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.

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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.