Do hedgehogs hunt mice?


Hedgehogs have a curious reputation as “mousers”, despite lacking the dentition of a true carnivore. First-hand accounts of hedgehogs eating mice do exist, but these are largely assumed to be cases of carrion consumption. Still, hedgehogs can be tenacious and verified reports of them catching lizards, toads and even small birds suggest that taking the odd mouse should not be dismissed out of hand.

The details

Hedgehogs have a reputation, particularly in some of the early literature, of being predators of a variety of seemingly unlikely prey. In their 1958 book, The Observer’s Book of Wild Animals of the British Isles, for example, W.J. Stoke and Maurice Burton wrote of the hedgehog:

By depressing its spines it may even find its way between the bars of a hen coop, but after eating a great part of the hen it may be too portly to get out, and then falls victim to the enraged poultry farmer.”

In the same book, Stoke and Burton talk about hedgehogs having a reputation for catching rabbits, too, but note that they’re not fast enough to run one down, unless it was sick or injured. While the notion of hogs tackling chickens and rabbits may appear rather far-fetched to us now, most probably having stemmed from hedgehogs feeding on carrion, there are several reports of them seeming to hunt smaller animals, including mice.

A house mouse (Mus musculus). - Credit: Marc Baldwin

In August 2012, a friend of mine in Glasgow prompted this QA when he asked me:

I watched a hedgehog in the garden last night and it appeared to be hunting a [house] mouse…would this be right? It was so engrossed it paid no attention to me or the dog and was chasing it through a load of pots and planters ‘till it got itself wedged and needed freeing? Weirdest thing I’ve seen in a while...”

We’ve known for quite a while now that hedgehogs do sometimes eat rodents and a study in 1976 by Derek Yalden found mammal remains in 12% of the hedgehog stomachs he surveyed; including remains of mice. Unfortunately, what stomach analyses such as this don’t tell us is how the hedgehog obtained the mouse. Did it just stumble across a dead mouse and feed on the carcass? Indeed, hedgehogs are well known to take carrion, particularly roadkill. In his chapter on hedgehogs in the second volume of A History of British Mammals, Gerald Barrett-Hamilton succinctly sums up their predatory instincts:

In fact, it will eat any living creature which it can overpower and almost any dead one.”

Most hedgehog carers I know will testify to this, and a friend of mine recently described how, many years ago, he left the remains of a roast chicken in his garden, only for his local hedgehogs to drag it under his summerhouse and spend a good hour eating their fill, bones and all. Similarly, Julie Stribley recounted he memory of being alerted to a hedgehog eating a mouse in her garden in Rotherham at 8:45 one late January morning in 2017 by the crunching of bones. We assume the mouse was already dead when the hedgehog found it. Indeed, in his 1996 opus, Hedgehogs, Nigel Reeve is quick to point out that these insectivores lack the dentition of a true carnivore and must bite and gnaw persistently at the flesh to break in, meaning they have to keep hold of their quarry for long enough to ‘gain entry’, as it were, and this would be a challenge when dealing with larger prey such as mice. Nonetheless, there are rumours that hedgehogs were kept in barns by farmers because they were more effective mousers than many-a-cat, and there are several reports in the literature describing hedgehogs actively hunting mice and even rats, although it is difficult to know how much embellishment these stories have undergone.

A hedgehog eating a dead mouse during January 2017. - Credit: Julie Stribley

In his book, Farmers’ Warfare, published in 1947, Charles Walton refers to an account from ‘a recent book’ (he doesn’t, unfortunately, say which) telling of a pet hedgehog killing a mouse:

he threw his prickly bulk at the unwary nibbler, rolled on it once or twice, and devoured the flattened remains.“

Subsequently, in his 1969 Survival book, The Hedgehog, Maurice Burton wrote:

To what extent hedgehogs catch and eat mice is a matter for debate. There is the testimony of several reputable observers that they will do both, either when they come across them accidentally or by watching at the entrance to the nest, like a cat. It is sometimes argued that a hedgehog is not quick enough for this work, but to assume it always moves slowly is to underrate it as we have seen. Another argument against the hedgehog as a mouser is that a mouse does not recognize it as an enemy. To illustrate this is the story from a scientist of three hedgehogs in a compound under observation. One was seen to catch a mouse whereupon its two companions tried to snatch the mouse from it. In the ensuing tug-of-war a second mouse wandered all around and over the hedgehogs, seemingly undisturbed.”

Burton goes on to describe a couple of other reports, including observations by other researchers of hedgehogs catching mice and lizards, which are apparently pounced on and shaken before being eaten. Certainly, work by renowned zoologist Hans Kruuk suggests, based on following hedgehog tracks on a sand dune, that hedgehogs will follow the trail of their prey at the usual trot, before seizing them with a rapid pounce. In spite of Burton’s observations, studies by former Frankfurt Zoo curator Konrad Herter imply that this reputation as fierce mousers belies their true nature.

A wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus). - Credit: Hanna Knutsson

In his meticulous Hedgehogs: A comprehensive study, originally published in German in 1963, Herter notes that hog will eat dead mice of various species, albeit without any particular relish. He also describes the results of experiments where he has put the two species in the same enclosure and the hedgehog has failed to notice the mouse until it pretty much bumps into it; the mouse showed no instinctive fear of the hedgehog. He does describe hedgehogs snapping at mice on occasion, but the mouse generally gets away and the hogs made no attempt to chase after them, although they did sometimes appear to follow their scent. Overall, Herter explained:

I have often kept white laboratory mice which are much slower and less handy than the grey house mouse, in cages together with hedgehogs, without their being killed and eaten, for days on end. In most cases the hedgehogs were just not interested after a time in this much publicized game and they let the rodents eat out of the same dish with them. Now, if it is so difficult for the hedgehog to catch the mouse in the relatively narrow confines of a cage, then it must be much more difficult for him in a large space or in the open and he must be only occasionally successful.

Herter notes that the foregoing does not preclude the possibility that hedgehogs will occasionally predate a lame mouse, or one it has blundered into a corner; but in most cases, it is probably nests of pups that are eaten. His conclusion was:

They are certainly not the efficient rodent exterminators that they have been cracked up to be.

Nigel Reeve also considered it unlikely that a hedgehog would be able to catch fit and active prey such as a healthy mouse, suggesting, like Herter, that moribund individuals or nestlings are more probable targets. Overall, it seems probable that a hedgehog would at least try to take a mouse if the opportunity presented itself, but it is unlikely that they are very often successful.