THERE had been a shower earlier in the evening but the sky cleared before sunset and I decided to take the dog for a walk along the lane. The trees were still dripping so I put on a hat and we set off.
It was a still evening and every 100 metres or so we walked through a thick cloud of heavy, sweet perfume. The wild honeysuckle was in full bloom. Birds that had gone to roost early clattered out of the hedges — blackbirds and, noisiest of all, wood pigeons. Sheep and lambs were also being quite vocal but, apart from that, it was very peaceful.
The dog walks faster than I do and he was some way ahead when he suddenly went into a full alert stance and started barking excitedly. He looked back at me every few seconds, obviously anxious I would get a move on because he had something to show me.
When I caught up, he pointed urgently with his nose at a round object on the lane — a hedgehog curled up into a ball. He was a little nervous of it, not allowing himself to get too close. I had a previous dog, a large and gentle retriever, who would gingerly pick up hedgehogs in his mouth and deposit them at my feet. But the present incumbent was too nervous and his mouth too small. I looked at the little animal and marvelled at his extraordinary defensive system.
A large hedgehog has between six and seven thousand spines. These spines are gradually and continuously replaced, each one lasting between 12 and 18 months.
Each of these spines has a muscle at its base so it can raise and lower them at will. If a hedgehog senses danger, it lifts the spines, crouches close to the ground and hisses like a cat.
If that doesn’t do the trick, it will employ two more specialised muscles to roll into a ball. One muscle pulls the spiny skin over its head and the other over its bum. Then a ring of muscle round the edge of the skin pulls like a drawstring to totally enclose the animal.
Baby hedgehogs are born without spines in order to make delivery a more comfortable experience for the mother but the spines appear soon after birth and are white at first. The babies learn to roll themselves into a prickly ball at the age of two weeks.
Putting on my glasses and closely inspecting the hedgehog, I noticed an extraordinary number of fleas moving between the spines. This is, of course, normal and the fleas are host-specific — which means they weren’t able to transfer their attentions to me or the dog. If, however, you find yourself in close quarters with a hedgehog and you find the fleas disturbing they can be exterminated using flea powder designed for cats.
This could happen if you found yourself caring for a sick, injured or malnourished animal. Keeping hedgehogs as pets is illegal in Ireland, although they don’t appear to have the same protection in the North, and in Britain a fad has developed for keeping African pygmy hedgehogs in cages. These are a hybrid between two African species and, as you’d expect from the name, are only a fraction of the size of our hedgehogs.
I had to put the dog on the lead and drag him away from his find, which he seemed to find as fascinating as I did.
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