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Fuzzy Pigs of Dartmoor

Fuzzy

 

Erinaceus europaeus – more commonly known as the European Hedgehog. In Devon the hedgehog is often referred top a the ‘Hedgy Boar‘ and on Dartmoor as the ‘Fuzzy Pig‘. In both cases the porcine name refers to the way it feeds by using its snout to root around pig-like in the undergrowth of hedges etc. The ‘Fuzzy’ reference comes from the fact that its spines are arranged very much like a ‘furze’ or gorse bush insomuch as they interlace and point in all directions just like the prickles on a furze bush. There are estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000 of these spines on an adult hedgehog. They can be found on the lower lands around Dartmoor and tend to be scarce on the uplands and heathlands as there is a lack of suitable food and nesting sites. Hedgehogs have adapted well to living in and around gardens, wasteland, cemeteries as well as their traditional countryside haunts; deciduous woodlands, woodland edges, hedges and grasslands.

The diet of the hedgehog is quite varied and they are known to eat; beetles, caterpillars, earthworms, millipedes, earwigs and bees. You can also add to their diet the morsels of food that people leave out in their gardens, usually meat based pet food. Given the opportunity they will also devour slugs, snails, small mammals and eggs. At one time it was not unheard of for a ‘bounty to be paid out of the local coffers for dead hedgehogs. This could well be due to some beliefs that the ‘fuzzy pig’ would on occasions kill larger animals such as chickens, game birds etc.. There are reports that they have been seen attacking chickens, this may well have been because they were sitting on a nest and the creature was actually after the eggs. When it comes to slugs hedgehogs have learnt to take the slime of the slugs with their front paws. There have been reports of hedgehogs catching and eating mice, their method is to wait by the mouse’s hole and catch it when it comes out. Back in 1879 there was a report of an Okehampton farmer who was checking his flock when he found a ewe who had caught its head in some brambles. On releasing the sheep he found that its udder had been gnawed off. Some traps were set around the spot and baited with rotting liver, a few days late a large 2 pound hedgehog was found caught in one. On opening up its stomach it was found to contain some brown, pulpy udder like substance along with some sheep’s wool? Back in 1865 there was one instance of a farmer having his mangol wurzel crop devastated by what he supposed to be rabbits. Accordingly he set some gin traps and over a period of a few days caught 6 hedgehogs in the traps. Apparently this saw an end to the destruction of the mangol worsel crop, but could it just have been the fact that the hedgehogs were eating the insects and larvae in the crop and accidentally walked into a trap?

Another trait of these animals is that they are terribly noisy eaters and at night it’s possible to hear that loud ‘chompings’. Where there is a local population they all appear to go on ‘food safaris’ and will visit different gardens and it is possible for ten or more hedgehogs to visit the same garden over several nights. Their nocturnal foragings can take them anything up to 2 kilometres a night with males travelling further than females.

The average lifespan of a hedgehog is between 2 and 3 years although some have been known to reach the ripe old age of 10. They are mainly a nocturnal animal and rarely seen in the hours of daylight. Although later in the year hedgehogs can be active after dawn when they are after extra food to build up fat resources in preparation for hibernation. Hedgehogs can grow to between 18 and 30 cm. in length and normally weigh between 600 and 800 g. Although hedgehogs are regarded as slow, lumbering animals they can, when the mood or necessity takes them, reach speed of up to 40 metres a minute. They can swim and have been known to cross flowing water and have an ability to climb steep hedge banks quite easily.

Their breeding season lasts from April until September with the main period of activity being in May and June when the nights are warmer. Females are pregnant for about four and a half weeks and then give birth to up to seven young in a nest made of grass and leaves. The youngsters feed on the mother’s milk and finally become independent at around two months old. During this period he female cares for the young and can occasionally be seen leading a procession of young when out on feeding expeditions.

Prior to the onset of winter Hedgehogs build up a layer of fat in order to carry them through the hibernation period which, depending on the temperature, is between November and late March/early April. The hibernation nests are built from leaves and other dry materials and are located anywhere that offers safety and protection such as under bushes, in log piles or outdoor buildings.

Hedgehogs are listed as a Priority Species for conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, and protected from harm in the UK under Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. They are also categorised as a ‘Species of Principal Importance’ for biodiversity under the National Environment Research Council Act of 2006, this means the species reflects concerns that hedgehog numbers are in decline and that some protection should be given to them. It is estimated that the UK’s hedgehog numbers have declined by 30 percent over the past 10 years which has left a nationwide population of just under 1 million.

One would have thought that thanks to its prickly spines and the ability to roll itself into a tight ball the hedgehog has few predators. However, once the creature is pried apart then its terribly vulnerable to attack. Probably the major hedgehog predator is the badger although dogs and foxes have been known to kill them. There are those who will have it said that a fox will roll a hedgehog into water thus making them uncurl and giving the fox the opportunity to eat it? The biggest threat to hedgehogs comes from us humans in a variety of ways. One of the major threats is that of habitat loss due to the removal of hedgerow, large, open grass fields and possibility of poisoning from pesticides. Next come the  dangers of everyday human lives; often you can see a flattened hedgehog lying in the middle of a road having been run over. Deaths can occur by drowning in garden ponds, being blitzed by strimmers or lawn mowers whilst in long grass, from slug pellet poisoning, along with the hazards of household refuse such as empty tin cans, plastic pots etc. There is also the danger of them hiding in piles of wood intended for bonfires, when they are lit, particularly on Guy Fawkes’ Night, the poor creature gets incinerated.

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The Fuzzy Pig

Superstitions and Folklore.

On Dartmoor the poor little fuzzy pig was once a loathed creature that along with adders etc was to be killed on sight. This newspaper report from 1950 explains why; “Coming of the moor recently, these word met my ears a man (with a woman) threw a heavy stick into the hedge just – I thought to draw my attention to the killing of a hedgehog: ‘That’s another one out of it and a jolly good thing to.’ And as I halted he kicked the prickly, bleeding animal into the roadside ditch. I asked him why he had killed it: ‘I always do away with ’em,” he replied. He continued by reeling off a whole list of crimes against the poor old fuzzy-pig, not one word being true.” Below are some of the fallacies that led to such an opinion:

1) To have a fuzzy pig enter your house is a sure sign that some misfortune is just around the corner, however, if you ever meet one walking in your opposite direction then folks say you will get some good luck in the near future.
2) An age old belief is that hedgehogs can climb fruit trees and knock down their juicy prize, having done that they will then roll upon the fruit and impale it on their spines. The apple will then be carried off to their nest where it will be eaten, similarly they have been seen to do the same with spent cigarette ends. They also have the reputation of being flea-ridden but there is a theory that after eating some foods, especially acidic fruit or nicotine they froth at the mouth and then seem to anoint themselves with it. Could this be in order to kill off some of the parasites?
3) It is true that when packed in clay and baked (in order to remove the spines) hedgehogs can be eaten and some say the meat is a cure for various kinds of poisoning and fits. One method of cooking an hedgehog is to first gut the animal and then place the entire carcass onto a bed of hot embers for about one minute, then with a scrubbing brush remove some of the spines . Next the hedgehog needs to be ‘barked’ which is simply encasing the body in clay or grasses. The clay parcel is then heaped over with hot ashes for about an hour, when cooked remove the clay and consume. Best not try it though as they are a protected species. If you can manage to get hold of a hair from above the left eye of an hedgehog into you eye it will strengthen your weak eyesight, should have gone to Specsavers but good luck on that one! If you suffer from rheumatism then simply obtain the jaw bone of an hedgehog and carry it in your pocket.
4) Along with the piskies on Dartmoor it was thought that hedgehogs had the ability to milk cows by sucking on their teats and would often be blamed if the milk yield ever dropped. One farmer recounted how a certain cow, when put into a particular meadow at night, would come in to be milked the next day and give about half of her usual milk yield. The next time the cow went into that field they kept watch on her and noticed that on entering the meadow she stopped to look at something in the grass. She then immediately laid down and stretched out and almost straight away a hedgehog was seen to suck at one of her teats. At one point some of the hedgehog’s spines must have touched the cow’s leg as she kicked her leg back out of the way but did not move or get up. The hedgehog was killed and afterwards the milk yield always remained constant. What is more plausible is that most cases they have been seen lapping at the milk seeping from a cow’s teat as opposed to actually sucking at it.
5) If you ever see a hedgehog behaving oddly then it’s a sure sign that bad weather is on the way.
6) An hedgehog saved the world when the Devil managed to get aboard Noah’s Ark, his plan was to sink the vessel by boring a hole in it. Luckily a hedgehog saw what he had done and forced himself into the hole thus avoiding a titanic style disaster.
7) There is a belief that hedgehogs are immune to adder bites, one local correspondent who witnessed a confrontation between an adder and a hedgehog in 1842 wrote “When the hedgehog came near and smelled the snake she seized it by the head, and held it fast between her teeth, but without appearing to do it much harm; for having disengaged its head, it assumed a furious and menacing attitude, and hissing vehemently, inflicted several bites on the hedgehog. The little animal, however, did not recoil from the bites of the viper. or indeed seem to care too much about them. At last, when the reptile was fatigued by its efforts, she again seized it by the head, which she ground between her teeth, compressing the fangs and poison glands, and then devouring every part of its body.” A more likely method of attack is for the hedgehog to give the adder a sharp nip and then to immediately roll itself up into a ball. After a short while this process is repeated a few times until the snake is either tired or paralysed and certainly run out of venom. It is then the hedgehog begins to eat the snake, beginning at the tail and working its way up the body.

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Seeing is believing

8) Hedgehogs steal eggs, this in a way is true as being opportunistic feeders they would eat a cracked egg if they came across one but there is no way their jaws are string enough to actually crack an egg. “Where be ee too, the taisy little fuzzy pig, That com’d in the mowhay, and stealed the pullets egg? I be tellin  a gin, a vitty rabbit’s gin, And I hope it u’ll catch ee, catch ee by the leg. – Where be ee too, the taisy old farmer, That said he would catch me by the leg? I b’aint afraid of ee, nor his rabbit gin, I‘ll run in the mowhay and steal another egg. – Where be they too, the farmer and the fuzzy pig? The farmers too ‘is breakfast, ‘ating on an egg, And the fuzzy pigs a sleepin’ in a bed of bracken, A dreamin’ o’ the time ee pulled the farmer’s leg.
9) Hedgehogs are susceptible to Foot and Mouth disease. This fact was confirmed in a report of 1924 published by the Political and Economic Planning Committee who during the research were using hedgehogs as experimental animals.
10) Sometimes hedgehog quills were used as old gramophone needles as it was said they made the music softer and sweeter.

So there you have it, Fuzzy Pigs – friend or foe? Personally I love to see the little creatures, they used to visit our garden by crawling under a gap in the gate but then we got some rabbits and they did the same except they were on their way out of the garden. Sadly, the gap had to be blocked up and no longer do we hear the grunting, squeaking and chomping of a night.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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