FEELING PRICKLY Hedgehogs face many an adversary in the wild.
Country Sights and Sounds
One fine and sunny spring dawn I was treated to an early morning soliloquy, as one of the local hedgehog tribe was debating what to do with his day. I thought there must be two – perhaps a courting couple – or even three engaged in some kind of territorial dispute, but no, there was just the one squealing and chuntering in what seemed to me a terrible temper, as if he had sat on his own prickles.
‘Urchin’, my grandfather called him. Perhaps the name stemmed from the resemblance of a hedgehog curled and set in defensive mode to one of those sea urchins we find in rock pools close to low tide. Or perhaps the title slipped the other way.
As a young man, grandfather might have eaten Urchin. Certainly the old travelling folk ate any hedgehogs they found, cooking them whole with spines intact, wrapped in a blanket of clay, and peeling them once they were thoroughly steamed in their own juices.
I made mention of this fact to Churchill, the name bestowed upon my noisy neighbour. He wasn’t at all impressed at the notion, but eyed me suspiciously from behind his prickly defences. The moment my back was turned, Churchill launched into his diatribe once more. When I rolled him over he was quiet; apart from a little light grumbling he had nothing to say.
Having determined there to be nothing wrong with him I simply left him to it and within the hour there was no sign of him, nor any further indignant shrieking to tell me which way he had gone.
That evening a tiny, inquisitive face appeared in the stone wall to watch me gathering sticks for the fire. When I looked it disappeared, and when I looked away, why, there it was once more, either in the same place or between two different stones. We played a game of watch and see between us; there he’d be, red above and white below, with ink-black eyes and that humourless grin, and there he’d be gone. Yet I knew his curiosity would eventually draw him into the open.
And so it proved. Up on the wall he went, sitting upright on his haunches with his black-tipped twizzel-tail held rigid behind. Ten inches of elastic flesh; fearless and rather alarming to any small enough to leap upon, the stoat has no friends in the animal world. Small rodents are despatched with aplomb, rabbits are harried into terrified stillness, and even a full-grown hare will find it hard to leave a hungry stoat behind.
Of all our small mammals, only Churchill has the wherewithal to resist, and this he does by lying still within his spiny coat. Yet he cannot stay curled up forever. That must have been the cause for alarm. Every time my Urchin made to escape the stoat was there, ready to deliver a fatal bite to the head.
The fox would deal with Churchill quite another way. Various reports suggest a fox will roll a hedgehog into water, at which the unfortunate victim is compelled to try and escape. The fox is sharp enough to grab one or other of the fleeing ’hogs back legs and the taste of blood ensures a certain outcome.
But the main predator of the hedgehog family is the badger. In fact, where there are many badgers there will be few hedgehogs. Even the stoutest of armour will be no match for the claws of Old Brock, nor would it be possible to flee from such a formidable predator.
Down by the river the badgers have been gathering winter grass for spring nests. Badger fleas live in older nesting material and only climb onto their host at mealtimes. When the number of fleas is just too great to tolerate a complete change of bedding is made. New beds are often prepared at birthing time, which occurs toward the end of February, and more frequently as the cubs are growing.
Churchill has his own nest somewhere. He won’t be long out of hibernation, and as well as eating all he can, he will also be looking for a lady friend. In May we shall have a new nest filled with little urchins, and by midsummer we shall have these visiting the garden with their mother. Churchill himself will spend the summer rambling about the woods and fields, hunting slugs and worms as I hunt for trout. I hope that now and then our paths will cross.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.