European Hedgehog Mortality - Predators

The spines of a hedgehog provide a formidable barrier to most would-be predators and it has been suggested that they probably make hogs less vulnerable to predation than any other mammal of similar size. Despite this, hedgehogs can still fall prey to other animals. Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are widely reputed to catch and kill hedgehogs, although it is not known how common this behaviour is (see QA). Recently there has been concern that hedgehogs may suffer limb amputations from encounters with foxes and, in an article in press with British Wildlife, David Element wrote:

“… the back legs of adult hedgehogs are also not infrequently amputated by fox-bites although it is sometimes the case that serious incapacitating leg injuries (but not amputations) may be a consequence of fights between adult males as they will try to bite the vulnerable underparts rather than the spiny areas …”

Other species known to opportunistically take various life-stages of hedgehogs include brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), otters (Lutra lutra) and various species of small mustelid, including pine martens (Martes martes), weasels (M. nivalis), mink (M. vison), stoats (M. erminea) and polecats (Mustela putorius). Indeed, in his book The Hedgehog, Maurice Burton described the polecat as the hedgehog’s “most deadly enemy, by common consent”; apparently they leave nothing, eating flesh, bones, bristles and spines.

A fox carrying a dead hedgehog and vole. Hedgehog remains turn up in fox diets from time to time, but it's unclear how much is direct predation and how much is scavenging, for example, road kill. - Credit: Helen Wynn

Burton also suggests that magpies (Pica pica) may be a significant predator, pulling out a spine and pecking at the wound. Similarly, in his chapter on hedgehogs in the 1981 RSPCA Book of Mammals, Nigel Reeve notes that large birds such as crows can “get past the spines with their beaks and they take some hedgehogs in the early morning”. Tawny owls (Strix aluco) are known to take hedgehogs if the opportunity arises, as are weak birds (Gallirallus australis) in New Zealand.

In parts of Europe, particularly Sweden, eagle owls (Bubo bubo) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) can be significant hedgehog predators. Vincenzo Penteriani and his colleagues found that eagle owls living in urban areas of southern France ate more hedgehogs than those on the borders, particularly following an outbreak of myxomatosis that decimated the rabbit population. Luigi Marchesi at the Trento Natural History Museum in Italy and colleagues observed that eagle owls in the Italian Alps took hedgehogs frequently, accounting for about 12% of the total prey and 17% of the mammals eaten; hedgehogs accounted for 25% by mass of the mammals taken, suggesting they were an important component of the diet.

Working in Estonia, Mait Zastrov found hedgehogs were common prey of eagles and in a paper to the journal Holarctic Ecology in 1981, Martin Tjernberg reported that he recovered the remains of 24 hedgehogs from eagle territories on the island of Gotland in Sweden; they accounted for about 30% of the total prey taken, and about half of mammalian prey. Tjernberg does, however, suggest that most were probably picked up as roadkill, rather than actively predated. Finally, for the avian predators, black kites (Milvus migrans) may also take hedgehogs. In his 1962 opus on the mammals of eastern Europe, Sergej Ognev wrote:

In the summer of 1915 I was able to observe the remains of the spiny armor [sic] of not less than 8-9 hedgehogs, among them many old individuals, in the Sychevka County in the park of the Vasilevskoe Estate.

A badger eating a hedgehog, the remains of which are in the lower left of the frame. - Credit: Karen Pawsey

Even combined, the above species contribute relatively little to the problems faced by hedgehogs when compared with the European badger (Meles meles). Badgers are significant predators of hedgehogs and their presence has been implicated in regional (and even national) population declines and are also thought to represent barriers to hedgehog migration (see QA). The point must be made, however, that this is not universally applicable and I know people who have both visiting their garden. In a paper on the hedgehog in London, published in The London Naturalist during 1966, the eminent mammologist Pat Morris wrote:

“… for many weeks Hedgehogs and Badgers used to visit my garden to take food put out for them, and on one occasion both species were photographed together.”

People often seem concerned about the impact of domestic cats on hedgehog populations, but I know of no evidence to suggest they are significant predators of hogs. The experience of myself and many others is that cats are at best curious of, generally indifferent to, hedgehogs and I have never observed an aggressive encounter between the two species. In the image above, a still from a video taken on the trailcam in my garden, the hedgehog marched over to the plate, displacing the cat. While cats may not represent a significant threat to hedgehogs, every year rescue centres receive hedgehogs that have been attacked by dogs. In many cases, the dog is not being directly aggressive towards the hedgehog, but even an over-enthusiastic 'mouthing' can cause damage.

Cat gives way to a hedgehog in our garden. -Credit: Marc Baldwin.

How important the sources of so-called ‘natural mortality’ is to the hedgehog population in Britain is unknown, but several wildlife rescuers have intimated that natural causes pale by comparison to the anthropogenic ones; that more hedgehogs die from contact with cars, strimmers and molluscicides (slug pellets) than from predation. This subject is discussed in more depth in the Interactions with Humans section and QAs.