On the way home from monitoring bats in the wood the other night, the lower outer edge of the cone of light radiating from my head-torch picked up something dark and pear-shaped running towards me pretty smartly out of the blackness. I stopped, and it stopped abruptly at my feet and snuffled loudly at me. It was a Mrs Tiggy-Wingle look-alike, a Hedgehog.
Hedgehogs are often seen shuffling along slowly their bodies pressed closely to the ground to protect their delicate underparts. It is unusual to see one standing up showing the full extent of its skinny, short black legs and running along at speed. When it is running, it is obvious that the spines cover the animal's back only; its lower sides are clothed in long, coarse fur.
Hedgehogs are solitary and nocturnal animals. By day they hide away, lie up and sleep. As night falls they emerge to feed.
Hedgehogs feed mainly on insects and other creepy-crawlies. Studies have shown a high incidence of the following in their diet: moth larvae, earwigs, beetles, spiders, harvestman, caterpillars, slugs, snails and earthworms. They feed by rooting like a pig in the surface litter along hedgerows and other boundaries; hence their common English name 'hedge-hog'.
While the Hedgehog is described as being an insectivore, that is, predominantly an eater of insects, it is an opportunist that will readily raid the nests of ground-nesting birds to eat eggs and chicks. If it can catch them, it will also dine on birds, frogs and small mammals like mice, shrews and baby rats.
Badgers prey on Hedgehogs and are adept at unrolling them and skinning them in one piece, peeling off their armoured spiny, skin as we would peel a glove off a hand or a sock off a foot. People eat them too and debate continues as to whether they are native to Ireland or, like the Rabbit, are introductions brought here by Normans as a food source.
Hedgehogs are common and widespread animals despite their high mortality. It is reckoned that about one third of the population fails to make it through hibernation during a 'normal' winter. Other threats include the intensification of agriculture, habitat loss, fragmentation, traffic mortality, cattle grids, poisoning via slug pellets, other human activities and predation by Badgers, of course.
If an individual survives all that, it cannot expect to live very long; in the wild the majority of Hedgehogs do not survive beyond their second year.