How does a hedgehog give birth, given that the babies are born already with spines? The kind of question that mightn’t regularly pop into your head, but certain one that sticks there when you think about it.
The answer is that the babies are born swollen with fluid, so the prickles are beneath the surface of the skin. After birth, the fluid is absorbed and the prickles (which are evolutionarily speaking modified hair) emerge.
That’s one of the many fascinating facts that I learnt from A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs by Hugh Warwick, a man who clearly doesn’t only live and breathe hedgehogs, but has certainly spent a lot of wet, cold English nights tracking them around the countryside.
I learnt that their ancestor is thought to have emerged in Asia during the Eocene, although there are ancestors dating back 70 million years, into the dinosaur age. In Britain we have Erinaceus europaeus, the western European hedgehog, although there’s species distributed throughout Eurasia, and down through North Africa.
They’re closely related to shrews and voles, being predominately insectivorous (Hugh watches one consume a large juice slug, having first wiped much of its slime off on a handy road surface – although it still chews a strong tasting leaf afterwards, presumably to cleanse its palate), unlike the American porcupine, which is a rodent. (And of course the Australian echidna, which is a marsupial.)
But this book is far from a collection of facts about hedgehogs. What is is mostly is a exploration of the author’s relationship with hedgehogs, and his meetings with some of the many people obsessed with them. (No wonder they’ve just been voted Britain’s national animal.)
We watch Hugh’s relationship with them and love of them develop as he takes on jobs tracking individuals around the countryside – primarily on projects to see how rescued ones fare when released back into the wild. Against all the rules, he develops, entirely understandably, a personal relationship with his subjects, giving them names and admiring their individual characters. (Although I suspect he’s wrong when he says voles and shrews aren’t similarly complex – look at them in the same detail I think you’d find the same complexity.)
So like any wildlife documentary, there are plenty of moments of tragedy in A Prickly Affair, for not only do a quarter of hedgehogs born never leave the nest and a half not survive their first hibernation, but they’re always vulnerable to cars (and increasingly vulnerable as we carve up and concrete over the countryside, and also to badgers (some setts and individuals seem to develop the taste, but others don’t, Hugh observes) and domestic dogs.
But the good news Hugh finds is that released animals (many of them young who failed to store sufficient fat before hibernation season and so had little time to acclimatise to life in the wild) seem no more vulnerable than their always free-ranging cousins. Which demonstrates that the many rescue organisations around the country – often little more than dedicated individuals who give their lives to hedgehogs, and develop great expertise in their care, aren’t wasted.
Published in 2008, this book predates the recent study showing the massive decline in hedgehog numbers, but Hugh saw it coming, noting how rescuers were seeing a sharp fall in the number of animals being brought to them. He provides practical advice on how everyone can help care for them (even making sure that plastic rings that hold packed cans together are cut before going into the garbage, since one of those if caught around a young hedgehog will cut into its flesh as it grows, eventually, slowly and awfully, seeing if die of infection).
Hugh’s website has much more.