European Hedgehog Interaction with Humans - Introduction

Hedgehogs seem to hold a special place in the hearts of many people. Children across the globe have been brought up with the endearing stories of the late London-born author Beatrix Potter; one such book, published in 1905, told The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, a lovable hedgehog “washerwoman&” who provided a laundry service for her neighbours. According to Linda Lear's 2007 biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Potter's pet hedgehog of the same name and Kitty MacDonald, the family's Scottish washerwoman, were the inspirations for the character.

Beatrix Potter's illustration of her washerwoman hedgehog, Mrs Tiggy-winke, published in 1905. - Credit: Project Gutenberg's The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle

Since then, the hedgehog has developed a strong public acceptance and adoration, being rated among Britain's most loved garden animals in various surveys and, until recently, featuring in the logo of The Mammal Society. This adoration is not without merit. Hedgehogs offer many people a connection to nature that they might otherwise miss out on and many friends and colleagues have changed the way they've managed their gardens upon noticing they had hedgehogs visiting. Furthermore, they provide an important organic pest control service and, in his circa 1843 Allgemeine Naturgeschichte fur alle Stande (“General Natural History for all Conditions”), German naturalist professor Lorenz Ockenfuss wrote that we should protect the hedgehog because of their capacity as pest controllers.

Despite currently enjoying a well-deserved popularity here in the UK, their species has not always been viewed with such affection. Unfortunately, it is now human activity that threatens their very existence across much of their range, with numbers in decline. Fortunately, there are also an army of rescuers who put their lives on hold to treat and rehabilitate hedgehogs, which are an increasingly common patient. In a paper to the Journal of Small Animal Practice in 2014, Elizabeth Mullineaux noted that hedgehogs make up just over half of the mammal casualties taken in by the 80 or so UK wildlife rescue centres during the late 1990s.

Hedgehogs may make up the majority of admissions for many rescue centres, but they also have the highest rehabilitation and release rate. Caroline Gould, founder of Vale Wildlife Hospital in Gloucestershire, tells me that more than 90% of their hedgehogs are rehabilitated, compared to an average of 50-60% of other species they admit.

The following sections look at the various ways in which we interact with hedgehogs, including time when they've been considered pests and the impact of increasing habitat fragmentation. Before moving on, however, this seems a suitable place for one of the most bizarre “uses” of a hedgehog by a human I have come across - that of a weapon. In an article to the general interest periodical Bye-gones: relating to Wales and the border counties during September 1905, Thos Ruddy of Corwen in Denbighshire, Wales, recounted an annecdote told to him by a clergyman:

A gentleman in the neighbourhood of Maidstone was going through one of his fields and found a large Hedgehog, which he thought would interest his people at home. He put it in his handkerchief, as he had no other means of carrying it, and threw it over his shoulder. On getting to the road, he was accosted by a tramp who demanded money in a menacing manner. Before the tramp could realise his danger, the gentleman hit him full in the face with the Hedgehog in the handkerchief. The tramp with a great howl took to this heels, and the gentleman went and warned all the doctors and chemists in Maidstone to hand over to the police any man who might call to have his face dressed. The man did call at a doctor's place and was promptly handed over to the police and punished for attempted highway robbery.”

Aspects of human-hedgehog interaction are also covered in the associated QAs, links to which can be found on the species introduction page.