Hedgehog tales

The hothouse Azorean drizzles that enveloped Connacht earlier this month brought on a late and manic surge of growth on the acre…

The hothouse Azorean drizzles that enveloped Connacht earlier this month brought on a late and manic surge of growth on the acre. A nest of Australian squash plants, rashly grown from seed donated by a friend and already running rampant, have surged across the beetroot, carrots and salsify, smothering their beds in a canopy of giant leaves.

Dripping fuchsia hedges have leaped up half a metre, knowing I could not go near them with any electrical machine. Arching over them and stretching almost while one watches come the thin, green lianas of briar shoots, searching for an anchorage on this side of the fence. And all the grassy bits, meanwhile, have grown long tresses to be rinsed in soft, sub-tropical rain.

Meandering dew-trails in the grass, and the odd sticky black dollop of a dropping, speak of hedgehogs snuffling after beetles and caterpillars, slugs and earthworms, decaying remnants of nestlings and other gooey bits of carrion. Quite unlike foxes, say, they have no fixed itineraries or territories and may roam two or three kilometres in a night.

I cannot say how many hedgehogs there ought to be on the acre, only that its current, lush disorder must come close to hedgehog heaven. Somewhere along the hedgebottoms there could even be a hedgehog nursery nest with a late, second litter of half-a-dozen piglets. Meg, our glossy black miniature hound, has her suspicions where it is, twitching her nose to a hole in a veil of leaves.


A week or two ago a reader in Co Wicklow sent an urgent e-mail: her dog had disturbed a mother hedgehog and her four babies in a nest under a tussock at the base of a hedge. The young were about the size of small tennis balls - could babies that size winter successfully and was there anything the family could do to improve their chances?

Hedgehog piglets start out amazingly small - less than a centimetre - but grow very rapidly, suckling on their mother. At two weeks their eyes are open and they are able to roll up; at three, their soft white spines are joined by a full set of dark-brown prickles. At this stage, if anything happens to the mother, or she deserts the nest, the babies may wobble abroad, piping piteously.

If mother and young are together when disturbed, the thing to do is back off at once (dragging the dog, if necessary). The mother may, even so, carry her litter to some other hiding place, and the scent of humans on the babies may make the mother desert, or even eat, them. Some small mammals reabsorb part of a litter in the womb if food is becoming scarce. Female Romanian hamsters (I am informed) occasionally eat some of their babies - a way, it's thought, of favouring sons in small litters and daughters in larger ones. In a situation which seems threatening, it may make sense genetically for the hedgehog to "recycle" the protein in her doomed piglets and try again.

What can you do, should the case arise, with little hedgehog orphans? Not a lot, frankly, if your life is already spoken for. They will need at least a month's handfeeding, every two to three hours from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Each must have its own sterilized glass dropper, filled with a mix of goat's milk and colostrum. The babies must be kept warm on a cloth-wrapped hot-water bottle, they have to be stroked into defecating and any lapse in hygiene could be fatal. All this in Les Stocker's inimitable The Complete Hedgehog (Chatto & Windus, 1987, if you can still find it).

I'm sympathetic, I hope, when readers are distressed about the calamities of nature, but, to echo an American maxim, fate happens. All we can do, really, is try not to add gratuitously to the sum of natural mortality. As autumn wears on, look before you strim, or make a bonfire, or stick the garden fork into the compost heap. And at seedling time next spring, remember that hedgehogs are at special risk from eating slugs killed with metaldehyde baits.

In Britain, hedgehog welfare groups get hundreds of letters from people who want to buy one, such are the assumptions of consumer society. Hedgehog websites abound on the Internet, but the animals on offer from breeders are generally exotic creatures such as the African pygmy hedgehog, the four-toed white-bellied hedgehog or the Egyptian hedgehog, all meant for amusement in centrally-heated apartments.

If you want an active, outdoor Irish hedgehog, you have to offer the right winter accommodation: leave a pile of brushwood and leaves in a sheltered, out-of-the-way corner as a hibernation refuge. But the garden must also have plenty of shrubby cover and low, insect-friendly vegetation: barbered lawns and rockeries are not promising.

Introduced into Ireland around 1700, probably for food, hedgehogs have grown used to living at the margins of change. They arrived in time for the spread of enclosures and hedgerows, and our 416,000 km of hawthorn, bramble and boundary treeline still provide an excellent habitat.

But hedgerows are also the haunt of their arch-enemy, the badger, well able to unroll a curled-up hedgehog and gnaw it out of its spiny coat. Predictably, wherever badgers are numerous, the animals are few or missing altogether (presented with the smell of badger, a hedgehog will run away as fast as it can).

The other carnivore to eat them, especially as piglets, is the fox, so while suburban gardens have long provided a badgerfree habitat for Erinaceus europaeus, the fox's remarkable colonisation of Dublin and other cities may well have introduced a new check on hedgehog numbers.

The wave of house-building now spilling out from the towns is eating into the prime hedgehog habitat of closely-hedged fields and corners of wasteland, so that a quite new generation of garden-makers will, in time, stand a chance of making the animal's acquaintance. A nightly dish of meaty petfood and another of milk or water may encourage a whole group to call, and perhaps even help a late litter fatten up for winter.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author