It was 3 A.M. and raining heavily. I was wearing a balaclava and gloves and carrying a powerful spotlight. Suddenly five police officers rose to their feet from their hideout in tall, sodden grass under the pines. They had been following my movements around a Lower Hutt golf course for over an hour after receiving a tip-off from a vigilant citizen who suspected that anti-apartheid activists were digging up the greens where a South African team was scheduled to play the next day.
“Excuse me, sir. Would you mind turning out your bag?” asked one of the officers.
Out came a bottle of chloroform and another of alcohol; scalpels, tweezers, pliers, a notebook full of numbers and a motorbike battery.
Eyebrows went up.
A radio call to HQ. Then, in a tone of exasperation: “Oh, no! Not again!”
I was not the saboteur they were expecting. All I was doing was eartagging hedgehogs as I had done on this golf course for two years—and this particular night was just another sweep to recapture and examine some of my 200 marked animals. The police seemed to have no way of letting their night patrol cars know about my nocturnal rambles, so I was often stopped and questioned.
It is not easy studying wild hedgehogs. You learn to pretend nonchalance while salvaging jaw bones from animals squashed on the road, and to ignore the jeers and horn-tooting of passing motorists, and you become quick with an explanation for the ute-full of shotgun-wielding farmers on the Hauraki Plains in the middle of the night.
Ah, but the rewards!
The story of hedgehogs in this country goes back to 1869, when a pair of English hedgehogs was landed at Lyttelton. One or two more were released near Dunedin about the same time. The animals may have been of the same sex, or wandered off in opposite directions, never to meet another of their kind, for nothing came of these earliest arrivals, although one or two were sighted subsequently.
In 1894, a Mr Cunningham of Merivale, Christchurch, imported 12 British hedgehogs in exchange for 12 weka. During their first night ashore, the animals escaped from the pigeon house where they were being held, and, to judge by the pattern of their spread away from Christchurch, became the progenitors of all the hedgehogs in New Zealand.
Europeans were pleased to see the newcomers, and hoped they might control the slugs and snails and other garden pests unwittingly introduced by earlier settlers. Railway guards helped their spread by dropping them off at stations along the South Island railway system.
For a while, only the South Island had hedgehogs, but between 1906 and 1908 small numbers were released in the North Island. Subsequently, hedgehogs spread mainly under their own steam, appearing first at Lower Hutt in 1915, Auckland in 1927, Queenstown in 1946, and Takaka in 1961. They were also released on Chatham and Stewart Islands. There were no hedgehogs on the Volcanic Plateau until pet animals were released at Waiouru military camp in the 1940s.
Today, hedgehogs are most numerous in the lowlands and near the coast, their numbers falling off in the mountains, where it is too cold for them. (There are always exceptions: one animal was seen walking across the face of the Tasman Glacier.)
Evolutionary theory predicts that the New Zealand hedgehog, isolated from its European ancestors for about 50 generations, will be in the process of becoming genetically distinct. Sure enough, we find that the skulls of our hedgehogs are 2-3 per cent shorter, and their bodies considerably lighter, than British hedgehogs, and are about half the weight of the same species in Switzerland and Sweden. These changes are probably related to our milder climate. In Europe, larger hedgehogs are at an advantage in surviving long, hard winters, but local animals need not put on so much weight to survive our shorter, milder winters.
Our hedgehogs have undergone another change. In continental Europe, hedgehogs have perfect teeth. In Britain, a few have faulty teeth, but nearly half of New Zealand’s hedgehogs have misshapen or missing teeth—usually their premolars.
Why should this be so? The best explanation is that among Cunning-ham’s pioneer hedgehogs were a few animals, or perhaps only one animal, with faulty teeth, and the genes responsible for this defective dentistry have been passed down to become common among their many descendants. Geneticists call this process the “founder effect.”
In towns and on pasture, hedgehogs eat mainly slugs, snails, millipedes, moth caterpillars, beetles, grubs and spiders. In the bush they feed on weta, millipedes, beetles and other insects, native snails (although not the large paryphantid snails, which seem to be too large for their jaws) and slugs. Even the remains of giant centipedes have been found in their stomachs.
Kirsten Moss, a University of Canterbury student researching hedgehog habits around Twizel, has examined the stomach contents of 320 hedgehogs, and found that 9 per cent contained lizard remains, 15 per cent bird material, and the rest insects such as small weta, grasshoppers, earwigs, grass grubs and beetles. (In her study area slugs and snails are rare.)
Hedgehogs seem to have definite dietary preferences, selecting some invertebrates and rejecting others. Around Wellington, for example, slaters, litterhoppers and earthworms are very abundant, but these creatures are seldom eaten by hedgehogs.
Older animals eat increasingly larger items of prey. Given the chance, they will eat frogs, lizards and the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds and domestic fowls, to say nothing of cannibalising their unfortunate mates squashed on roads. Stressed females may even eat their own young.
Hedgehogs scavenge, too—a habit which gets some of them into trouble. They can die through eating rabbits poisoned with broudifacoum or slugs and snails killed with metaldehyde. One hedgehog was allegedly seen drinking battery acid in a rubbish tip.
Curiously, an urban myth has sprung up to the effect that it is bad to put bread and milk out for wild hedgehogs. While it is true that excessive consumption of cows’ milk can give hedgehogs diarrhoea, field work in Europe shows that many wild hedgehogs would not survive the winter without the bread and milk which kind-hearted householders put out for them. However, New Zealand veterinarians recommend providing hungry hedgehogs with tinned cat or dog food.
Leanne George, a nurse at Auckland’s Lynfield Veterinary Clinic, which has several dozen hedgehogs on its books, says that cows’ milk is not good for orphaned baby hedgehogs. Goats’ or sheep’s milk is a much better substitute for hedgehog milk. The clinic mixes its own special formula, which includes vegetable oil, mashed banana and a chocolate-flavoured vitamin supplement.
Adult hedgehogs are almost exclusively insect- and meat-eaters (they are classified as insectivores, in the same zoological group as shrews and moles), although they may occasionally eat fruit, such as apples and pears.
At the more bizarre end of the gastronomic spectrum, I was once told that “a hundred hedgehogs” had been observed feeding on shrimps washed up on the beach near Otaki. Other people have told me they have seen hedgehogs digging up and eating pipi on Ninety Mile Beach and wading out into the Bay of Plenty to catch and eat small fish. (These unlikely accounts gain some plausibility when you see hedgehog footprints disappearing into, or emerging from, the surf on sandy beaches, but I have not observed these seafood-loving animals in action.)
Hedgehogs themselves are preyed on by harriers, ferrets, stoats and pigs. Weka also take baby hedgehogs.
Although hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, they are not usually active all night long. Two to three hours after sunset is when they are most active in their search for food, and again six hours later. Something is usually wrong with a hedgehog to force it out in daylight. For example, some young hedgehogs lose control over their body temperature, especially in the autumn and winter. As they cool they become semi-torpid, and wander about slowly and blindly.
To help a hedgehog in this state, put it in a carton full of shredded paper and place a hot-water bottle underneath the carton. There is every chance the animal will regain its normal temperature and appetite.
Some hedgehogs wander about by day as a result of being heavily afflicted with mange. Without veterinary treatment, these will likely die. During droughts, thirsty hedgehogs may abandon their nocturnal habit to search for water by day, with the consequence that many drown in fish ponds and swimming pools—not because they cannot swim, but because they cannot climb out.
Wandering around by day is dangerous for hedgehogs because, out in the open, magpies, seagulls, mynas, dogs and pigs may attack them. Apart from curling up to present an impenetrable thicket of spines, there is little a hedgehog can do to defend itself.
In certain circumstances, however, a hedgehog may froth at the mouth, twist its head backwards over its shoulder and throw a vile-smelling foamy saliva onto its back. This behaviour is known as self-anointing. Adult animals sometimes self-anoint in response to other hedgehogs, or when confronted by a snake. Nestling hedgehogs do it when separated from their mother.
Hedgehogs do not maintain exclusive territories, and many may forage over common ground. Several naturalists who have marked the hedgehogs that visit their properties (by dabbing them with paint or nail polish) have discovered that there are not one or two animals but well over a dozen regulars. I know of one Wellington property which was regularly visited by 25 hedgehogs.
Males can cover up to a kilometre or two in a night, and are especially active during the mating season. One French male hedgehog travelled 3.2 km in a night to meet a female. Females don’t travel as far, no more than a kilometre in a night. One of Kirsten Moss’s animals travelled 10.5 km between an autumn sighting and the following spring.
Some hedgehogs seem to be able to make do with home ranges of one or two hectares, while others require a vastly greater area. Moss has radiotracked hedgehogs fitted with transmitters as part of her study in the Ohau River basin. In autumn, male ranges there averaged 38 ha, but this rose to 100 ha during the spring and summer breeding season. Female ranges rose from an autumnal low of 11 ha to 43 ha during the breeding season. Although these ranges are large, the core areas—in which the animals spend most of their time—are much smaller. For males, this area is 8 ha in summer and 5 ha in autumn, for females 5 ha in summer and only 1.4 ha in autumn. The range of most hedgehogs is too big for them to cover in a night, so they “quarter” different parts of the range on successive nights.
Many people have told me they can set their clocks by the hedgehog that calls at their door each night. I have never had such luck. I could never predict where any of my 200 tagged hedgehogs on the Hutt golf course would turn up, as they appeared to wander at random. This was also the experience of a British researcher who found that even though he put food out in the same spot night after night, the hedgehogs never learned to go straight to it, but appeared to stumble across it during directionless rambles.
Because they have a large territory to cover, hedgehogs use several nests, and often move from one to the other nightly. Nests are often occupied by a different hedgehog on successive nights.
In warm weather, hedgehogs may pitch down under tangles of toetoe, tussock, blackberry, bracken, flax bushes, bamboo and fallen branches, or under sheds, among piled timber, in compost heaps or in abandoned rabbit burrows.
If the site is to become a semipermanent or breeding nest, the owner insulates it with piles of straw and dry leaves. They do not burrow, but often use natural holes and crevices, especially under the roots of trees. In Twizel’s hot summers, many hedgehogs have been found to forsake their normal homes—rabbit burrows—for the airier shade of a low-growing shrub.
Hedgehogs are very secretive about their winter nests, and take great care in building them, for their survival may depend on the siting and structure of the nest. They look for dry, well-drained spaces, out of the wind, and carry piles of dry grass or straw into the chosen spot. The animal hollows out a cavity by squirming around inside the nesting material, then carries in dried leaves to line and waterproof the nest ready for hibernation.
Hibernation is not, as is often supposed, just a long sleep. Profound changes occur within the hedgehog’s hibernating body. The heart slows from 190 to about 20 beats a minute. Breathing becomes intermittent: an animal may take 40-50 rapid breaths, then not breathe at all for an hour.
The reproductive organs shrink and the body temperature falls to within a degree or two of the ground temperature.
In central New Zealand, most hedgehogs hibernate for about three months, usually from June to early September. In colder parts of the South Island they may hibernate for even longer. Even in frost-free Northland, hedgehogs are not often seen over the winter months.
It takes several hours for hedgehogs to wake from hibernation. They kick-start their metabolism by burning some high-energy brown fat, and their limbs shiver and shake before becoming active again. Males emerge from hibernation about a month before females.
The biological rationale behind hibernation is that a comatose mammal needs only a fraction (in hedgehogs, two per cent) of the energy it normally requires to keep itself alive. But it is a risky strategy, and exposure, starvation, drowning and disease kill a large proportion of hibernating hedgehogs during their first winter. Rats have been known to eat hibernating hedgehogs alive.
Hibernation leaves its mark on hedgehogs in the form of growth lines on the lower jaw—rather like the annual growth rings on a tree. Researchers can tell the age of dead hedgehogs by counting these lines on jaws. The life expectancy of New Zealand hedgehogs has been found to be about two years in the wild, although I have found one sevenyear-old, and a European zoo once kept a hedgehog for 12 years.
Young hedgehogs must reach a weight of 350 g before they can properly hibernate, and some are overtaken by winter before they reach this weight. While they are hibernating, their immature bones “set,” and they become dwarfs for life.
During summer nights people sometimes come across hedgehogs “cartwheeling”—one animal circling another for hours on end and trying to nip the other’s feet or tip it over. This is what passes for courtship behaviour, the male attempting to win or wear down a female.
After mating, the male takes no further interest in either his mate or their offspring. The gestation period is 31 to 35 days, and the first litters in the southern North Island are born late in November. Two more litters may be produced before winter.
Newborn hedgehogs weigh 15 to 20 grams and are blind and devoid of spines. Yet within 24 hours they grow a set of soft white spines, and darker spines start to appear in a further 48 hours. The eyes do not open until the young hoglets are 14 days old.
Juvenile mortality must be high, for, although hedgehogs give birth to 4 to 7 young, the number of nestlings averages fewer than three. The young remain with their mother for 6 to 7 weeks, sometimes following her around in a line, like ducklings.
Overseas visitors to this country are often amazed to see how many hedgehogs are squashed on our roads. This reaction is partly because there are no wild hedgehogs in North America or Australia, and relatively few become road casualties in Europe. Indeed, in Europe you might see only two hedgehog corpses for every 100 km driven. Far more are killed on New Zealand roads—an average of about 11 hedgehogs per 100 km in the North Island, although far fewer in the South Island.
I must admit to having a fascination with roadkill statistics. I figure that cars must crush a representative sample of the hedgehogs that traverse a highway, and so their flattened remains give a crude indication of the population size in a given area.
In February 1984, a companion and I drove from Wellington to Kaitaia via Rotorua, counting dead hedgehogs on the road. We found 104 in a distance of close to 900 km. If that sounds like a high toll, in the 1950s hedgehog road fatalities were even higher. During one assessment in the 1950s, February counts between Taihape and Bulls (a distance of 86 km) revealed 21-28 hedgehog corpses. In the 1980s and ’90s the numbers have fallen to between 5 and 15 corpses along this stretch of highway. The numbers have also fallen away on Manawatu and Hawkes Bay roads, and point to a substantial drop in hedgehog numbers throughout the North Island.
Despite so many mishaps, death on the road is not thought to be affecting hedgehog numbers as a whole, and the overall hedgehog population seems to be high.
Department of Conservation officers recently removed 400 hedgehogs from within a 1.5 km radius of a colony of beach-nesting dotterels north of Auckland, and while protecting kiwi in the 368 ha Trounson Kauri Park in Northland over the past three years, DoC workers have trapped 760 hedgehogs from around the periphery of the forest. Next to rats, they are the commonest mammals found there.
The large numbers of hedgehogs removed from Trounson came as something of a shock to ecologists, for so many animals must take a significant proportion of the forest-floor insects, which might otherwise go to feed native birds.
It is a time-consuming business getting accurate estimates of hedgehog population density, as it involves a prolonged mark-and-recapture study. My work at Lower Hutt revealed about two hedgehogs per hectare. In inland Hawkes Bay, Chris Berry, a zoology student, has found a similar density in a bush reserve.
It is much easier to make estimates of relative abundance in different hedgehog habitats. University of Waikato zoologist Carolyn King and her co-workers counted the number of hedgehogs caught over five years in traps spaced at 300 m intervals in different sorts of forest at Pureora, west of Taupo. To their surprise, unlogged native forest far from roads and pasture contained almost as many hedgehogs as mature pine forest, and more than either logged native forest or young pine forest.
Unlike Trounson Kauri Park, which is a relatively small island of forest surrounded by farmland, Pureora covers hundreds of square kilometres. Previously, it had been supposed that hedgehogs were common in pasture and perhaps on bush margins, but did not frequent heavy bush. Near Wellington and on the West Coast, for instance, very few hedgehogs have been found in bush. Perhaps they can only flourish in warmer, drier forests.
Should hedgehogs be regarded as pests? Earlier this century, they were certainly considered to be—but not because they were affecting native ecosystems. In the 1920s, game-bird shooters noticed that their bags of quail and pheasants were shrinking, and supposed that hedgehogs were to blame, since the rising numbers of hedgehogs coincided with a fall in the number of birds shot.
In 1939, hedgehogs were gazetted as vermin, and a bounty of sixpence a snout was imposed. It became common to see a length of fence wire in the corner of a farmer’s shed threaded with salted hedgehog snouts awaiting a trip to town to cash them in. Between 1939 and 1948, acclimatisation societies across the country paid out on 53,600 snouts.
(The slaughter was actually more apparent than real, for schoolboys soon discovered that the flesh of a single paua, cut into 30 pieces and dried, could pass muster as 30 hedgehog snouts. Roadkill also boosted the count.)
However, the bounty did nothing to stop the rapid spread of hedgehogs. And later studies showed that the decline in game birds was unrelated to the increase in hedgehog numbers.
More incriminating has been the recent evidence of hedgehog depredations in the Twizel area, where Mark Sanders of Project River Recovery and Richard Maloney and Dave Murray of the Black Stilt Project have studied predation at the nests of banded dotterels, black-fronted terns and stilts for five years, using video surveillance. They recorded 70 “lethal events”—where either eggs, chicks or adult birds were destroyed—from 137 nests watched. Cats were responsible for 40 per cent of this predation, ferrets for 22 per cent and hedgehogs for 19 per cent. Then came stoats (5 per cent), sheep (3 per cent, by trampling), and magpies and harriers (2 per cent each).
Most predation, including all that by hedgehogs, was on eggs. However, since chicks leave the nest after only a few days, much chick predation would not have been recorded.
In a 40 ha area of wetland cleared of predators and then fenced with chicken wire—which excluded hedgehogs but only slowed the return of cats and mustelids—breeding success in the birds being studied rose to 90 per cent from an average of less than 50 per cent. This work suggests that hedgehogs are a much more significant hazard to at least some ground-nesting birds than has been hitherto supposed.
Over the years, hedgehogs have been accused of other nuisance activities. In medieval Britain, hedgehogs were believed to suckle milk from cow’s udders by night, and some confidence was put in Old Nancy, a fairy, who “for a piece of cake and a bottle of home-brewed ale” would prevent this theft. However, the fairy must have had her failings, for in 1566 the Elizabethan parliament put a reward of threepence a head on hedgehogs, dead or alive, and the bounty stayed in place for 300 years.
Shakespeare penned a few references to hedgehogs, none of them casting the animal in a light other than verminous, and it was in his era that the name hedgehog came to replace the earlier English name of urchin. (Of course, sea urchins are still with us.) Other names in common use were hedgepig and furzepig.
Curious myths had surrounded the hedgehog much earlier than the 1500s. Pliny the Elder claimed that the hedgehog climbed fruit trees to knock off apples and pears, then threw itself down to impale the fruit on its spines before trotting off home with its booty. In some of his fables, Aesop placed the hedgehog in a more favourable light, with one apparently out-racing a stag. In truth, it was the hedgehog’s indistinguishable wife that crossed the finish line, and not her husband who started the race.
In Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts and Alice used curled-up hedgehogs as croquet balls—until the creatures tired of the sport and escaped. The more recent notion that flattened hedgehog corpses puncture bicycle and even truck tyres is probably just as fanciful. Hedgehogs do have a predilection for crawling into tight spaces, and often block drains, giving rise to an awkward and unpleasant cleaning job. In the 1950s, some New Zealand hedgehogs learned to knock over milk bottles and pierce the foil tops to reach the cream (animals sometimes being caught “in flagrant delactation”).
Hedgehogs also have a habit of short-circuiting electric fences on farms. When a hedgehog encounters something unpleasant—such as a shock from a sagging electric fence wire—it typically curls up into a stationary ball, rather than trying to escape. After enough repeated jolts, the hedgehog can die, shorting out the fence line.
If some people regard hedgehogs as pests, many more take them as pets—and not just in this country. In Germany they are sold in pet shops, while Igelnfutter—hedgehog food—is available from supermarkets.
Hedgehogophilia reaches its peak in Britain, where the British Hedgehog Preservation Society has its headquarters in Shropshire. At Saint Tiggy‑winkles, a hospital exclusively for hedgehogs, a £10 donation will pay for medical treatment for a sick hedgehog for six weeks. British Rail has a special rate for shipping injured hedgehogs to the hospital.
The United States is waking up to the pet potential of hedgehogs, too, although the Americans favour the smaller African pygmy hedgehog over the European species. The animals have been marketed as “yuppie puppies, the hot new designer pet of the ’90s.”
Edie Bakker, a Texan who breeds hedgehogs for resale at up to $250 a pair, claims they make excellent companions. Hers ride around on her shoulder, and she even takes them to bed. “They’re like toy Transformers. They can fold up and look like something completely different,” she says.
New Zealand has tried to get into the export act with the European species, but with mixed results. In 1992, US customs officials refused entry to 120 New Zealand hedgehogs destined for American zoos and parks, for fear of tuberculosis. A Rotorua company paid $5 for each of these hedgehogs, which, after their trip to Miami and back, were released in and around their hometown, apparently none the worse for their travels.
Albino hedgehogs occasionally turn up in New Zealand, especially in north Taranaki, where in 1991 an entrepreneur announced that he planned to export them to the US. A patriot from Helensville bought the albinos from him to prevent their leaving the country. But this setback hasn’t stopped US hedgehog fanciers from busily breeding up a range of coloured varieties, such as cinnamon and apricot, for competition in hedgehog shows.
Hedgehogabilia has become a growth industry in the UK and US, with all manner of cuddly hedgehog figures, cards and personal accessories finding a ready market. Fascination with all things hedgehog took a bizarre twist in 1981 when a Welsh pub owner by the name of Philip Lewis started producing hedgehog flavoured potato chips. Lewis, who described himself as a connoisseur of hedgehog jokes (“How are hedgehogs similar to humans? Both are susceptible to flattery!”) started the venture as a lark, but went on to form Hedgehog Foods, one of the largest producers of organic potato chips in Europe. He claimed to have ascertained from gypsies—renowned for eating hedgehogs baked in clay—what the animals tasted like, and commissioned a flavourings firm to duplicate the taste. In New Zealand, we seem to have our feet planted more firmly on the ground: the commonest hedgehog lookalike available here is a bristly boot scraper.
In some quarters—certainly not among fanciers—hedgehogs have a reputation as carriers of diseases. In Europe, they are renowned as fleabags, most carrying hundreds of a distinctive hedgehog flea. This flea has never been seen in New Zealand, and although cat, rat and mouse fleas occasionally hitch a ride on local hedgehogs, most are flea-free.
Mange can be a problem. It is caused by tiny mites which grow only on hedgehogs, burrowing into the skin to lay their eggs, and sometimes causing all the prickles to fall out. Hedgehogs can carry a strain of ringworm—a threadlike fungus which grows on their skin. The mange mite spreads ringworm spores under the skin, causing severe irritation, eczema, scaliness and scabs. These infections kill many hedgehogs, and may account for the decline in hedgehog numbers since the 1950s, but it is rare for this type of ringworm to spread to humans.
Hedgehogs can also carry Candida, Leptospira, tuberculosis, Staphylococcus, Salmonella, and Giardia, but there are few, if any, records of these disease-causing organisms spreading to humans from hedgehogs.
While we don’t have hedgehog hospitals like St Tiggywinkles, a smattering of compassionate animal enthusiasts around the country take in and care for injured and sick hedgehogs. Patricia McKibben of Dunedin has been looking after hedgehogs at her home for close to two decades. In a year, 60 or more might pass through her hands, most partaking of her hospitality for a couple of months.
“I’ve loved animals ever since I was a child.” she says. “Shortly after we moved in here 20 years ago, I found a baby hedgehog that was badly affected by mange. I didn’t know anything then and took it to a vet, who persuaded me that it should be put down. I let him, but it niggled at me and now I know that it could almost certainly have been treated.”
Many of the animals that come McKibben’s way are afflicted with mange. Some have got offside with a weedeater or lawnmower. Those which have ingested garden poisons cannot usually be helped. Young orphans are common.
“Mange can be terrible,” she says. “In bad cases, a centimetre-thick crust forms over much of the animal, blocking eyes and ears, and many of the spines fall out. The crust can crack and then flies lay eggs in it, and maggots attack the hedgehog. One poor little guy recently had only a couple of dozen prickles remaining.”
Treating mange involves rehydrating the afflicted animal with electrolytes and glucose, giving antibiotics for pneumonia and two or three Ivomec injections for the mites and maggots. Ivomec was developed for killing nematode worms in sheep and cattle, but it is effective against many arthropods.
Each of McKibben’s patients is housed in its own large carton—”I’ve developed a great eye for a box,” she confides—but although her house is large, she is running out of room. Needy hedgehogs always start their sojourn inside the house, where it is warm, then move to the basement, the porch, and finally to a glasshouse. Full recovery from mange takes six to ten weeks, but even healthy animals cannot be released during winter, so some stay longer until spring. Each new arrival has a medical chart taped to its box recording its progress. Once they are on the road to recovery, a few hedgehogs manage to get out of their boxes, and then the whole house has to be turned upside down to find them.
“Our daughter is a dancer, and we eventually found one escapee under her tutu,” McKibben recalls.
Caring for hedgehogs curtails quite a few of the family’s activities. “It’s hard to go on holiday, and even when we do manage to get a few days at the crib, we usually have to take two cars to hold the hedgehogs and all their supplies. Friends have suggested a horse float.”
McKibben does not regard any of her charges as pets, and discourages people from seeing hedgehogs in that light. “They are wild animals, and we handle them as little as possible so that they do not become tame. Having said that, the babies have to be fed every hour or two, and some of them become quite vocal if you are a bit tardy. But we let them all go eventually. When you put them outside and watch them reach up and sniff the air, you realise they belong in the wild. We have cats and dogs as pets.”
There is no doubt that climate, bush cover and an abundance of food make New Zealand a better home for hedgehogs than Europe. They are more numerous here, and exploit a wider range of habitats. But are we ultimately to think of them as assets or liabilities to the country’s fauna?
They certainly help to hold snails and slugs in check in well-tended suburban gardens, but probably make no difference on neglected properties. They eat large quantities of grass grubs on pastureland, but probably not enough to help the farmer. They have a reputation as disease-carriers, but, in fact, most of their diseases and parasites are unique to themselves, and rarely afflict other species.
Yet they are guilty of eating the eggs of some ground-nesting birds on coasts or on wide riverbeds, predating native snails and insects, and competing with native animals for food. How great a threat they represent is still unclear.
Despite their transgressions, however, hedgehogs enjoy a special place in most people’s affections. Small, bumbling, vulnerable creatures, they are, above all, a visceral reminder to be careful while crossing the road.