Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs in the Booth Museum loans collection are regularly borrowed by schools and artists, and are a native mammal popular with adults and children alike.

Hedgehogs from the Booth loan collection
Hedgehogs from the Booth loan collection

Their unusual appearance and nocturnal habits have led to a number of odd beliefs such as the following from Edward Topsell’s History of Four Footed Beasts (1607):

‘The hedgehog’s meat is apple, worms and grapes: when he findeth them upon the earth, he rolleth on them until he hath fylled up all his prickles, and then carrieth them home to his den…’

Once a familiar sight shuffling across roads at night, or hunting slugs in gardens, Britain’s hedgehogs are becoming worryingly sparse. A recent report indicates that hedgehog numbers have dropped by 25% in just 10 years, and by up to 90% since 1950.

16th century woodcut of a hedgehog, published by Edward Topsell/Conrad Gesner
16th century woodcut of a hedgehog, published by Edward Topsell/Conrad Gesner

As winter approaches, animals are preparing themselves for the months of harsh weather and scarce food. Most hedgehogs begin their hibernation around October, with females active later than males, and some young hedgehogs put off hibernation until as late as December.

Hedgehogs typically have several hibernaculums (hibernation nests), usually moving at least once during hibernation. These nests are constructed from broad leaves, and are constructed under cover: abandoned rabbit holes, underneath garden sheds, or in piles of wood, such as bonfires.

The bonfires built for festivities around the 5 November are an extremely appealing shelter for hedgehogs and other species, such as grass snakes and slow worms. The earlier a bonfire is constructed, the more time animals have to find it and take shelter. Although ideally it would be best to leave the construction of a bonfire to the day of the gathering, this can be unpractical. So if a bonfire has been sitting undisturbed for a while, why not gather a group of friends to help move the bonfire several metres away before lighting it.

Alternatively get a group of people to lift the pile with broom handles or similar implements (nothing sharp!) while someone peers under the pile with a torch, and removes any dozing creatures resting underneath. If any hedgehogs are found, put them in a dark, dry, safe place away from the fire until after the festivities. If you are building a large, community bonfire, surround it with fine mesh to prevent animals gaining access.

Young European hedgehog, Lars Karlsson, Wikimedia Commons
Young European hedgehog, Lars Karlsson, Wikimedia Commons

These are all good ways to help prevent an increase in hedgehog fatalities around Guy Fawkes’ Night, but there are several other ways to help hedgehogs all year round. Stopping the use of slug pellets in gardens is very helpful, and avoids poisoning other animals (including neighbourhood pets). There has also been a recent campaign by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to encourage people to dig a hole underneath garden fences to allow hedgehogs access to a continuous habitat without needing to venture out onto the roads.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

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