European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)
The European hedgehog is the UK's only spiny mammal. It's a friend to gardeners because it eats pests such as slugs. But their numbers are in dramatic decline in the UK as their habitat is threatened.
Find out more about this garden favourite.
European hedgehog fast facts
- Alternative common names: West European hedgehog, common hedgehog
- Scientific name: Erinaceus europaeus
- Length: 150-300mm, plus 17-35mm for the tail
- Weight: Up to 2kg
- Average lifespan: 2-3 years in the wild (maximum life expectancy is 10 years)
- UK status: Native
- UK population: under a million (estimate)
- UK conservation status: some protection. Classified as Vulnerable to extinction on Great Britain's Red List for mammals.
- IUCN Red List category: Least concern
What do European hedgehogs look like?
Hedgehogs are the UK's only spiny mammal, with several thousand spines along the back. Their backs are speckled brown and cream, and they have furry brown faces with a black nose and eyes.
What do European hedgehogs eat?
Hedgehogs are omnivores, eating whatever they can get into their mouths, including slugs, millipedes, earthworms, beetles, caterpillars and other insects, as well as supplementary fruits and mushrooms.
Where do European hedgehogs live?
Hedgehogs follow their food and like to live in woodland edges, hedgerows and suburban habitats. This means they are common to gardens, parks and farmland across the UK. Intensely farmed arable land has fewer food sources, however, so they tend to stay away from these areas.
Lifestyle of European hedgehogs
The hedgehog's life cycle revolves around winter hibernation. The animals breed from April to September, but young born later in the year are less likely to achieve the weight they need to survive hibernation. Mothers give birth to litters of four or five young and raise them alone.
Hedgehogs hibernate from around November until Easter, depending on the weather, so you're more likely to see them in the spring or summer.
They are nocturnal, travelling around one to two kilometres per night, often using the same daytime nest for just a few days before moving on. This dispersal rate means that hedgehogs need a large, accessible area of suitable habitat. Habitat fragmentation by roads, walls and close-board fences has been a key reason for the decline of the European hedgehog, particularly in towns and cities.
Video of a hedgehog highway being used. Holes like this combat hedgehog habitat fragmentation. © Gavin Crawleyrd, Hedgehog Champion / Hedgehog Street on YouTube
European hedgehog tracks and other signs
Hedgehogs have distinct five-toed footprints with sharp claw marks, about 2.5 centimetres long and 2.8 centimetres wide.
Their dark droppings are roughly cylindrical, 15-50 millimetres long and often packed with insect exoskeletons.
You can help hedgehogs that visit your garden by building a hedgehog house filled with dried leaves and grass. You could also leave out dog or cat food at dusk, although to prevent the animals from becoming reliant on an unnatural food source, we recommend limiting how often you do this. It will benefit hedgehogs most during cold or dry periods, when the insects and other invertebrates that they eat become scarcer.
Most importantly, ensure that hedgehogs can move freely between gardens by installing hedgehog holes in the base of fences and encourage your neighbours to do the same.
Video of hedgehogs feeding and interacting in a garden © Hannah Lawson / Hedgehog Street on YouTube
Conservation of the European hedgehog
Surveys during the past two decades suggest that populations are in decline and there may now be less than a million hedgehogs in the UK, down from approximately 30 million in the 1950s.
It is estimated that since 2002 the UK has lost around 30-50% of its hedgehog population, and the animal is now listed as a Species of Principal Importance for Biodiversity in the UK.
Much of the decline is thought to be down to habitat loss, as farming practices change, hedgerows are removed and our urban environments become harder to travel across because of roads, steep curbs, close-boarded fences and walls.
Pesticides used in intensive farming and in gardening, particularly slug pellets, kill the bugs that hedgehogs rely on for food, and can also poison them directly.
Predatory pets such as cats and dogs may also disturb hedgehogs. While pets may think twice about attacking a spikey adult, young hedgehogs can be easy prey, and simple disturbance and the 'fear factor' may also dissuade a hog from certain areas.
Well-intentioned but poor-quality food in urban areas, particularly the very inadvisable bread and milk, will also weaken animals.
Gardens can be heaven or hell for hedgehogs. Strimmers, overly tidy gardens and steep-sided ponds are all hazardous to them. But a garden with safe piles of dry wood and leaves and ponds with steps can help them thrive, so long as hedgehogs can access it.
Video of a hedgehog pushing another one into a pond. Hedgehogs can swim, but ponds should have ramps, steps or shallow slopes to ensure they can climb out. © Robert May, Hedgehog Champion / Hedgehog Street on YouTube
According to the 2019 State of Nature report, although hedgehogs have undergone massive long-term declines, they are showing positive signs in low-density urban habitats. They are disappearing less rapidly from sites than 15 years ago and potentially even returning. Where hedgehog populations remain in urban areas, their numbers appear to be growing.
Did you know?
A hedgehog's winter nest is called a hibernaculum, from the Latin for 'tent for winter quarters'. They may wake up several times in the winter to build a new nest.