This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
By far the most intelligent and powerful enemy of the young hedgehogs was the farmer's dog; but, as he slept in the barn at night, and generally accompanied the labourers to the upland fields by day, they escaped, for a while, his unwelcome attentions. Foes hardly less dreaded, because of their insatiable thirst for blood, were two polecats living in a hole half-way up the wall of a ruined cottage not far from the hillside farmhouse. The polecats, however, were so occupied with the care of a family, that, finding young rabbits plentiful in the burrows on the heath, they seldom wandered into the open fields, till the little " urchins," ready, at the first sign of danger, to curl themselves within the proof-armour of their growing spines, were well able to resist attack.
The hedgehogs were about three months old, and summer, brief and beautiful, was passing away, when an incident occurred that might have proved disastrous, though, fortunately, it resulted only in a practical joke, such as Nature often plays on the children of the wilds. One calm, dark night, while they were busy in the grass, a brown owl, hunting for mice, sailed slowly by. Now, the brown owl, in spite of proverbial wisdom gained during a long life in the dim seclusion of the woods, is occasionally apt to blunder. Her character, indeed, seems full of quaint contradictions. As she floats through the moonlight and the shadows of the beech-aisles of Dollan, she appears to be a large bird, with a philosophic contentment of mind — an ancient creature that, shunning the fellowships of the garish modern day and loving the leisure and the solitude of night, dreams of the past. But, beneath its loose feathery garments, her body, hardly larger than that of a ringdove, is altogether out of proportion to her long, narrow head and wide-spreading talons. Visions of the past may come to her, as, blinking at the light 2 B of day, she sits in the hollow of the tree, but at night she is far too wide-awake to dream. And so great are the owl's powers of sight and hearing, and so swift is her "stoop" from the sky to the ground, that the bank-vole has little chance of escape should a single grass-stalk rustle underfoot when she is hovering near his haunt. Far from being shy and retiring in her disposition, the brown owl, directly night steals over the woodlands, is so fearless that probably no animal smaller than the hare can in safety roam abroad.
As the owl flew slowly past the fence, she heard the faint sound of a crackling shell—the hedgehogs were feeding on snails. She could barely distinguish a moving form in a tangle of briars, but its position discouraged attack; so she flew away and continued to hunt for mice. Presently, returning to the spot, the owl was once more attracted by the sound of some creature feeding in the grass; and, detecting a slight movement beside the briars, she swooped towards the ditch, grasped one of the " urchins " in her claws, and rose into the air. Her quarry, feeling the sudden grip of the sharp talons, made a desperate, convulsive movement, and the owl found, to her astonishment, that her grasp had shifted, and that she was holding, apparently, a hard bunch of thorns. Nevertheless, she tightened her grasp; but an unendurable twitch of pain, as the spines entered her flesh immediately above the scales of her talons, caused her to drop the hedgehog into the leaf-mould of the ditch. Immediately afterwards, she herself, eager to find out the cause of her discomfiture, dropped also to the earth, and, standing beside the hedgehog, clawed savagely at the motionless creature, seeking some defenceless point among the bristling spines. At last, her patience exhausted, the owl gave up the ineffectual assault, and glided away into the gloomy night. Unhurt, but for a slight wound inflicted when first the bird descended, the hedgehog crawled back to the brambles, where the rest of her family were still busy with the snails, and joined them in their feast.
Autumn's sere leaves had fallen from the trees, and the hedgehogs had found such a plentiful supply of all kinds of food that they were ready for their winter sleep, when a gipsy boy, the proud possessor of a terrier trained for hunting hedgehogs, set forth in haste one evening from his tent by the wayside above the farm. The boy was smarting from cruel blows inflicted by his drunken parents, who, after unusual success in disposing of baskets and clothes-pegs, had spent much of the day's profit in a carouse at the village inn. Having escaped a continuance of his parents' brutalities, and eluded their ill-conducted pursuit, the young gipsy, in the company of his only friend, soon forgot his miseries as his thoughts turned to a vagabond's rough sport in the stillness of the harvest night. Thrusting a long stick here and there into the briars, he strolled along by the fence, till his dog, diligently beating in line amid the undergrowth, gave a quick yelp of delight, and, an instant later, a curled-up hedgehog rolled down into the ditch. The boy placed the animal in his ragged handkerchief, the corners of which he was proceeding to tie together when the terrier again attracted attention with unmistakable signs of a " find." For a few brief minutes sport was keenly exciting, but at last all the "urchin" family, with the exception of one member, were captured, and the boy, now thoroughly happy, his pockets and handkerchief heavy with spoil, turned homewards through the darkness. Next morning, the slain hedgehogs, baked in clay among the hot ashes of a fire of rotten twigs, formed the principal item in the gipsies' bill of fare, and the terrier enjoyed the remnants of the meal.
The hedgehog surviving the gipsy's raid was a young female, that, while the terrier beat the fence, remained quietly munching a large lob-worm at the foot of a mound a dozen yards away, and so knew nothing of the fate of her kindred.
The last weeks of the year passed uneventfully, as far as her little life was concerned; then, as the nights grew longer and the cold increased, she set about preparing in earnest for her long, deep sleep.
In a sheltered spot close to the woodlands, where, a month before, a badger had unearthed a wild bee's nest, she collected a heap of withered oak-leaves, hay, and moss, and with these simple materials made a large, snug nest, a winter house so constructed that the rain might trickle down to the absorbent soil beneath. For a little while, however, she did not enter into her unbroken rest. Still, nightly, she roamed abroad, moving in and out of the dried herbage everywhere strewn in her paths among the tree-roots, till the sapless leaves impaled on the sharp points of her spines formed such a cluster that she lost all semblance of a living creature. Insects were becoming rarer and still rarer as the year drew to its close, and those surviving the frosts retired to countless secret chambers at the roots of the moss and under the tough bark of the trees. The lizards sought shelter in warm hollows deep below the piles of stones left here and there by the labourers, when, every spring, they cleared the freshening fields. And the big round snails, the luscious tit-bits of the hedgehog's provender, crept into the holes of the red mice and into the chinks of walls and banks, where, protected by their shells, each being fastened to its resting place by a neat rim of hardened glue, they lived unconscious of decay and gloom. Then the hedgehog, having become drowsier and still drowsier with privation and cold, ceased to wander from her nest at dark, and began that slumber which was to last till the sweet, warm breath of spring awoke her, and other wildlings of the night, to a life among the early primroses and violets.