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BEHAVIOUR  - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Erinaceus europaeus - West European Hedgehog)

Hedgehogs forage in a variety of natural and man-made habitats. They may forage preferentially in areas likely to have high prey availability. They may show a bimodal feeding pattern, with one peak of activity and feeding early during the night and a second peak in the middle of the night or towards dawn. About 50% or so of the total active time is spent foraging. Hedgehogs locate their prey mainly using scent but also using sound. Hedgehogs show discrimination in prey choice and older hedgehogs may forage more efficiently than juveniles. Observation has shown specific behaviours such as wiping excess slime from large slugs using the forepaws, eating large earthworms from the hind end toward the head and biting a hole in eggs before extracting the contents by licking. They do not store or cache food for winter.

Further information on diet is provided in West European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus - Natural Diet (Literature Reports)

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Feeding Behaviour

Source Information
  • Hedgehogs may have evolved as nocturnal species because their invertebrate prey species are most abundant and easy to locate at night. (B260.4.w4)
  • Hedgehogs do not store or cache food stores within their hibernacula for overwintering. (B142, B261, B262.8.w8)
  • Experimental food preference tests have demonstrated that hedgehogs will select some prey species and reject others. (B228.3.w3)
  • Initial research into the variation of hedgehog prey species and foraging techniques with increase in age has tentatively identified differences between life stages which require further research. A study documented that the diet of young individuals consisted of a greater proportion of prey species with a small body weight in contrast to an increased intake of high body weight and soft bodied prey in the surveyed adults. Hedgehogs were seen to eat more molluscs, carabid beetles and larvae with an increase in age whilst the numbers of arachnids and earwigs reduced in the older hedgehogs surveyed. (J46.215.w2, B228.3.w3)
    • Older hedgehogs may forage more efficiently on larger, particularly soft-bodied prey. (J46.215.w2)
  • A study comparing prey availability with prey taken indicated that hedgehog foraging strategy maximises energy intake while minimizing energy expenditure. Soft bodied prey (earthworms, slugs, caterpillars and tipulid larvae (leatherjackets)) was preferred, if easily available, to carabid beetles (which have an indigestible cuticle, can move fast and may secrete distasteful chemicals). The carabid beetles became important (60% of diet) in a dry month when few earthworms were available. Earthworms were considered to be eaten in direct proportion to their availability. (J82.15.w1)
  • Hedgehogs are seen to forage in a variety of both natural and man-made habitats. (B228.3.w3)
  • Hedgehogs have been shown to favour grassland over arable land as foraging habitat. (B228.3.w3)
  • Detailed study of hedgehogs within a suburban golf-course habitat suggested that individuals prefer to forage in intermediate areas between zones of dense vegetation and open habitat which may contain high diversity of invertebrate prey species. (B228.3.w3)
  • Studies of hedgehogs in the field and in captivity have found evidence for a bimodal feeding pattern; peaks of activity were seen at approximately 2100- 2400 hrs and 0300 hrs. (J208.22.w1, B228.3.w3, B228.7.w7)
    • For hedgehogs in captivity in New Zealand the activity peaks (four individuals) were at 1900-2200 hours and, for two animals, a second smaller peak at 0300 hours. Individual feeding bouts were short in duration and the first feed of the evening tended to last longer than the mean (average) duration. (J208.22.w1)
    • Hedgehogs in the UK were stated to have dusk to "soon after midnight" or 0230 hours as the main feeding time, with a second time of feeding about an hour before dawn. (B255.2.w2)
  • Activity budget data derived from radio-tracking studies has shown that approximately half or more of the active period is spent foraging. (B228.7.w7)
  • Authors have hypothesised that the bimodal feeding activity pattern may relate to gastric capacity which has been estimated to be in the order of 32 g on the basis of post mortem examinations. Since hedgehogs are thought to consume between 57 and 71 g of food per night, it has been suggested that the first feeding activity peak may fill the stomach, a lull in activity then permits digestion and gastric emptying, in readiness for a second feeding peak. (B228.3.w3)
  • Hedgehogs typically move slowly whilst foraging, constantly alert and frequently pausing to sniff and listen for prey. (B228.3.w3, B254.18.w18)
  • Whilst the majority of movements by hedgehogs during foraging are slow, they are capable of rapid and darting action to catch prey and move in between foraging sites at increased speed. (B228.3.w3, B254.18.w18)
  • The speed at which hedgehogs travel whilst foraging in vegetation has been shown to be most rapid in low level grass, becoming slower as ground cover increases in density. (B228.3.w3)
  • Hedgehogs will dig in surface substrate to obtain prey but do not excavate deep holes for feeding. (B228.3.w3)
  • Hedgehogs locate food primarily by scent but also by sound; sight is not important for finding food. (B258.w6)
  • Hedgehogs explore and investigate their habitat when foraging, noisily sniffing ground cover and using their sense of smell to help detect hidden prey. (B228.2.w2)
    • Hedgehogs are able to detect food through their sense of smell, even at a depth of 3 cm below the surface of soil. (B254.10.w10)
    • Observational trials performed on captive hedgehogs investigating their sense of smell revealed that " hedgehogs could detect crushed beetles (cockchafers and carabids) at a range of up to 1 m (41% success), a dog at up to 11 m (42% success) and mice were reliably detected at 5 m." The results suggested that the hedgehogs were able to rapidly find food items with a similar level of proficiency to a dog. (B228.2.w2)
  • Hedgehogs use their acute sense of hearing to pinpoint and locate invertebrate prey hidden within ground substrate. (B228.2.w2, B254.10.w10, B262.9.w9)
  • Hedgehogs use their mouths to catch and take in food. (B142)
  • Hedgehogs are reported to use the tongue to take in small items of prey. (B255.3.w3)
  • Observation of hedgehogs preying upon beetles has shown that the prey is typically grasped by its side or hind quarters, enabling the hedgehog to avoid potential injury from their mouthparts. (J46.141.w2, B228.3.w3)
  • Observation of hedgehogs feeding on earthworms has shown that they are typically seized by their rear end and are eaten progressing towards the head end; they may stop and bite along the worm a few times before continuing. (J46.141.w2, B228.3.w3)
  • Regurgitation and re-ingestion of soft-bodied prey (earthworms and slugs) has been observed. (J46.141.w2)
  • When feeding on large slugs, individual hedgehogs have been observed to wipe away excess slime on their forepaws before eating their prey. (J46.141.w2)
  • Hedgehogs feed on eggs in a characteristic manner which authors suggest may permit identification of the species as the predator, in contrast with carnivora. They bite a large hole in the egg and extract its contents by licking. Egg remains are left "as shallow cups, the remainder of the shells being completely shattered, and the nest itself is splattered with their contents". (B269)
  • Hedgehogs may dig up eggs buried by foxes (Vulpes vulpes - Red fox). (B268)
  • It has been suggested that hedgehogs are unable to bite into relatively thick-shelled eggs such as hens' eggs or large eggs (eggs 39 by 28 mm not being eaten while eggs 36 by 26 mm are eaten. (B258.w6)
  • A description has been given of a hedgehog breaking a hen's egg by hitting the egg sideways using the canines to break a hole, allowing access of the snout and tongue to the contents, although it has been suggested that more usually hens' eggs are tackled only if already cracked. It is possible that some hedgehogs may become particularly partial to hens' eggs. (J46.121.w1, B228.3.w3, B255.3.w3)
  • Eggs found in a nest may be eaten in situ or at a distance of several metres from the nest. (J46.121.w1)
  • In general hedgehogs appear to be responsible for only a small proportion of losses by eating eggs of game birds such as partridges. (B228.3.w3)
    • Losses from hedgehogs on estates were only about 1.3%, compared with 33.8% ascribed to foxes. (J46.1935.w1)
  • Hedgehogs may be important as a predator on ground-nesting birds in some circumstances. (J182.38.w1, B228.3.w3)
    • Fencing to prevent egg predation by hedgehogs resulted in nest success 2.4 times greater than in areas outside the fencing for waders (Charadridae) on South Uist in the Western Isles, Scotland. (J182.38.w1)
  • The dentition of the hedgehog is not adapted to produce a rapid kill as in some species in the order Carnivora (Carnivora - Carnivores (Order)), instead hedgehogs will bite and gnaw at live prey. (B228.3.w3)
  • Anecdotal observations of hedgehogs taking vertebrate prey report that the animal is typically restrained by the hedgehog's body and forequarters and is eaten from its rump towards the head. (B228.3.w3)
  • Whilst anecdotal observation documents that hedgehogs can hunt and chase active small mammal prey, moribund animals and nestlings are likely to be taken more frequently. (B228.3.w3)
  • Cannibalistic behaviour by hedgehogs is discussed within the literature. Adult sows may eat entire litters of hoglets if disturbed. Hedgehog hair found in faeces was considered likely to originate from grooming behaviour. Whilst true cannibalism may occur, consumption of conspecifics as carrion seems more probable. (B228.3.w3)
  • Investigation of the change in dietary intake with age suggests that increasingly large insects are taken in older individuals. (B285.w1)
  • Extensive discussion exists in the literature as to the evidence for and against hedgehogs feeding on cow's milk through suckling on the teat. Whilst anecdotal evidence of injury to a cow's teat caused by a hedgehog exists, and it is possible that hedgehogs would lick milk dripping from the teat or spilt on the floor, it is considered unlikely that hedgehogs can suckle effectively given their relative size or could take significant volumes of milk. (B228.3.w3, B254.33.w33, B258.w6)
    • Teat wounds involving the loss of the teat tip and described as "almost surgically precise" have been attributed to hedgehogs, also a "lengthy incision" in which it was reported that the owner of the cow had seen a hedgehog hanging from the teat and kicked off. Such incidents involved cows in fields in which hedgehogs were "plentiful" and it was suggested that hedgehogs might occasionally mistake the teat of a lying down cow for a slug and try to eat it. (J188.18.w1)
  • Stories of hedgehogs collecting fruit and carrying it by impaling apples, for example, on their spines, stem from ancient folklore and have been illustrated in medieval manuscripts. General consensus suggests that there is scant evidence to support this feeding behaviour. It is just possible that on rare occasions ripe fruit might fall onto the back of a hedgehog and remain there for a time. (B228.3.w3, B254.33.w33, B258.w6)
  • Supplementary feeding of hedgehogs by members of the public within their garden is a common practice. (B254.4.w4, B254.13.w13)
  • Late litter hoglets of low body weight (150-200 g) are often seen foraging during the day in late autumn / early winter since they must gain sufficient weight and develop fat reserves to survive hibernation (minimum 450 g). (B254.16.w16, B261)
  • During dry or cold summers, even early hedgehog litters may find it difficult to find sufficient food to reach adequate body weights for hibernation.(B254.24.w24)
  • Using estimates of percentage total weight loss during hibernation, it has been predicted that first year hedgehog juveniles must reach a body weight of approximately 450-550 g to survive hibernation over winter. (J46.203.w1, B254.16.w16)
  • Radio-tracking studies identified a shift in the areas used for foraging in late July, southern Sweden, related to a peak in Scarabeidae beetle abundance in wide lawns and football plains. (P35.4.w12)
  • Preliminary radio-tracking hedgehog studies in Italy found foraging behaviour in peach orchards to be the most frequent behavior pattern observed. (P35.4.w13)
  • Studies have indicated that the regular, dependable provision of supplementary food does not affect general feeding patterns and that hedgehogs do not become dependent on the food supplied. It appears that, at least in conditions where other food is widely available, such food is treated in a similar manner to other known good food resources and visited repeatedly but not necessarily every night. (J82.15.w1)

(B142, B228.3.w3, B228.6.w6, B228.7.w7, B254.4.w4, B254.13.w13, B254.16.w16, B254.18.w18, B254.24.w24, B254.33.w33, B255.3.w3, B260.4.w4, B261, B262.8.w8, B268, B285.w1, J82.15.w, J188.18.w1, P35.4.w12)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Becki Lawson (V.w26); Debra Bourne (V.w5)
Referee Suzanne I. Boardman (V.w6); Nigel Reeve (V.w57)

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