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.
Such a struggle often happens in the fields and the woodlands. During the first few weeks of life, the hedgehog, if its parents are absent, may be at the adder's mercy; but, later, the tables are completely turned, the once helpless creature becomes the strong aggressor, and is revenged by removing, not only an enemy, but a rival subsisting on food often similar to that which is its own.
For a while after her awakening, the hedgehog fed chiefly on the big earthworms which, induced by the increasing warmth, forsook the deep recesses of their burrows, and tunnelled immediately beneath the grass-roots, coming forth at night to lie outstretched amid the undergrowth. She had, of necessity, to match their fear by her excessive cunning. They frequently detected her presence by the slight vibrations of the soil beneath her soft, slow-moving feet, and hurriedly withdrew from her path, but more often she surprised and captured them by the simple artifice of waiting and watching beside the burrows where scent was fresh, and where, notwithstanding the noises reaching her from above, she could readily distinguish the sounds of stretching, gliding bodies moving to the surface through the tortuous passages below.
She soon became a wanderer, deserting her winter nest, and roaming nightly further and yet further from the valley meadows, till she reached a rough pasture at the end of the glen. In a thick hedgerow skirting a secluded pond among alders and willows, she found food unexpectedly varied and plentiful. Luscious snails, with striped yellow and brown shells, were so common in the ditch beyond a certain cattle-path, that, even after a whole day's fast, her hunger was quickly appeased.
April drew near, the leaves of the trees expanded, and the voice of the night wind in the branches changed from a moan to a whisper. At noon, flies came forth to bask on the stones; the furze, decked with yellow flowers, was visited by countless bees; and bronze-winged beetles crept among the thorny branches of the hawthorn and the sloe. The hedgehog knew little of the pulsing life of mid-day, but at dusk she sometimes found a tired fly, or bee, or beetle, hiding in the matted grass beneath the gorse, and so was made aware of summer's near approach.
Among the flags and the rushes of the pond, a pair of fussy moorhens built their nest on an islet of decayed vegetation clustered round a stone. At all hours of the day, the birds sailed gaily hither and thither, or wandered, happy and impulsive, along the margin of the pool. No care had they, and the solitude of their retreat seemed likely never to be disturbed, till, one moonlit night, the fox, that last year had killed the baby hedgehog in the glen, stole through the shadows of the alders, caught the scent of the moorhens, and approached the nest where the female was brooding over her eggs. The bird had watched the fox's movements since first he appeared on the bank beyond the trees. Quietly she dropped into the pond beside the nest, dived, came up on the far side of the islet, and stayed there, with only her head above the surface of the water. She saw, with fear, the fox approach her nest, and recognised that it was hardly possible for her treasures to be saved, when, suddenly, her mate, having doubtless watched the marauder as closely as she herself had done, walked out of a reed-clump two or three yards from her hiding place, and, in full view of the fox, swam slowly to and fro, beating his wings as if in mortal pain. Without the slightest hesitation, Reynard, thinking to obtain an easy prize, plunged into the pond, but the bird just managed to elude him, and to flutter into another reed-clump a short distance away. Completely deceived by the ruse, the fox was drawn further and further from the nest, till he reached a distant corner of the pond, when, to his astonishment, the moorhen vanished, leaving him to a vain search which at last so much annoyed him that, instead of returning along the bank towards the nest, he crossed the glen, trotted up the cattle-path, and entered the dense thicket on the slope.
With most wild creatures, fear seems to be a feeling that quickly comes and quickly goes. But over some of Nature's weaklings, fear seems to throw a spell that remains long after the danger has passed; as, for instance, in the case of a rabbit hunted by a stoat, or of a vole pursued by 2 c a weasel. The animal trembles with fright, cries as if in pain, and limps, half-paralysed, towards its home, some time after its pursuer may have turned aside to follow a line of scent leading in a quite opposite direction. Now and then, a young rabbit is so overcome by fright, that the sly, watchful carrion crow obtains, with little trouble, an unexpected meal. The birds of the hedgerow— finches, robins, and the like—are also subject to the distressing influence of fear, directly they catch sight of a hungry weasel "performing" in the ditch. When the weasel sets itself to lure any such creatures, its movements are remarkably similar to the contortions of a snake; and the birds, fascinated as their enemy's strange actions are rapidly repeated, flutter helplessly from spray to spray, till one or other becomes a victim and the weasel ambles off with its prey. Then, released from the spell, the birds proceed to mob the bloodthirsty tyrant, and, at times, with such effect that he is compelled, before making good his escape, to resort to stratagems similar to those that previously held the birds enthralled. Reynard seems to have learned from the weasel's manoeuvres, for he, too, is wont to entice the rabbits towards him by extraordinary methods, twirling round, like a cat, in pursuit of his tail, and affording such a spectacle to any onlookers that they must needs, from sheer curiosity, find out the meaning of a woodland farce, which, alas! is often followed by a tragedy. It is not known that the fox ever succeeds in fascinating the moorhen; the bird, directly she caught sight of his circling form, would probably dive, and in the cool refuge of the water, her sharp eyes peeping from between the flags, would wisely conclude that such an unaccountable display meant danger. It is, however, tolerably certain that the influence of fear seldom causes a nesting bird, or a breeding mammal, to become helpless in the presence of an enemy, though when family cares are over the conditions might be entirely reversed. Even such timid creatures as rabbits and hares sometimes strenuously defend their young from the attacks of weasels and stoats.
As the fox trotted up the hillside path, the moorhen joined her mate in the tangle of the reeds, and, without fear, wandered over the marshy ground in the neighbourhood of her nest. Then she swam out across the narrow channel, and settled down, in fancied security, to brood once more over her speckled eggs. She had just taken her accustomed position, when the hedgehog, pushing the reeds aside, became aware of the strong scent on the margin of the pond. The hungry " urchin's" intelligence, though limited, at once suggested that the scent of a mothering bird might lead to a clutch of delicious eggs, or to a brood of plump and juicy nestlings. Following the trail, the hedgehog came to the marshy ground at the margin of the narrow passage where the bird had crossed, and, with head erect, sniffed the tainted wind blowing gently shorewards from the brooding moorhen. In her eagerness, she lifted herself slightly at the edge of the bank, missed her footing, and fell into the pond, not more than two or three feet from the moorhen. The bird, hearing the splash, dived instantly; her mate again came quickly to the scene and tried to lead the enemy away, but the hedgehog, heedless of every artifice, paddled slowly to the platform of dry flags, and helped herself to a repast more appetising than any she had recently enjoyed, while the birds, flapping their wings, circled angrily about the pond, and pecked vigorously, but vainly, at the marauder's prickly coat.
Late the next evening, the hedgehog discovered a fledgling thrush hidden in the grass beyond the alders. In response to the cry of the young bird, the mother thrush flew straight to the spot, and, with a lucky blow struck full at the hedgehog's snout, so intimidated her enemy that she curled up immediately and allowed the fledgling to escape unharmed.
The tender grass was reaching up to seed, the may blossom was burdening the air with rich perfume, and summer had almost come, when, late one night, the hedgehog, hunting among the shadows of the trees, chanced to hear a low, bleating sound, like the voice of a leveret calling to the mother hare out feeding in the clover. She had never heard that sound before, but its meaning, nevertheless, was plain, and without hesitation she replied. Again the sound broke the stillness, as a dim form lifted itself clumsily from the ditch and came towards her.
Presently she felt an inquiring touch, and, turning, found herself face to face with a male hedgehog that had followed her path through the undergrowth. Nature had not been lavish in his adornment; like the female, he was a plain little creature, brown and grey, fitted to sleep unnoticed among the wind-blown leaves and twigs beside a sheltering mound.
Theirs was an odd and awkward courtship—its language a medley of unmusical squeals and grunts; and if a difference arose it was settled by one curling up into a ball till the other had forgotten the quarrel. But soon they became good friends, hunted together all night and slept together all day, while the year drew on to summer and then, almost imperceptibly, declined. Devoting much of their attention to domestic affairs, they built a large, dry nest among the foxgloves near the stream; where, towards the end of hay harvest, three naked little " urchins" came into the world, to be reared, just as the mother hedgehog herself had been reared, till autumn merged into winter, and winter's cold induced each to go in loneliness and build a snuggery for sleep.