Adorable face, pointy snout, cute short spikes, dashing beige palette, funny habit of rolling into a ball… what’s not to like about our native hedgehog?
Most of us fell in love with hedghogs well before seeing one in real life (if at all), not least through that mainstay of primary schools: the playdough-and-toothpicks hedgehog. Together with ladybirds, hedgehogs are undeniably easy animals to draw thanks to their perfectly hemispherical shape, a fact that cements our bond with them from our earliest memories.
Think about it: how do we get to care for an animal that many of us have never seen? Enter the power of myth, the call of the mascot Xummiemu that anyone aged 20+ recalls with nostalgia for the little cartoon that became a mantra for keeping the countryside clean. But how much do its nocturnal habits allow us to really live peacefully alongside our spiky friend?
Hedgehogs emerge from their daytime hiding spots deep under shrubs or in the recesses of rubble walls, at dusk. Their sensitive hearing picks us out well before we get a chance to see them. A hedgehog will scuttle away from our noisy approach leaving us in the dark about where they go and what they do at night. But we do know that hedgehogs feed on snails, slugs, the occasional small mammal or reptile, beetles and other insects they find in open, grassy spaces and fields.
But far from the pages of our children’s drawing books, our hedgehogs are in trouble.
Their diet of minibeasts puts hedgehogs on a direct collision path with our farming practices. Being at the top of the food chain, a hedgehog accumulates all the pesticide and herbicide each crunchy creepy crawly has ingested.
If you happen to see a slow-moving hedgehog during the day, it is likely to be a sick individual suffering from pesticide poisoning.
To turn that feeling of helplessness into action, start buying organic vegetables and push for change. With less than 20 registered organic famers in Malta, we are a long way off from rendering our fields safe for our wildlife. And of course, call the Wildlife Rescue Team if you do find an injured hedgehog.
Our mild winters ensure that these prickly mammals are out and about on most nights except when the temperature drops below 20⁰C. Each hedgehog will have its preferred stomping ground and being a creature of habit, it will forage for food in the same area it knows it will find rich pickings.
When the hoglets are born, it is only three weeks or so before they are weaned off their mother’s milk and start grubbing around for food. This is when we see most roadkills, as the young explore the area for a suitable feeding range of their own. This can happen anywhere between spring and autumn, so keep your children quiet in the car back seat by getting them to scour the road ahead for hedgehogs while you drive slowly through country lanes in the evening, night or early morning.
As the picnic season rolls in, weekenders spill into the countryside for a dose of nature-while-you-eat. Malta’s burgeoning population is turning the screw on our natural spaces. But hedgehogs are nocturnal, so no stress, right? Wrong.
Just as you and I need our beauty sleep, so do hedgehogs (and wild rabbits), so respect those hidey holes in rubble walls, under rocks, down those holes… It’s actually amazing that our small mammals can still find refuge in our natural places, so do explain to your children that we need to keep our mitts off animals in their nests and not poke sticks down every inviting hole.
“Explain to your children that we need to keep our mitts off animals in their nests and not poke sticks down every inviting hole”
Hedgehogs’ keen sense of smell is what leads them to their food as they scour their territory for tasty snacks. Unlike the fairytale wanderings of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, real-life hedgehogs pick up the scent of garbage bags that picnickers leave behind. These little mammals have very sharp teeth and will rip through any bag or box we discard if there’s food inside.
A half-empty tin of baked beans becomes a death trap for a scavenging hedgehog that tries to retreat after eating the scraps, only to have its spines stuck in the ribbing.
Make clearing up fun when you’re with the kids and make up a chant to the hedgehogs as you pop your litter into the bag.
Return home happy in the knowledge that you and your children have done your bit to keep our hedgehogs safe and left behind only memories of time well spent.
Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with DLAP and BirdLife Malta.
Join BirdLife Malta
For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/