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There are 17 different species of hedgehog that live across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

Hedgehogs such as the West European hedgehog enjoy living on the edge of woodlands. They thrive in the mosaic of hedges, fields and woodlands, and are also abundant in urban and suburban gardens. They create their shelters in dry areas such as hedgerows and leaf litter on well-drained soils, and they need lots of ground-dwelling insects and invertebrates to feed on.

A hedgehog has in the region of 6000 hard and sharp quills covering their body and these help to protect them from predators, especially when they curl themselves up into a ball, concealing their soft bellies with their spikes sticking out in all directions.

Young hedgehogs shed their baby quills, and they are replaced by adult ones. As adults, hedgehogs will only lose quills when they are stressed or ill.

To achieve such protection, hedgehogs have a highly developed circular muscle that runs along the side of their body, and across their rump and neck. This muscle contracts and forms a bag into which the hedgehog tucks their body, head, and legs into.

Whenever they are scared or disturbed, they will curl up, and only the strongest predators can pry them open. Hedgehogs will also sleep in this position so that they are protected when they rest.

Hedgehogs love to eat worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and millipedes, but they need to eat a lot of them. They start foraging at dusk, eating one-third of their body weight in a single night. They may also take advantage of carrion, and occasionally eat frogs, baby rodents, baby birds, birds’ eggs and fallen fruit. They can even eat small poisonous snakes and scorpions, as they have some resistance to their poison.

Hedgehogs also have some peculiar habits, which remain unexplained, chewing on objects and subsequently producing a foamy saliva and rubbing this all over their body. This self-anointing behaviour is still a bit of a mystery to hedgehog experts. Some possible reasons for this behaviour include a mechanism to kill off skin parasites, or a possible self-defence mechanism. Hedgehogs tend to do this when they encounter new smells, with suggestions that they may rub themselves in the smell to hide their scent from predators.

Another possibility is that the hedgehogs are putting a toxic mixture onto their back. Hedgehogs have some resistance to eating poisons in their food, and after eating a poisonous animal like a toad, hedgehogs will have some of the poison in their saliva. Rubbing their saliva over their backs may therefore serve to protect them from a hungry predator.

Whatever the reason for this behaviour, there is no doubt that hedgehogs really are amazing animals!

Photo by Miroslav Hlavko

Hedgehog conservation:

The main threat to hedgehogs is a loss of habitat and food. In Europe, hedgehogs are losing a lot of their habitats and killing off their main food supply.

A 2022 report shows that in the last two decades, numbers in the UK have continued to decline by between a third and three-quarters nationally. The reasons for this include a loss of habitat due to large-scale farming, as farmers remove hedges and trees which the hedgehogs rely on for shelter. The increase in pesticide use, both in agriculture and in gardens is also a major threat, as it has decimated the hedgehogs’ food source.

A rise in the use of slug pesticides has led to hedgehogs being poisoned, either by eating the pellets themselves, or by eating the poisoned slugs. The use of such chemicals also means that there are fewer slugs for the hedgehogs to feed off too.

Road construction and increases in walls and fences also cause problems for hedgehogs, as they limit their ability to migrate, and to find mates.

Hedgehog welfare:

In recent years hedgehogs have also found themselves on the top of the list of exotic pet species. These wild animals are increasingly becoming popular pets around the world.

Unfortunately, the hedgehogs are suffering as a result, as they are not domesticated animals, and they belong in the wild.

Hedgehogs do not make good pets

The African pygmy hedgehog is the species of choice when it comes to the pet trade. These animals are solitary, nocturnal animals and are grossly unsuited to sharing their lives with us humans.

Hedgehogs have complex needs that can only truly be met by the wild environment they have evolved to live in.

In the wild, the African pygmy hedgehog lives in the steppes, savanna and grassy areas of West, Central, and East Africa. It is therefore very difficult for the average pet owner to provide a comparable environment for a hedgehog.

Hedgehogs roam large distances in the wild, and so they need lots of space in captivity. Keeping them in a small rodent cage is cruel, and will cause considerable stress and suffering.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, and so they should be left alone during the day. This is of course when most people want to interact with their pets. This also means that they will be active at night, and they will likely disturb their owners!

Hedgehogs are amazing animals, but they belong in the wild.

For more information about hedgehogs, conservation activities and to support the care of rescued hedgehogs see the following links:

Written by Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia Foundation

Updated - 25/01/23

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