Our Burning Planet

HEDGEHOG STORIES

It’s now sleepy time for southern Africa’s cute spiky snufflers

It’s now sleepy time for southern Africa’s cute spiky snufflers
African hedgehog. (Photo: Pets In The City Wiki Commons)

The crickets and earthworms can be reliably informed that, given the advancing cold, the hedgehogs have gone to sleep. They can now chirp and chew in peace.

If this story was being written by Beatrix Potter or JRR Tolkien, it might include a ceremony of attendant elves presided over by the queen of fairies, leading hedgehogs to their big sleep and wishing them well over the fast.

But it isn’t, so it’s up to me to announce that across southern Africa hedgehogs have turned in for the winter and will emerge around August, thinner, hungry and ready to rumble. They’ve been doing that every winter for 15 million years.

Perhaps because they’re secretive night walkers, I’ve never seen a hedgehog. But hoping for a meeting when they emerge, I’ve been doing some homework.

They’re insectivores and particularly like crickets and earthworms, but will make do with snails, mushrooms and…um…snakes. Yep, you heard right, they seem immune to their venom. Their quills are also longer than the fangs of most snakes, so if one strikes it gets a head full of spikes. It could end up as lunch.

Resting hedgehog

A resting hedgehog. (Photo: iNaturalist)

They’re mostly silent but snort when courting. If disturbed they roll into a ball then, after a while, peep out to see if the coast is clear. Most of the winter they’re fast asleep, hibernating until spring warms them up.

Hedgehogs were originally named urchins from the Latin ericius (hair standing on end) which morphed into the Old North French word yrichon and in Middle English irchouns. When legless spiky things were discovered in the ocean, they were named sea urchins, but ‘land-urchins’ got there first. The name ‘hedgehog’ first appeared in England in the 16th Century (their babies are called hoglets).

Read more in Daily Maverick: As the Gulf War raged, a tiny, pink-nosed hedgehog offered an opening back into my own psyche

What’s particularly interesting is what they’re not, despite some charming legends and perceptions.

In his Natural History written around 80 BCE, Pliny the Elder gave rise to one of the most persistent myths in natural history. He claimed that hedgehogs prepare food for winter by fixing fallen apples on their spines by rolling on them and holding one more in their mouth, then carrying them to hollow trees to feed their babies. He also noted you could make them unroll by sprinkling boiling water on them. The last point is undoubtedly true, the first is nonsense and it lasted for hundreds of years.

Two centuries later our spiky hog appeared in an extraordinary Christian text, Physiologus, written by an unknown author in Alexandra, which consists of descriptions of animals, birds and fantastic creatures, each with a moral takeaway. It described the hedgehog as a creature like a suckling piglet entirely covered in spines. But…

Hedgehogs

Hedgehog with apples. (Image: Copilot AI)

“During the grape-gathering season, the hedgehog enters the vineyard. And when it sees a good grape, it climbs up the vine and removes that grape in such a way as to make all the clusters fall onto the ground. Then it climbs down and rolls itself over them so that that all the grapes get caught in its spines. This is how it brings food to its offspring.”

By the 9th Century, the story still had life. In his monumental work on ‘the summation of all universal knowledge’ entitled Etymologia, Isadore of Seville, the local archbishop and scholar, described the hedgehog as a creature “covered with quills, which it stiffens when threatened and rolling itself into a ball is thus protected on all sides. After it cuts a bunch of grapes off a vine it rolls over them so it can carry the grapes to its young on its quills.”

Hedgehogs rolling in grapes

Rolling in grapes, an image from the medieval Rochester Bestiary, c1230. (Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Even that fastidious biologist Charles Darwin was taken in. In 1867 he said he had it on good authority that hedgehogs could be seen in the Spanish mountains “trotting along with at least a dozen strawberries sticking on its spines…carrying the fruit to their holes to eat in quiet and security.”

Harmful superstitions

These famous chroniclers seemingly never bothered to watch the creatures in action: hedgehogs are insectivores with no interest in apples or grapes. They certainly don’t use their spines as cocktail sticks. In 2019 a police officer in China tested the theory that their spines were good fruit transporters. He impaled numerous cherries on the spines of a hedgehog, but they began falling off as soon as the animal walked away.

On the matter of sex, the philosopher Aristotle suggested that hedgehogs mate upright on their hind legs in a missionary position, belly to belly, to avoid each other’s spines. Nope, doesn’t happen. It led to an old joke though: how do hedgehogs mate? With great and scrupulous care.

Another legend was about milk. A belief from medieval times was that hedgehogs stole milk from the udders of sleeping cows. In Britain, farmers would leave a bottle of home-brewed beer and a piece of cake outside for the ‘farming fairy’ Old Nancy, who they believed could prevent hedgehogs from taking milk from their cows. If Old Nancy failed, hedgehogs were slaughtered in great numbers.

Irish farmers often considered hedgehogs to be graineeogs (ugly ones) that were witches in animal form. Not only did they suckle from cows, but they also bewitched the livestock and caused their milk to dry up.

(Contrary fact: hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so never leave them a saucer of milk, it could kill them).

These stories did not stand hedgehogs in good stead. Following a series of poor harvests, the Tudor Vermin Act was passed in England in 1532 encouraging people to kill ‘vermin’ for a reward. Initially aimed at crows, in 1566 it was extended to cover the slaughter of a huge range of animals in return for considerable sums of money. For a dead hedgehog you could claim up to 4 pence, with which you could buy a lot more than today.

The slaughter of Britain’s wildlife under this and subsequent acts continued until the 1830s in some places. It has been estimated that around half a million English hedgehogs were killed for bounty in the 140 years between 1660 and 1800.

Seemingly, hedgehogs also had their uses. The Medieval Bestiary quotes a 13th-century text that claims the flesh of a hedgehog has a “drying and dissolving power; it properly strengthens the stomach, loosens the bowels and provokes urination; it is useful to those who are disposed to elephantine leprosy…The burnt ashes of the hedgehog, mixed with pitch, restore the hairs of a scar.”

Hotchiwitchi

Hotchiwitchi by Rima Staines. (Source: Wiki Commons)

In 1693 the English Physician William Salmon claimed a cure for baldness was to apply a mixture of fat from a bear and a hedgehog. One wonders whether he proved his remedy before going public.

More recently Roma families have been noticed eating hedgehogs. They roll it in clay and place it in the coals.  When they break it open the spines come away with the clay. It’s a dish known as hotchywitchy.

All this is a long way from Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the hardworking hedgehog who runs her own laundry and minds her own business. Almost single-handedly, Potter restored hedgehogs to munchkin status.

Beatrix Potter, hedgehogs

Book cover of Beatrix Potter’s beloved hedgehog character. (Photo: Supplied)

Come August they’ll be up and about again. Meanwhile, make sure you’re careful with your woodpiles and compost piles where they like to make their winter nests. In spring, like a good elf, welcome them awake with a handful of crickets. After 15 million years of doing just fine, we’ve now massively reduced their numbers. They deserve a break.

Southern African hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis) is a species of mammal in the family Erinaceidae. It is found in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. DM

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  • lisa hugo says:

    Thank you for this article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Full of interesting info on such a cute little creature. Keep writing more of the same, please!

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