Review of Hedgehog by Hugh Warwick

(Reaktion Books, 224 pp, pbk, 101 illustrations, 77 in colour; ISBN 978-1-78023-275-1, £9-99)

There can be few animals more recognisable and yet as elusive as the hedgehog. We all know what they look like – the pointed snout and coat of spines (actually modified hairs) – are unmistakable, but how many of us have actually seen one in the flesh? Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals that generally hibernate for several months of the year, so for most people they have never been a familiar sight, but habitat loss caused by changing agricultural practices and the spread of roads, which present a frequently lethal and often impenetrable barrier, have combined to make sightings rarer still. In Britain alone, the hedgehog population is estimated to have plummeted from around 30 million animals in 1950 to less than 1.5 million today, a 95 per cent reduction.

Worldwide, there are 14 species of hedgehog spread across Africa, Europe and Asia. African hedgehogs have also been exported to North America, where they have become popular if surprising pets, featuring in such bizarre events as the International Hedgehog Association’s Conformation Show and the International Hedgehog Olympic Games! If hedgehogs make unlikely athletes, two myths about them can be firmly dismissed. Unlike humans, hedgehogs do not steal milk from a cow’s udder; indeed, milk is an unsuitable food for them. Neither do they collect fallen fruit on their spines: hedgehogs are carnivores whose favourite foods include beetles, earthworms, caterpillars and (to every gardener’s delight) slugs.

Like other books in Reaktion’s Animal series, Hedgehog profiles the cultural significance of the animal as much as its natural history. Thus, the book’s nine chapters include ones covering hedgehogs in art, literature, folklore, commerce, and even in philosophy, where the animal has given its name to Schopenhauer’s “hedgehog’s dilemma”, whereby the closer you become to someone the more likely you are to get hurt. This is all very interesting, but the reviewer would have liked rather more about the lives of real hedgehogs (popular though he may be, Sonic the Hedgehog is a cartoon character, not a hedgehog). For this, readers might be better advised to seek out A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog, the author’s previous book on the subject. Nevertheless, there is much in Hedgehog to fascinate and entertain the reader, and anything that Oxford-based ecologist and author Hugh Warwick doesn’t tell us about hedgehogs probably isn’t worth knowing. The book is liberally and attractively illustrated, and makes satisfying, undemanding reading. Sadly, it might also prove to be the closest that many readers will get to these endearing but increasingly rare mammals.

Paul Appleby

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