, Hibernating, and Foraging
The male, called a boar, and the female, a sow, breed between May and July, with a second mating later in the season. The gestation period is four to six weeks, and the litter may consist of three or four young, each weighing less than an ounce [less than 30g]. Blind and deaf, they are vulnerable for two weeks after birth. Then their soft hair is gradually replaced by spines. They also gain the ability to roll up completely. If disturbed before this time, they suddenly jump into the air and utter a sharp hissing sound. This element of surprise puts off many predators.
Fat that accumulates during the warm months of feeding serves to nourish the hedgehog in hibernation. At this time its body temperature drops dramatically and breathing becomes hardly detectable. The animal has a special hibernation gland, which monitors body heat. If the body temperature falls significantly during hibernation, the gland produces more heat, enough to alert the animal to find a warmer, more sheltered spot. During its winter sleep, the hedgehog is never completely out of touch with the outside world. Any sound close by it is detected, resulting in slight body movements.
If confined in a garden, a hedgehog will soon climb a wall, a fence, or even a drainpipe to get out, as it needs to forage far and wide for its food. For this reason, it remains a wild animal and will not readily make a domestic pet. That is just as well, as hedgehogs in the wild are generally flea-ridden. But the wanderings of these cute, appealing urchins across the British countryside add a captivating element of interest for which I am always grateful to our Creator, Jehovah God.
From ericius, the Latin word for “hedgehog.”
[Picture on page 15]
A hedgehog rolled into a ball
[Picture on page 16]
Hedgehog illustration by Beatrix Potter from her 1905 children’s storybook, “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle”
[Picture on page 16]
A common hedgehog, one week old
[Pictures on page 17]
A South African pygmy hedgehog