Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?
The ancient Greek poet and warrior Archilochus gave us an insight into life via an understanding of hedgehogs. His work has been translated many times, but the essence is, ‘The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing’. This can also be interpreted as: clever foxes, wise hedgehogs.’ The prickly ball of a hog outwits the fox in many ways but this whole idea has taken on a life of its own. The philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, wrote an essay in 1953 called The Hedgehog and the Fox applied the behaviour of the two species referring to Archilochus observations: ‘the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general’.
Hedgehogs have become a metaphor to encompass great thinkers ‘who relate everything into a single great vision …’ Examples given by Berlin were: Plato, Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche … The foxes on the other hand were: Shakespeare, Joyce, and Goethe. The author Jim Collins argued that hedgehogs simplified a complex world into a single amazing idea. Where hogs have a clear singular vision, a fox has more solutions than they have problems. Does this focus on one thing hinder our hedgehogs? In the human-world it was found that those who built good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. Those who led comparison companies tended to be foxes; they were scattered, diffused and inconsistent.
However; in nature, the foxes seem to have the edge: adaptable to an ever-changing environment and food source. Hedgehogs are not faring so well and in the UK have found themselves in serious decline and now vulnerable to extinction.
What are hedgehogs?
Sounds like a silly question – we all know what hedgehogs are. Those cute prickly Mrs Tiggywinkles; however, it was only when I got involved in a little hedgehog rescue mission a year ago did I learn a lot more about these creatures, for example; their back legs are ridiculously long, are adept climbers, and can travel in excess of a mile (sometimes much, much further) every night. That one visiting hedgehog in your garden could be, in fact, one of many.
Hedgehogs are placental mammals: they have fur and give birth to live young and feed them with milk from mammary glands. They are insectivores which are the earliest known form of mammals and there has been hedgehog-like fossils found from about the time of the last days of the dinosaurs.
The British hedgehog is the western European hedgehog and has a binomial name in Latin: Erinaceus europaeus. The backs and sides of the hedgehog are covered in spines that are about 25 millimetres long and between 5000 and 7000 of them on an adult. The spines are, in fact, modified hair but are absent from the face, throat, chest, legs and belly. These are covered in fine, coarse fur.
The defensive mechanism of the hedgehog is not just with the spines, it is, of course, the ball. This is almost predator-proof – unless there is a hungry badger with long claws … or a car.
Hedgehogs weigh roughly between 450grams to 1.2 kilos and tend to be about 20-30 centimetres long. Under all this, including what is referred to a ‘skirt’, hides four legs of surprising length, up to 10 centimetres from hip to toe. Despite all this, hedgehogs are incredibly clumsy. They tend to fall down drains, pot holes, and ponds and often prove fatal unless they are found by a kind samaritan.
Hedgehogs produce four to five hoglets per litter, which are usually born in June and early July, after a four-and-a-half-week gestation, but there can be second, or late, letters resulting in vulnerable young emerging much later in the year. These late arrivals have a poor chance of survival as they will have little time to put on enough weight to survive hibernation. The mother hog raises all the young entirely on her own, and, if spooked or disturbed she is likely to either abandon her babies or consume them.
From my own experiences with hedgehogs there are vast differences between each one. Some are bold, some are shy; some will run away, some will roll up; others will stare curiously, some totally ignore a human presence. One thing is for sure, they have an insatiable appetite. The myth is that they will eat all you slugs and snails but bad news for gardeners is that this kind of diet can be fatal for them. Two reasons: the use of slug pellets which will not only kill the intended recipient, but also all those who eat them. The other is that the parasitic disease, lungworm, is contracted by eating slugs and snails. However, they will munch through caterpillars and a variety of other insects that have a taste for your plants.
In Letters of Ted Hughes (edited by Christopher Reid) there is a letter from Hughes to Edna Wholey in which he says he hears
“…a commotion in the hedge, and after a while, out trundled a hedgehog, merry as you like, and obviously out for a good time. I thought he might make a jolly companion for an evening so I brought him in. After a while I noticed he had disappeared and later heard a noise just like the sobbing of a little child, but very faint, and it continued for long enough. I traced it to a pile of boxes, and there was my comrade, with his nose pressed in a pool of tears, and his face all wet, and snivelling and snuffling his heart out. I could have kissed him for compassion. I don’t know why I’m so sympathetic towards hedgehogs.”
Hedgehogs have been touching the hearts of humans thousands of years. From ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and up to modern day; hedgehog fasciation has considerable pedigree.
Help a Hog
So, what can we do to help our native hogs? Their numbers have declined up to 70% in only a few short decades across the nation. Declines most noticeable in rural location and is so endangered that the hedgehog finds itself being among the other one-in-seven British species facing national extinction. But we all can collectively help to reverse this trend before it is too late.
Create habitat and connectivity: There is clear correlation between increased field size and reduced hedgehog numbers This is part of ‘habitat fragmentation’. Hedgehogs need hedges. Hedgehogs spend 60% of their time within 5 metres of a hedge or woodland edge and 80% of hedgehog nests are found within them. The demise of hedges reduces the hog’s ability to traverse the land and prevents their replenishment that get wiped out by disease, cars, and badgers. We may not have space to create a hedgerow but anyone with a garden can help a hog.
Wild Patches: The tidier the garden the more likely it is that slugs will feast. Removing those heaps of rotting leaves will leave your hostas as fair game. Interfere less and nature’s order will take care of the hogs and your hostas. Create a patch in your garden, even just one-metre square, of untidiness: leaves, wildflowers, scrub, piles of logs and stones … will create a perfect environment for a resting or hungry hog. Just be sure to be careful with a strimmer; these devices mutilate hedgehogs with terrifying efficiency.
Bonfires: Unlit bonfires are the perfect place for a hedgehog to sleep and nest. However, to avoid barbecuing a hog. it is best to use a proper incinerator, or move the pile of logs prior to lighting.
Netting: Birds are not the only creature to get caught in garden netting, hedgehogs are also vulnerable. In addition, there are countless horror stories of hogs being strangled and losing limbs, if not their life, to football nets. If you have to use netting, check it regularly and when sport nets are not in use, pull them up.
Ponds: Creating a wildlife pond in your garden is one of the best things you can do for wildlife. Hedgehogs in particular will thank you for creating somewhere for drinking water, and, providing a lovely froggy snack. But, despite their ability to swim they can also easily drown if there is no exit ramp or a beach area for them to safely get back to dry land.
Drains: Keep drains covered and check them often.
Fences: These are barriers that prevent free movement through suburbia. Hedgehogs need approximately 10-20 hectares to roam in order tho thrive. So ensuring that there is a small gap in a fence will enable a hog to wander out into the neighbouring landscape. In addition, creosote is incredibly toxic to our prickly friends.
Compost: These are great for hedgehogs to nest and even rear young. They are warm and filled with food for hogs. So, before you stick a fork into it … be mindful of who may be in there.
Slug pellets: The most common slug pellet contains metaldehyde, which is an efficient hedgehog killer. There are many other ways to deter slugs from your plants: sow marigolds as ‘sacrificial plants’, leave grapefruit skins as another way to occupy them. Slug pellets do not just kill the slugs that each your flowers, they also kill the ‘good’ slugs that generate healthy soil and eat rotting matter; they also kill hedgehogs, birds and pets.
Litter: Plastic rings around four-packs of drinks are lethal, as are yoghurt pots, McFlurry cups and more recently disposable face masks… anything that a hedgehog can get into and unable to reverse out of due to their spines. It is just common sense to not drop litter.
Sheds: Hedgehogs love a shed for shelter – but if you have your shed door open overnight, then close it – you could have a whole nest of hoglets trapped inside.
Dogs: I am a dog owner and on a few occasions have had hedgehogs plonked on my lap – thankfully unharmed. However, dogs do kill hedgehogs. So, before letting dogs out at night, make a warning noise, or switch on an outside light just to alert any animals in the garden that there is an incoming hound.
Feeding: Hedgehog feeding stations do not need to be expensive. A lidded plastic storage box with a CD sized hole cut out for the entrance and a brick placed inside to stop cats and foxes crawling in, and a brick on top is ideal. The only fluid a hedgehogs needs is water (they are lactose intolerant, so no milk). Meaty cat or dog food is good, but avoid anything with mealworms in. More information is on the British Hedgehog Preservation Society website.
Hedgehog homes: There are many available on the market, some better than others. Ones with solid bottoms and made out of wood, or plastic are far better than ones made of wicker/wire style material which their spines can get caught on. There are many plans on the internet if you fancy some woodwork. Placing it in a quiet part of your garden with the entrance facing the south will help the hog warm up quickly and reduce cold winds. Leave it completely alone, and, if you want to know if it is occupied, place a small obstacle in the doorway. The next night you’ll find it either pushed in, or out if it is occupied.
Hedgehogs were voted Britains favourite mammal in 2016 in a landslide victory. The thing about hedgehogs they are one of the only wild animals us urbanites and suburbanites can actually get up-close to. They enable us to delve deeper and understand the natural world. Looking deeply into a hedgehog’s eyes is a profound experience – there is a spark of wild in its eye. The wise hedgehog goes on with its business.
There are lots of adverts about saving the tigers, pandas, elephants etc, and yes, these are troubling times for many species, but hedgehogs we can actively help them by changing a few of our habits and sharing some space with them.
The poet, Pam Ayres, wrote a manifesto for hedgehog conservation:
In Defence of Hedgehogs
I am very fond of hedgehogs
Which makes me want to say,
That I am struck with wonder,
How there’s any left today,
For each morning as I travel
And no short distance that,
All I see are hedgehogs,
Squashed. And dead. And flat.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s all help a Hog today.