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School Watch

The Hedgehog


Grainneog (Irish name)

Erinaceus europaeus (Latin name)

Nobody can mistake the hedgehog or mix it up with any other animal. The hedgehog has a sharp snout, with small eyes and short legs. But most noticeably, they are covered on the back and sides with spines. The Latin name (Erinaceus) means "spiky wall" and its Irish name grainneog means "the horrible one".

The hedgehog is also known as the "urchin" or "hedgepig". This is due to the animal's pig-like snout. The name "hedgehog" dates from around 1450 and it has generally replaced the older "urchin". The name urchin is often applied to a mischievous child because the urchin or hedgehog was believed to be a mischievous elf in disguise. It is thought that the hedgehog was introduced to Ireland around 1700, quite possibly as a source of food.

Although hedgehogs are very common throughout the country, we seldom see them. The reason for this is they are nocturnal, i.e. they sleep during the day and are active at night. They sleep under logs and tree roots or under heaps of leaves or in burrows. Generally if you see a hedgehog out in daylight, it is a sick one.

If you come across a hedgehog, it will instinctively curl up into a ball and the spikes stand out in every direction. The hedgehog does this to protect those parts of it's body that are not protected by spines. Very few predators are able to penetrate this defence. Its main predator is the badger.

Hedgehogs are good climbers and can climb over ivy-covered garden walls. If they fall from a height, they immediately curl into a ball as they fall to land unhurt, cushioned by the thick layer of spines. But do they use their spines for anything else? It is reported that hedgehogs collect apples that have fallen from trees in autumn by rolling over them and then carrying these off to feed on later. Pliny the Elder wrote in the 1st Century. "To prepare for winter, hedgehogs roll on fallen apples to stick them to their spines, then taking one or more in their mouths, carry the load to hollow trees".

Another bizarre relationship going back many years is that of the hedgehog and cows udders. It was believed that hedgehogs sucked milk from the udders of cows lying in pastures. Although no one has seen this happen a bounty was paid to people in England to kill hedgehogs, so strong was this belief. This Act (The Preservation of Grain Act) was not repealed until 1863.

Another unusual activity noted in hedgehogs is self-anointing. This behaviour is usually triggered by contact with some strong smelling or tasting substance. The hedgehog may spend up to an hour flicking frothy saliva over its spines. The hedgehog has a very long tongue which helps in this process. The purpose of this exercise has not been satisfactorily explained, although it may be a means of warding off fleas or deter potential predators.

Hedgehogs carry a heavy parasite loading. Wild hedgehogs may have many fleas, but no need to worry, as these fleas are host-specific and can?t be transferred to cats, dogs or humans. They also carry ticks. These are a grey-blue colour and often located behind the ears. As the tick feeds on the blood of the hedgehog, it enlarges and becomes quite noticeable.

We all like to see hedgehogs visit our gardens. They are often called the gardener's friend, because they eat slugs and snails thereby reducing the need to use slug pellets. This is a good example of biological pest control (using one species to remove another). If you want to put out additional food for visiting hedgehogs, make sure NOT to give them bread and milk. The milk can make them very sick, maybe even kill them. The best food you can give them is tinned dog or cat food, and always leave out a bowl of fresh water for them.

As you move into summer, hedgehogs in your garden may become more noisy. On warm moist summer nights you may be lucky enough to see and hear mating hedgehogs. They seem to ignore humans and you can watch them without disturbing them. So enjoy them at this time of year, because come next October or November they will have hibernated and will spend the winter sleeping.

QUESTIONS:

1. When were hedgehogs thought to have been introduced to Ireland?

2. State one other name often used to describe the hedgehog.

3. What does grainneog mean?

4. What is the hedgehog's main predator?

5. What is self-anointing?

6. Name 2 parasites that live on hedgehogs.

7. Why should milk not be given to hedgehogs?

8. Why was the name "urchin" often applied to a mischievous child?

9. What food should you leave out for a visiting hedgehog?

10. When do hedgehogs hibernate?

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