How the hegehog promotes Britishness

The hedgehog is one of Britain’s best-loved creatures.

How do I know that? I googled “beloved hedgehogs” until I found enough material to prove what I was already sure of. Lord Google’s happy to confirm any belief we hold if only we ask the right way and leave an offering of data at his shrine. 

Thank you, Lord G., for what you contribute to the world’s wisdom.

But I also, in the real world, listen to people, including a neighbor who told me some years back,  “We have a hedgehog,” making it sound as if her backyard was being visited by angels instead of a small, spiny, snuffly creature.

Irrelevant photo: Snow on a camellia bud in February. We had two or three inches. Half of Cornwall ran off the road. The other half stayed home.

Ah, but I’m serious about my responsibility to inform the world about  Britain, so I asked my friend Helen about the place hedgehogs hold in British culture and she went into a remebering-childhod reverie, telling me about hedgehogs in the books she read: Fuzzypeg, who’s part of Alice Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. If you grow up with these books, apparently, some part of you will forever believe that the hedgehog is a wonderful little creature and an essential part of Britain’s charm.

Or if you want to be snarky about it, which is always more fun than being reverential, part of Britain’s Britishness.

Britain’s Britishness?

Absolutely. Not because it’s clear what Britishness is–it’s not–but because Britain has lots of it and if you eavesdrop on the national conversation you’ll learn that it’s important.

For a while there, defining Britishness was a kind of indoor sport at Westminster. Politicians needed to know what it was so they could impose it on those of us who didn’t fit whatever the definition turned out to be. “Us,” of course, being immigrants. Because that’s the problem with immigrants: They come from places that aren’t Britain, bringing all kinds of -ishnesses that aren’t Britishness.

It turned out, though, that no two politicians agreed about what the ingredients of Britishness were and eventually they stopped talking about them. It was getting embarrassing. 

Or maybe that was because Brexit wasn’t–and isn’t–leaving room in the national conversation for anything else. 

Anyway, I have more than one post about Britishness and I’d love to link you to them, but I never thought to create a category labeled Britishness and I can’t find the damned things. They’re somewhere in this mess. 

None of the politicians mentioned hedgehogs, although you’d think they would have. They should also mention having read the right kids’ books at the right age. Maybe it was all too obvious to think of.

But let’s shut up about that and talk about the hedgehog. It’s native to Europe (which in this case includes Britain; please can we not argue about that right now?), Asia, and Africa. It’s not native to New Zealand but was introduced there to eat slugs and snails. New Zealand conservationists hate them because they compete with native species, but they don’t hate them as much as they hate some of the other beasties that enthusiastic idiots released into the wild, so let’s move on.

The hedgehog’s gone extinct in the Americas but people keep imported types as pets, which is why that cute little British wild animal is making American pet-owners sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has warned people not to kiss and cuddle their hedgehogs because they can spread salmonella. Eight people in the U.S. have gotten salmonella that way since October, and one’s been hospitalized.

That was as of January. It could well be up to nine by the time you read this. As you can see, we’re dealing with an epidemic. Declare an international incident, someone. Send warships.  

The hedgehogs Americans are likely to keep as pets are actually African pygmy hedgehogs, but fact shouldn’t get in the way of a good international incident. American culture is at stake here. Americans only keep African pygmy hedgehogs because the British brainwashed them into thinking they were cute. And (ever so incidentally) because someone on Instagram has one. 

Not to be left out, the RSPCA–the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–issued roughly the same warning to British hedgehog cuddlers. Take that, America. We didn’t make you take them into your homes and we’re suffering just as much as you are, in our understated way.

We now have the horrifying statistics, the warnings, and the international posturing out of the way. 

According to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (of course there’s a British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and it sells books and magnets and all sorts of other things that hedgehogs need), hedgehog spines are actually modified hairs and the average adult hedgehog has 5,000 to 7,000 of them. 

Yes, someone counted them. No, it wasn’t me. 

The spines are a great defense, even though they’re not barbed like porcupine quills. When our dogs found one in the backyard, it rolled into a ball, spines out. The dogs barked insanely and poked their noses at it, then trotted inside, defeated. The hedgehog unrolled itself and waddled off in search of bugs and slugs and a visa to New Zealand.

Somewhere in among all those spines, the hedgehog has a tail. And sex organs. But how do the spiny little things get close enough to each other to create more hedgehogs? Carefully. The female curls her tail upward. The male keeps his relevant body part close to the middle of his belly, so he doesn’t have to climb on top, Humans, who don’t have the same level of interest in the aforesaid body part as hedgehogs do, sometimes mistake it for a belly button. 

Hedgehogs think this is very funny.

Baby hedgehoglets aren’t born prickly, for which their mothers are endlessly grateful. Motherhood’s hard enough without spines. The babies have soft spine stubs that grow and harden within a few weeks.

Hedgehogs eat insects, bugs, slugs, worms, snakes, frogs, toads, eggs, berries, melons, mushrooms, grass, and nice little meaty treats that humans set out for them as long as other creatures don’t get to them first. My best guess is that if they eat melons (which don’t pass the Britishness test, by the way; they’re from Africa and southwest Asia), they also eat berries (some of which do pass the test), but berries aren’t on the list I found, so treat that as guesswork.

That bit about eating slugs? It’s more powerful than children’s books in making gardeners love hedgehogs.

Hegehogs are noctural and they hibernate–or they do if it gets cold enough. With the way climate change has been messing with the seasons lately, some are not going into hibernation and struggle to find enough food over the winter. Even when they’re hibernating, though, they will come out during warm spells and have a snack or two.

They’ve adapted fairly well to city life, but they’re struggling in the countryside, where they’ve been hit hard by the loss of hedgerows and a decline in bug (okay, not just bug: invertebrate) numbers. They also get poisoned by slug pellets and hit by cars.

This is not a fun time to be a hedgehog.

There’s no shortage of campaigns to save them. The Wildlife Trust recommends cutting a small hole in the bottom of your fence (that’s only if you have a fence) so hedgehogs can waddle through. They travel a kilometer or two a night searching for food and mates. That’s mates as in hedgehogs they can breed with, not as in friends. In miles that’s–oh, let’s pretend it’s somewhere betwwen half a mile and a mile. If you were sending a rocket to the moon with calculations like that, you’d miss the whole damn thing, but it’s close enough for a hedgehog. They don’t read, they don’t do math, and they won’t cover any less distance just because I get my numbers wrong.

You can also build it a nice little box for it to hide in and set out some dog or cat food. You can play it patriotic British tunes on your smart phone. If you find a sick or injured hedgehog, you can rehabilitate it. The trust doesn’t tell you not to kiss it–I don’t think it occurred to anyone that you might–but it does tell you to use gardening gloves to pick it up. 

It doesn’t recommend adopting it as a pet.

A group of hedgehogs is called an array. Will you need to know this? Probably not. They’re solitary creatures. Once a female mates, she won’t want the male around. He’d only eat the young. In fact, if the nest is disturbed, the mother might do that herself.

These are the things they don’t put that in the children’s books. 

Hedgehogs used to be called urchins, which came to English from Latin by way of Norman French. By the fifteenth century, an urchin was anyone who looked like a hedgehog, including a hunchback, a goblin, a bad girl (no, don’t ask me–I’ve known and admired plenty of bad girls and none of them struck me as looking like hedgehogs), and a ragged child. By the late eighteenth century, an urchin was in general use to mean a ragged child. 

In the U.S., keeping hedgehogs is illegal in Georgia, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Washington, and New York City–or it was as of January 2018. Calling a kid you’re unhappy with a hedgehog isn’t illegal anywhere but it will earn you some odd looks, as will calling a hedgehog an urchin.

*

My thanks to Flo, who first let me know about the threat hedgehogs pose to America’s health, and to Helen and (while we’re on the subject) assorted other friends who treat my odd questions (“So what is it about the British and hedgehogs?”) as if they were almost normal.

129 thoughts on “How the hegehog promotes Britishness

  1. I think we’ve mentioned hedgehog-flavoured crisps before? Don’t the little cuties get involved in one of our national games – quidditch, perhaps? – no, no – croquet (probably borrowed from our French neighbours and something to do with Pall Mall). Loved this ramble with hedgehogs; just the thing for a Friday.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. They are appreciated here in France as well. Back in 2017, I managed to purchase one of the small stuffed hedgehogs for a young person I know. I went back to get another and I haven’t seen another one since. They are adorable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. To test your theory I did type into google “evil hedgehogs” and it came up with articles about the dangers of hedgehogs and a discussion on Quora on how animals cannot evil. That told me! I haven’t seen one in real life in years, but I live in the city. My mother lives in countryside and she used to put out cat food for a passing one, but she says it hasn’t been around for years. I would not want to cuddle one on account of the fleas, ticks, and prickles. They are seriously cute and best-left roaming around in the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an inspired experiment. I haven’t googled this, but I somehow don’t think they particularly want to cuddle us either.

      The only time I left cat food out (for the neighbors’ cat, which for various and temporary reasons they weren’t feeding), I’d find anything she didn’t eat full of slugs. Yuck. Although a hedgehog would’ve said yum.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was a kid, growing up on the diminishingly rural outskirts of Johannesburg, our dogs quite often found hedgehogs. They’d roll the spiky little balls up to the house, pushing with their noses. I would then bring them inside and feed them beetles, milk and strawberries, and we’d enjoy them for a while – they really are very cute, and endearingly fearless – and then my brother and I would take them to a small koppie (heap of rocks with bushes and whatnot, bulging out of the veld – which is spelled WITHOUT a t) near our house and set them free. I loved them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first one we ever saw was when we moved into our new neighborhood and my partner thought it was a rat. It was late evening, so it wasn’t easy to know what we were looking at. So yes, cute in photos and illustrations, but in person cuteness wasn’t the thing that stood out. At least for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ahhah! So we have a secret weapon, and that nice Mr.Williamson can ditch the aircraft carrier and sneakily send some of our spikey balls of cute off to China, president Trump, that guy who’s killing most of the natives of the Phillipines and anyone else not being a good world leader, which is mostly everyone except the Dutch. World domination will follow, we’ll have an even bigger empire than before and the world will be a better place.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. All things good to know. Our dog has two hedgehog stuffed toys, “hedgy” and “big hedge” – soft, not spiny. That’s as close as I hope to get to them. We have a possum in the yard that eats all that stuff, so we’re good. I am always amazed by people who bring in not-yet-illegal animals as pets. Half the time they get tired of them and let them go, which never ends well.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: How the hegehog promotes Britishness – Timeless Wisdoms

  8. Sad to find out it is illegal to have a hedgehog in Georgia. I was beginning to want one for a per. A birthday present to me.
    Little street urchins. I think I heard that in some movie. Is that in Charles Duckens, lot Mary Poppins. Never heard that term applied to bad girls. How bad do they have to be to be an urchin. Really bad, or just a little bit bad. Is there a scale printed somewhere to use as a guide to see who qualifies. What is the term for a girl somewhar bad but not bad enough to qualify as an urchin. Do many questions and do little time, And more about what it means to be British. I insulted a man from England once by saying he was from Britain or British. He took umbrage and said he was from England and English.

    Thanks for the information. Always like to learn about British.

    Have a good week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If he was from England and English, he was also British. And an asshole. A girl who isn’t bad enought to be an urchin is an urch. If she’s not quite as bad as that, she’s an urchlet, sometimes (by people who are painfully couth) spelled urchlette. What we don’t know is whose definition of bad is in play here.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Cutting a hole in your fence to help the hedgehog reminds me of an incident from the past in which I scarred my child for life. We had a hole in our fence (which happened organically) and a groundhog in our back yard. My young son and I were watching the groundhog from inside the house and I got the bright idea to put our rat terrier in the yard to scare the groundhog into leaving through the hole in the fence. I won’t go into the grisly details, except to say we were both horrified at the results.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My god-daughter in the USA had a pet hedgehog. It got lost in their very cluttered basement and was missing for weeks. Should I assume they can exist on very little food and water for long periods of time? Or maybe Lord Google has the answer. Unfortunately, he’s been disappointing me a lot recently.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Good grief! 8 people sick and one hospitalised!!!! I haven’t asked Google for the current population figures for the USA, but I’m pretty sure that 8 out of howevermanymillions is too small to warrant a headline.
    I didn’t “keep” a hedgehog, but if one wandered into the garden I found it fascinating…until I realised it had designs on my frogs!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Another great article, Ellen. I love the way you sprinkle the star dust of eclectic facts and conjecture around the main story. It is always a pleasure to read your blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. From a website on Glasgow and its weegie ways….
    ‘You don’t know what fun is until you’ve witnessed a drunk on the Edinburgh to Glasgow train screaming
    ‘A f…..g hate hedgehogs, come at me ye jabby we c…t.’
    while angrily circling a hairbrush which has been dropped on the floor…’

    Liked by 2 people

      • Really? They look like they could move along a pretty fair clip given the proper motivation. They might outrun me. Still I have size on my side and nice sturdy shoes. Unless they jump, Lawdy lawdy if they jump I don’t stand a chance. Guess I could throw meal worms at them or something to slow them down? (This is what happens if I type before coffee)

        Liked by 1 person

        • They have very little legs. I just don’t see them jumping. And the ones–okay, the very few I’ve seen in motion trundle along at what could politely be described at a stately pace. Do throw mealworms. They’ll love you for it. But I think you’re safe. Really, I do.

          Okay, I just googled “top speeed, hedgehog” and got twelve miles an hour. (Is the internet not full of strange stuff? I really didn’t think I’d find that.) I tried my luck with how fast a human can crawl, hoping to convince you that you could not just outrun one but outcrawl it, but I ended up with information about how fast human hair grows (too slowly to outrun a hedgehog) and how fast Usain Bolt can run (very). Also how fast a human-size spider could crawl, which doesn’t help much since there are none.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks for an informative read. We don’t have them here (at least wild), but we have echidnas, even coming into our yard once or twice. Were quickly relocated to the fields before our older dog could find them. They are very cute.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I didn’t read the right books as a child, but I do remember that we were told to search through the wood piled in the back garden on 5th November to make sure there wasn’t a hedgehog or two curled up in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. For the longest time, my son wanted a hedgehog, so we finally researched them. When he realized how high maintenance and low-cuddle factor they were, that idea went out the window very quickly, thank goodness. Hedgehogs are better as a concept than reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. My mind is so scattered that I actually read half of this thinking “hogweed,” as in Giant Hogweed, which I know is very British also. Or at least I think it’s British because the band Genesis sang about it. So that makes it British in my ind. Anyway once you brought up people keeping them as pets, I got confused enough that I had to go back up to the top and start over (“Oh, hedgehog!”). Anyway, sorry for over sharing. Hedgehogs sound equally disgusting too.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I love hedgehogs and included one in my Amanda in England book. I also have a hedgehog stuffy. My granddaughter had an albino hedgehog as a pet. His name was Herbert and she didn’t kiss him. They are a very British thing, aren’t they?

    Liked by 2 people

  19. It’s good to see you becoming ever more under the British influence since you’ve been here. The hedgehog would be our national animal, if there was any justice. Mind you, it isn’t advisable to get too close – they are known as carriers of fleas! I think that’s quite an apposite analogy for them: cute, but they make you itch 😉 #SeniorSalon

    Liked by 2 people

  20. I like hedgehogs. Thank you for sharing the thoughts and lore about them. I think where I live the revered animal is the mountain lion, although one does not necessarily want to find a mountain lion in their yard.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. When I was 13 years old I had a cute little hedgehog, he bit everyone’s big toe at home 😂😂😂 except me! One day I was sitting on the bed, with bare feet on the floor, and I couldn’t handle that pain in my toe 😖 I thought he didn’t bit me because he knew I was his “mama” ( the one always taking good care of him)but turned out he had crush for toes lol 😂 it was so much fun having him at home as a pet, one day I came from school and mom told me he is not ok😢 I lost him without knowing the cause of his death 😢 it was the first and the last hedgehog I ever had💫
    Thank you Ellen for sharing this lovely post, you woke up beautiful memories in my heart💕

    Liked by 2 people

  22. I grew up thinking hedgehogs wore long dresses and aprons… Despite a plentiful supply of slugs and piles of twigs, I have never seen a hedgehog in our current garden. Have you written about grey squirrels ( immigrants from USA ) and red squirrels ( persecuted natives ) yet?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Only in passing. If I remember right (and it was a long time ago), it was part of a rant about the whole let’s-rip-out-everything-that-isn’t-native approach to nature–and society. I’m not at all sure it was funny. I do lose my sense of humor over a lot of this stuff.

      Liked by 2 people

  23. I enjoyed reading your account. I liked the bit about a group of hedgehogs, new one on me. (Shh I’m not saying, it’ll make them read it to find out rather than arbitrarily pressing like for self-promotional motives). It saddens me that I rarely spot hedgehogs on my allotment, I attribute it to slug pellets, but honestly don’t know for sure…best wishes from Yorkshire :) Eric Fisher Author of ‘Compost Teas for the Organic Grower’ (Permannet Publications) Eric’s Book Blog – https://ericfisher.blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect the absence of hedgehogs has multiple causes. Changes in farming patterns, slug pellets, cars, more cars, hedges being pulled out surreptitiously. And everything else we can think of. We had one around here for a while, but I haven’t seen it in ages.

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