If you had trouble with history lessons in school just be thankful you’re not a hedgehog. Whilst the first Homo Sapiens – modern humans – walked the earth around 200,000 years ago, hedgehogs have been around for over 15 million years. Imagine having to learn all that history for a GCSE! It’s a long and fascinating history and in this post, we are going to take a look at the highlights of hedgehog history.

The History of Hedgehogs

Hedgehog Evolution

Hedgehogs first evolved over 15 million years ago. They are one of the oldest species of mammal on the planet.

Many of the other mammals that walked the earth when hedgehogs first arrived are long gone. Things like Mastodons and sabre toothed tigers died out millions of years ago. Even species like the camel, which are also ancient creatures, have evolved massively over the years.

Hedgehogs have been around since woolly manoths and sablre toothed tigers roamed the earth.

Not so the hedgehog. 

Scientists believe that the modern hedgehog is very similar to the hog that existed 15 million years ago. 

The skeleton, teeth and skull are all pretty ancient in appearance. If you look at a hedgehog skeleton you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at the skeleton of a mini-dinosaur.

The senses too are based around smell, whereas the senses of most modern mammals are based around sight.

There have been some evolutions. There was a Mediterranean hedgehog, which was the size of an actual pig. This variation didn’t seem to work though, and quickly died out.

So why hasn’t the hedgehog evolved? 

Well, it was just very well designed in the first place. Spines are a great protection against predators. Hibernation means hogs don’t starve in the winter. They can eat a huge range of things and thrive in all sorts of environments. 

So, for 15 million years, hedgehogs have done very well for themselves, without the need to change.

No Relation

Most people think that hedgehogs and other spiny creatures like porcupines and spiny anteaters are related.

In fact this isn’t the case. Hedgehogs are part of a very small group of creatures – the insectivores. Their closest relatives are shrews. 

Porcupines and anteaters on the other hand are rodents, like rats and guinea pigs. 

Naming Names

The Latin name for hedgehog is “Erinaceus” and this is the scientific species name for all the world hedgehogs. The Latin word also means “Christ’s Thorn” or “Jerusalem Thorn”. Our own European Hedgehog is Erinaceus Europaeus.

Other hedgehog names also focus on the thorny nature. “Urchin” – like a sea urchin, was popular slang for hogs in Britain, and the German and Dutch names are related to this.

Our own word “hedgehog” ignores the prickles and instead names them for their snuffling noises and habit of living under hedges.

Perhaps the least flattering name for hedgehogs is the Welsh “grainneog” which translates as “horrible one”!

Hedgehogs in Literature

Hedgehogs are mentioned in the bible – maybe. 

The Hebrew word “kippod” comes up in the bible and has been translated as hedgehog by some scholars. Others, though, think the word means “Bittern”, which as you will know, is a water bird. Very different. 

So it’s difficult to know whether the hedgehog can claim to be biblical. But they certainly would have existed in the bible lands at that time.

Shakespeare mentions hedgehogs in several of his plays. 

And then of course we have probably the best loved hedgehog of all time Mrs Tiggywinkle. She is said to be based on one of Beatrix Potter’s own pet hedgehogs.

Alice in Wonderland has great trouble using them as balls in a game of croquet.

Though not exactly literature the hedgehog is still alive and well in popular culture in the form of Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog was a hit in the 90’s and is having a revival now. Shame he looks more like a squirrel!

Hedgehog Myths and Legends

As such a popular and (until recently) common, mammal it’s no surprise that there are quite a few folklore myths around hedgehogs.

The Fruit Thief

It used to be said that hedgehogs would spike apples and other fruit with their spines and carry it off. There are even pictures of them doing this in medieval tapestries.

It’s a nice thought, but probably not true. First of all, given other choices, hedgehogs aren’t that interested in eating apples. And if they did, why would they bother to carry them? Why not just eat them where they found them? 

And finally, how would they get them onto their spines? When a hedgehog is out and about, the spines lie flat, so even an apple falling from the tree onto a hedgehog would probably bounce off. 

When they curl into a ball, this is because they are under threat, not because they are looking for a healthy snack.

The Milk Thief

Legend has it that hedgehogs will steal the milk from the udders of cows.

Legend has it that hedgehogs steal milk from the udders of cows. Hmmm, we’re not so sure how that would work out for the hog!

Sounds unlikely – but there may be a little more truth in this one.

Milk is bad for hedgehogs but they do like to drink it.

It’s unlikely that a hedgehog could reach the udder of a standing cow. And even if he did the cow probably wouldn’t be best pleased to find a hedgehog hanging on to her with teeth and claws.

But when cows are due to be milked they will often leak milk onto the ground around them. It’s entirely possible that a passing hedgehog might be attracted by the smell and stop by for a quick drink.

Not Poisoned by Snake Bites?

Hmm, well there is only one poisonous snake in the UK, the adder. A bite from an adder can kill mice, voles and even rats.

An adder couldn’t bite a hedgehog through its spines, but if it managed to get at one of the hedgehog’s less spikey bits it certainly might deliver a nasty nip. 

But it’s far more likely that, at the first sign of a strike, the hedgehog would curl into a ball round the snake. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to have a hedgehog curl up around your finger you will know that this probably means the end of the snake. And then the snake could well become the hedgehogs dinner.

Scientific studies have shown that hedgehogs are more resistant to venom than other small mammals, though not immune. And when hibernating their resistance to all sorts of poisons is huge.

Though a hibernating hedgehog wouldn’t be bitten by a snake. Because the snake would be hibernating too!

Uses of Hedgehogs

Here comes the grisly bit – please look away if you are squeamish!

Hedgehogs have been very useful to man over the centuries, and continue to be today.

Medicine

Like many other animals hedgehogs were popular in medieval medicine. 

A tea made from an infusion of dried hedgehog skin and pepper was thought to be good for Colic.

Hedgehog ashes were the best thing for boils, and powdered hedgehog skin was a sure remedy for hair loss.

Hedgehogs were thought to cure leprosy, which is nonsense. But strangely they do  catch leprosy easily and develop the disease in a very similar way to humans. So more recently they’ve proved very useful in research into the disease.

Cooking

In medieval times roasted hedgehog with wild duck sauce was a delicacy served to kings and nobility.

Hedgehogs have traditionally been eaten by gypsies. Wrapped in clay, spines and all, and roasted in the embers of a fire. 

This practice was common until at least the Second World War, when there are reports of people being fined for eating hedgehogs without the right ration cards.

Much more recently boxer Tyson Fury has sparked fury (!) by claiming to eat hedgehog, marinated in honey and roasted in the oven. This may or may not be illegal, but it’s roundly condemned by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and animal lovers across the country.

Textile Making

The spines on a live hedgehog are quite flexible and almost soft, until it curls up. But a dried hedgehog skin is another matter. The spines stand up straight and become very hard and sharp.

Before the industrial revolution this made dried hedgehog skins great carding combs. They were used to comb out the fibres in wool so that it could be spun and made into yarn for knitting or weaving.

Burglar Deterrent

Dried hedgehog skins with their mass of sharp spikes also made an effective burglar deterrent. 

They were fixed to the top of walls and gates around orchards to protect the crops.

British Hedgehogs Today

Things have been pretty grim for hedgehogs over the past 70 years. Road traffic, intensive farming, pesticides and development have had a devastating effect on their numbers.

But maybe things are looking up?

In 2016 the hedgehog was officially voted Britain’s favourite mammal by a huge majority.

Hogs are now also officially “cute” appearing on t-shirts, mugs, cushion covers. Even Christmas cards, though you won’t see any out and about at Christmas. 

Though numbers are still declining in the countryside hedgehogs are doing surprisingly well in our towns and cities. And although feeding the hedgehogs isn’t yet as popular as feeding the birds, it’s getting there.

And perhaps most important, hedgehogs are becoming hugely interesting to science.

Scientists want to know more about the mechanism of hibernation and how it might be applied to humans. They believe that understanding hibernation could have all sorts of benefits, from recovering from injuries or operations, to space travel.

Conclusion: An Interesting Past and a Hopeful Future

Hedgehogs have been around for much longer than we have.

Although they have had a very rough few years they’ve now won our interest and our affection. And this could be the key to the hedgehogs survival.

For more fascinating facts about hedgehogs take a look at Pat Morris’ excellent book Hedgehogs, which we used in our research for this article.

Or get involved with hedgehog preservation at Hedgehog Street.

We hope you have enjoyed this quick trip though the fascinating history of the hedgehog. 

If you have questions or suggestions we would love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below.

SHARE ON

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on print

9 Responses

  1. I feed a hedgehog nightly and he/she is often joined by another. This second hedgehog has a white spot on his back prickles (Spot) but seems to be a bit of a bully!
    I have a delux hedgehog house which was used last winter but not all the time and I have seen no babies yet.

    1. Ours are very fickle with the feeding station. sometimes all the food is gone, other times they completely ignore it. Babies are probably quite big now, and maybe heading off on thier own. Still time for a late litter though.

  2. What are the best things to feed hedgehogs? We have one (Hector) that has taken up residence in the house we purchased him/her. I have been regularly feeding every evening approx. 50grams of cat food mixed with spikes hedgehog dry biscuits which he devours. We have been watching him on our wildlife camera and he spends approx. 30mins eating the food then keeps returning licking the plate then eating ants that appear on the plate. Should we be giving him more food? Will he get bored with just the diet we provide or can we add other things? I’ve read conflicting reports some say they can eat fish some not. etc. He’s quite small and shy but always appears at the same (dinner time) 9pm. I leave meadow hay next to his house entrance which we’ve filmed him taking inside 🙂 he is very sweet and we’ve now had him with us for over a year, with a 5 week break when he disappeared in April. We are really hoping he is a she and that she has hoglets :).

    1. Hi Lynda,
      It would be great to see some of your hedgehog pics and films!
      I did a post on what hedgehogs eat that you might find useful:
      https://homeandroost.co.uk/blog/what-do-hedgehogs-eat/
      What you are feeding sounds perfect. He/she wont get bored, and he’ll enjoy the added ants as well.
      The 5 week disappearance in April does sound like you could have a mother there. It would be very early for a hog to have babies, but we have had such a warm spring.
      Clare

  3. One night last year my daughters dog was outside and I heard her whimpering. I opened the back door to find a hedgehog growling at the dog. She was so frightened I had to go and open the conservatory door to let her in, when I got back to the back door the hedgehog had gone. I was so excited I bought a Hedgehog house and put an old plastic dog basket upside down with a brick on top as a feeding station. I also bought a night camera to film him/her. It visits every few days and I have got some lovely films but it doesn’t use the house I bought yet. My house backs onto the school field and a fire entrance for the houses at the back so they cannot block the entrance

    1. I love the image to the hedgehog growling at the dog – poor thing!
      Ours often ignore our hedgehog house and nest somewhere totally random.
      As long as they are happy!

  4. Hedgehogs do not have the enzymes in their bodies to digest fish in the same way they can’t digest cow’s milk. Fish will give a hedgehog a very poorly tummy and should never be offered, especially to young hogs as it can kill them. Even cat biscuits with a fish base must not be given. We have tested cat food that was labeled Beef Pate, but the animal product base that made up the bulk of the foil dish, was actually some sort of fish.
    Hedgehogs can make some very funny noises – even quacking like a duck! I tried to record one hedgehog who was a noisy sleeper and snored his days away. Sadly the bass notes of his rumble were too low for the recording instrument.
    We have been feeding local hedgehogs for 9 years now and have seen some hilarous goings-on on our camera traps. A couple of years ago, we started looking after late autumn babies and bringing them on, plus helping other hedgehogs in distress. They are amazing creatures and ask so little from us. Our aim is always to return the hedgehog back to the wild as soon as it is well enough or large enough for the conditions, and whilst I may have a tear in my eye as I wave one off after looking after it for a few weeks, I know for sure there will be another one coming who needs our help.

  5. I have done everything to encourage hogs to my garden, I back onto an allotment. I have a hedgehog house, but so far, nothing has used it. An only the local stray cat is eating the food I leave out. 🙁 What more can I do to encourage them into my Garden?

    1. Hi Jayne,

      It’s very frustrating I know – but trust me, if you build it they will come!

      It took us 3 years to entice them in after moving to our current house.

      A couple of thoughts.

      Is there easy access from the allotments to your garden for them? A hedgehog highway?

      If you leave the food inside the house, and the water just outside, the cat is less likely to get it. Ours used the feeding station long before they nested in any of our boxes.

      Leave the food and water close to where you think they might get into your garden, they are more likely to smell it as they pass by.

      Hope this helps!

      Best of luck

      Clare

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs In Summer – What To Expect and How To Help

Summer is the time of year when you are most likely to actually see hedgehogs in your garden. Though they are nocturnal creatures, nights are so short in the summer months and hedgehogs have so much to do, that it’s not unusual to spot a healthy hedgehog out and about in the daylight. In this article, we are going to look at how to help hedgehogs in summer, what they might be doing and what challenges they face at this time of year.

Read More Now »
starlings
Garden Birds

Keeping Starlings Off Your Bird Feeders | And Why You May Not Want To

Starlings are supremely gregarious and sociable birds who spend much of the year living in large flocks. If one of these flocks descends on your bird feeders or decides to roost in your garden you might be looking for ways to move them along. But in the UK starling numbers have fallen by up to 80% since the 1980s. They are red-listed for conservation purposes and legally protected. So should you learn to love starlings? And what steps can you legally take to deter them?

Read More Now »
Garden Birds

When Do Birds Moult? Why Our Garden Birds Lose Their Feathers

Although some birds moult throughout the year, August is prime moulting time for UK garden birds. It’s after the breeding season, before migration (for those that do) and the weather tends to be warm, so a lack of feathers isn’t quite so much of a problem. The moult is a challenging time for our birds, so let’s find out a bit more about the process and who we can support them through it.

Read More Now »
Garden Birds

Which Birds Eat Insects? And How Best To Help Them In Your Garden

Gardeners are always happy to see insect-eating birds. Anything that helps control the black fly, aphids and caterpillars which can ruin our flowers and munch through young veg is welcome. But insect and invertebrate numbers in drastic decline, our insectivorous birds can struggle to find the food they need to survive. So let’s take a look at which birds eat insects in our gardens and how can we help them.

Read More Now »
Hedgehogs

Do Badgers Eat Hedgehogs? Do They Threaten Hedgehog Survival?

Yes, badgers do eat hedgehogs. Badgers are the hedgehog’s main predator in the UK and whilst hedgehog numbers are in drastic decline badger numbers have doubled since the 1980s. Early studies have shown that where badgers are culled hedgehog numbers bounce back remarkably. Yet the British Hedgehog Preservation Society is clear that badgers aren’t to blame for the plight of our hedgehogs.

Read More Now »

Want Awesome Hedgehog Articles Like This Every Week?

Plus special offers, Discounts & News?