The European hedgehog is an unmistakable almost mythical resident of gardens, parks, and woodlands. The top half of their bodies are covered in up to 7,000 spines which they use as a defence against predators. Their legs, stomach and face are spineless and instead have a covering of soft brown fur. These are a hedgehogs weak points, but if they feel threatened they can roll themselves up into a tight, almost impenetrable ball of spikes.
Adult hedgehogs range in size and weight but can grow to be as large as a football and can weigh more than one and a half kilos. During the daytime Hedgehogs usually sleep in a nest made of leaves, grass and over vegetation, emerging at dusk in search of food. Their diet mainly consists of invertebrates such as worms and beetles but when available they will also eat amphibians, birds eggs and carrion. Although they have bad eyesight, they have an excellent sense of smell and can sniff out insects beneath the soil.
As there is less food in the winter and staying active requires a lot of energy, hedgehogs hibernate throughout the colder months. This is usually alone in a large, well hidden nest but unlike many other animals that hibernate, if there is a warm spell, hedgehogs can wake up temporarily and go off in search of food or water. Returning to the nest when temperatures drop again. As it begins to get warmer in the spring, usually around march time, hedgehogs will fully emerge from their hibernation, sometimes having lost as much as half of their body weight. Despite this weight loss, eating is not always the first thing on their mind, as when they emerge, it is their time to mate. During this time the males, which are known as boars will become aggressive towards one another, competing for the attention of the females. Once the prickly process of mating has occurred, female hedgehogs, which are known as sows, are pregnant for around 37 days. When they give birth, they have as many as eight young at a time. These are known as hoglets and at first these are completely spineless, their eyes and ears are yet to develop and they are totally reliant on their mother for warmth and food. Over the next 3-4 days the sow will stay with her young, as they grow their first spines and become big enough to stay warm without her. After this she will venture off each night and return during the daytime to feed her young. After 3 to 4 weeks the hoglets, which by this point look like miniature versions of their parents begin to leave the nest and follow their mothers around. After a further month the hoglets will be fully independent and will move off to find territories of their own, sometimes they do this alone but it is not unusual for siblings to stay together for a few months after this point. Once her young have left, the sow can then go on to get pregnant a second time, and in good years she may even manage to have 3 litters before the time comes to hibernate.
The average lifespan for a hedgehog is around 3 to four years but they have been known to make it to 8 years in the wild and to more than 10 years in captivity. There are currently an estimated 1 and a half million hedgehogs in the country and without help, there is the real risk that they will go extinct here in the next 20 years.
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