Life

Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: A welcome visit from a hedgehog

The earliest trace of hedgehogs in Ireland dates back to the mid-13th Century. Picture by L Campbell
Stephen Colton

FRANTIC barking from Robbie in the back garden signalled something unusual was up. Out to investigate I saw his straightened tail wagging humorously with his nose and head thrust forward, focusing on something of great interest under the beech hedge.

Closer inspection in the darkness revealed his object of curiosity to be a hedgehog. As Robbie tried to playfully engage with it, the prickly mammal remained motionless, curled and hiding within its ball of spines.

Ending the tension and entertainment, I transferred the hedgehog to a safer location.

Erinaceus europaeus has the uncomplimentary Irish name, ‘Gráinneog’ meaning, ‘horrible or ugly one’ which seems very unfair to such a resilient and well-loved animal.

The origins of the hedgehog in Ireland are unclear. There are no remains of the mammal from here during the early post-glacial period of 10,000 years ago, when it is thought many of our other land mammals may have arrived.

The earliest record of the hedgehog is from a mid-13th Century site in Waterford city, which suggests that it was probably introduced either accidentally or deliberately as a food source by the Normans.

During the following centuries, the hedgehog was persecuted certainly in England and probably here also. In 1566, the Elizabethan parliament put a three pence bounty on the head of every hedgehog that was caught and killed, with churchwardens charged with the duty of paying out the money and recording the bounty payments in parish records.

Its 'vermin' status resulted from the belief it sucked milk from resting cows at night. While it is known that the animal likes milk and that it may lap at milk leaking from a cow at rest, it is unlikely it would be capable of actually ‘milking’ the animal because of its small mouth.

The hedgehog was also a recognised egg thief, stealing from henhouses and also the eggs of game birds from large estates.

In the more enlightened times of today, the hedgehog is no longer considered a threat. A nocturnal animal, it preys on slugs, earthworms and beetles, although studies show that small mammals such as mice and shrews are also eaten.

Roman author, Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, (77–79 AD) wrote about how the hedgehog would climb apple trees, knock the fruit off, and then roll on the apples impaling them on its spikes before carrying them to its burrows.

In ancient Rome, the hedgehog was used to forecast spring. If during hibernation it emerges from its burrow in February and sees its shadow, this meant there was a clear moon, a sign of six more weeks of winter to come and so it returned to its sleep.

The hedgehog was also a food source for some in medieval times, especially in autumn when fat and juicy before hibernation. It was roasted in the embers of a hot fire after rolling the animal in clay. Once cooked, the hardened clay was removed and with it the embedded spines.

In his History of Four Footed Beasts and Serpents, (1658), Edward Topsell wrote about medicinal uses of hedgehog-based potions. The dried rib skin, mixed with pepper, laurel leaves and stirred in warm water was recommended for, 'one that hath colick', while hedgehog ashes were good for boils and eating its fat was said to 'stayeth the flux of the bowels'.

Later, I went to check on our visitor, but it had moved on. I thought of Co Armagh poet Paul Muldoon’s words:

 

The hedgehog gives nothing

Away, keeping itself to itself.

We wonder what a hedgehog

Has to hide, why it so distrusts.

 

(Hedgehog, from Poems 1968-1998)

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