European Hedgehog Interaction with Humans - Pests, Prey & Potions

In The Complete Hedgehog, Les Stocker wrote of how hedgehogs were extensively hunted in the past, featuring alongside wolf, elk, beaver and boar in the table scraps of Britain’s Mesolithic (about 10,000 years ago) hunters. In 1532, the then-king of England, Henry VIII, passed the Preservation of Grain Act; one of a series of Tudor Vermin Acts that listed a number of ‘noxious birds and vermin’, the killing of which was rewarded with a bounty. The bill offered bounties consistent with the species’ potential to cause a nuisance; from 12p per fox or badger killed down to 1p per red kite. In 1566, Queen Elizabeth I strengthened Henry’s original bill and the statute set the price for a hedgehog at 2p, twice that of a wildcat or weasel.

Instructions for building a "kill trap", targeted at stoats, rats and hedgehogs, produced by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Hedgehogs are an introduced species to New Zealand and the science suggests they pose a risk to the survival of the native weta, skinks, and the eggs/chicks of some ground-nesting birds. - Credit: New Zealand Department of Conservation

According to the National Archives, 2p in 1560 was equivalent to about £1.50 in 2005’s currency, but it should be remembered that many parishioners were cripplingly poor; so even 2p was a significant sum. This perhaps explains why so many bounties were claimed. According to former RSPB director Roger Lovegrove’s book Silent Fields, half a million bounties were paid out for hedgehog heads in the late 17th Century and early 18th Century alone. The fact that higher bounties were offered for hedgehogs than cats and small mustelids reflects the opinion of the time that hedgehogs were significant egg thieves; a belief that has continued even to this day in some regions. Consequently, it is no surprise that the rise of pheasant preserves during the 1800s saw hedgehogs widely persecuted by gamekeepers, with reports of dogs being used to flush upwards of 30 per night. For a well-researched and authoritative, if on occasion rather depressing, discussion of wildlife persecution in the UK, the reader is directed to Lovegrove’s book.

Hedgehogs have been widely exploited as a food item and as a source of tools, medications and as exterminators. According to Stocker, they were traded in London’s Leadenhall Market during the 1880s, touted as ‘cellar hogs’, to be kept ‘under stairs’ to eat cockroaches and other insect pests. Nigel Reeve notes, in Hedgehogs, that hogs have featured quite widely in the diet of British and European people, not just gypsies, although they remain the most widely documented consumers of hedgehogs. There are various accounts of how the spines were removed and the animal cooked. Apparently, in Britain, gypsies preferred cutting and singeing the spines off before spit-roasting the hog, while baking the animal in clay (the spines being left embedded in the clay when it was split open) was a common approach in Europe.

Despite eating them, according to Reeve, gypsies held hedgehogs in high regard, considering them to be “moshto”, the gods of life. Further cultural references to hedgehog include the ancient Greeks, for whom the hedgehog was a symbol of reincarnation, and connections to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war. Hedgehogs have also been used in various weird and wonderful medications, including remedies for baldness, eye infections, colic and, rather ironically given their susceptibility to the condition, leprosy. For a fascinating and detailed regalement of everything to do with hedgehogs in human culture, the reader is directed to Chapter Two of Les Stocker’s The Complete Hedgehog.

A photo of gypsies roasting a hedgehog in clay outside Snow Hill in Birmingham during the late 1920s or early 1930s. Reproduced under licence (RP1352) from MERL. - Credit: The Museum of English Rural Life (Reading University)

Hedgehogs were also reputedly used by the Romans, who dried their spiny skins and used them for carding wool. (Carding is a combing/brushing action that serves to clean, separate and straighten the wool fibres before it is spun.) In his Hedgehogs booklet, Pat Morris notes how hedgehog spines have been used in places where metal pins would corrode and that this species has been widely used in phylogenetic studies of mammals (hogs are considered among the most ‘primitive’ of the mammals), as well as research on hibernation and how mammal hearts function at low temperatures.