As a child my only encounters with hedgehogs was as dinner-plate sized roundels on the road. In those distant days of two TV channels and no internet, one had to learn about nature through diligent research via libraries, observation and anecdotes, the latter seldom consistent to reality. I was also not allowed to go out after dark by a stern mother, the logic of which was lost on an ever active child. Subsequently, I have seen many living hedgehogs, more-so in Sussex than my home county of Somerset, but such encounters have never lost their excitement for me. They can still be elusive, and in 29 years of shift work at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Puriton, I saw hedgehogs on but three occasions. I recently found an old photograph of me holding a hedgehog which I rescued from in front of my car somewhere near Brean Down on the Somerset coast.
The common hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, is found all over Northern and Western Europe and is one of the most recognisable mammals out there. My fondness for them is deep, even though they are not the brightest of creatures and seem not to have evolved a reverse gear. I’m guessing that any need to reverse hits the ‘danger’ circuit in their little brains so they have developed a far less strenuous strategy – they curl up. Anyone who had picked up a hedgehog in its defensive pose will attest to the fact that they are very spiky. A good defence against predatory paws and noses, but pretty useless against pneumatic tyres. I think it is their single minded forward motion, clockwork-toy gait and half-hidden trundling legs that get me. And they have adorable faces etched with innocence and resignation when examined close to – if they choose to uncurl. I am now fortunate enough to have them as regular visitors to my garden, all dubbed Hubert by my granddaughter.
As natural selection is influenced by ecological niches and limited to what various gene sets will produce, the successful model of the hedgehog has appeared in other species. My own encounter with such parallel evolution was in the 90s on the island of Réunion. I had been climbing over volcanic peaks with the beautifully oddly named Dutch Alpine Association, finally scaling the live volcano of Piton de la Fournaise (‘peak of the furnace’) before descending to the coast at Saint Joseph. To reach that town we had to make our way down into the deep gorge of La Roche Plate through thick forest and alongside a roaring stream. I swam under a waterfall here, in the buff, so achieved another of life’s dreams. The lower trail was rocky and long, but we reached our final camp just before darkness fell. The trek had been wonderful, full of supreme views and exhausting, but rewarding scrambling over dusty trails and igneous ridges. It was in this dark, bosky grove I was rewarded with two lifetime firsts. Above a coven of witches chattered and scolded, eerie enough to raise the hairs on ones neck. These were Barau’s petrels flying into their nests under the cover of darkness high on the cliffs some 300m above. (I later saw them in daylight beyond the reef at St Pierre waiting for evening to come.) Next came a beast that I can only describe as mildly mentally ill. The common or short-tailed tenrec, Tenrec ecaudatus, is a spiny creature that had been introduced from Madagascar. It looks superficially like a hedgehog, but is sharper faced, paler and a completely different family and genus, though it eats pretty much the same mixed diet. I found several wandering near the camp, but they had the tendency to stop, curl up and nod off with the least provocation. They had no fear of me at all, or anything else as far as I could see, and are the most laid back creature I’ve ever met to date.
For the second time this year we were on Alónnisos, this time for our birthdays, and on the way back from Patitiri to our hotel on the night of my 61st, just by the Paradise Hotel, we came across a very healthy hedgehog wandering around at the top of some steps. This is the southern white-bellied hedgehog – a different species to ours, though very similar. They are lighter, less prone to being startled and equally lovely. I reassured my Passepartout that the little fellow would be fine and we left him amongst some pots.
The next morning we left the hotel for town and as we reached the steps my companion asked, “I wonder if the hedgehog is alright, he may have been stuck on the steps.”
I scoffed and said, “Of course he is, he’ll know the place like the back of his paw…”
Just then I saw the hedgehog wandering around a small hotel foyer halfway down the steps.
“Er, there he is,” I said. “I think he’s stuck…”
The little creature was whiffling his nose at the door as if he were a resident trying to get in having lost his keys. It wandered along the step by us and it gave me the impression of not being able to climb up. It would have to work its way down in daylight, before trying to find somewhere to sleep. After a debate I picked the little fellow up in my hat. He never curled up, but watched the world go by over the brim, looking for all the world like a sultan with a spiky headdress on. We put him down in some rough grass, whereupon it made a beeline for a digger bucket, shuffled into the leaf and grass litter beneath and fell asleep… we read that southern white-bellied hedgehogs tend to make surface shelters of grass, so his actions were pretty normal. Later in the evening we rechecked, but he had gone hunting leaving behind a round hedgehog-shaped depression.
That is the thing with life, only humanity makes me frown. I can never remember a sad moment linked to little creatures, especially spiny ones…