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.
The many changes of winter passed over the countryside; tempests raged, rain beat down in slanting sheets or enveloped the fields in mist, snow fell heavily and then vanished before the breath of a westerly breeze, black frost held the fields for days in an iron clutch, and sometimes, from late dawn to early dusk, the sun shone clearly in the southern sky. The sportsman with his spaniels wandered by the hedge, the huntsman with his beagles chased the hare across the sodden meadows, and the report of a gun or the note of a horn echoed among the surrounding hills. But in spite of changing weather and dangers from unresting foes, the hedgehog slept peacefully within her nest of withered leaves till awakened by the whisper of the warm south-western wind.
It was a calm day towards the end of March when the hedgehog awoke. Gradually, since the winter solstice, the shadows of noon, cast from the wooded slope across the meadows in the glen, had become shorter; and now, when the sun reached its meridian, its beams fell directly on the spot where the hedgehog rested among the littered leaves. She felt the strange and subtle influence of spring, and crawled feebly from her retreat. The light above her nest was far too brilliant for her eyes, which had been closed for three long months, and were at best only accustomed to the gloom of night, so she sought the shadow of a tree-trunk near, and there, for a while, remained quite motionless. With the leaves of last autumn still clinging thickly to her spines, she seemed an oddly fashioned creature belonging to a distant age, a little Rip Van Winkle of the woods, with a new, quick world of unfamiliar joys and sorrows claiming her half-conscious life. Extremely feeble from cold and privation, and knowing, as all Nature's wildlings seem to know, that sunlight brings with it health and strength, she presently left the shadow of the tree-trunk, and, closing her eyes, basked in complete enjoyment of the balmy day. The heat and the gentle wind soon dried her armour of spines and surcoat of leaves. Stealing in through the tunnel left open when the hedgehog came forth from her sleep, the wind cleansed and ventilated the nest, and soon all traces of winter's mustiness had vanished from both herself and her home. By sundown, the "urchin" had gained strength that enabled her to wander slowly into the meadow, where she found sufficient food to stay her growing hunger.
During the first few nights, her appetite, though keen, was easily satisfied, for the digestive organs, unaccustomed to their work, could not retain much nutriment, and hours of slumber seemed necessary after every trifling meal. But gradually her powers were restored, till almost any kind of fresh animal matter that came in her way was greedily devoured. A spider sleeping in a folded leaf, a fly hiding beneath a stone, a snail, a slug, a worm, a frog, a weakling bird fallen from an early nest, a lizard, or a snake—all alike were welcome as she thrust her damp, blunt snout, that looked like a little fold of black rubber, here and there amid the herbage.
Her eyesight was faulty—she had no great need of it; her enemies were few, and she did not live the life of the hunted that fear each footfall on the grass; but, as if to balance all deficiencies, her sense of smell was singularly acute, so that she could follow with ease the trail of a beetle or of an earthworm in its windings over the soil. The eggs and young of the lark, the corncrake, the partridge, or of any other bird that built on the ground, were never safe once the hedgehog had crossed the lines of scent left by the parents around their nest. Even the robin and the wren, nesting in holes along the hedge, and the field-mouse in its chamber sheltered by the moss, were at any time likely to have their family affairs most cruelly upset; The wild-bee's sting could not save her honeyed cells and helpless grubs, and the sharp-fanged adder, writhing from the hedgehog's sudden bite, would hurl itself in vain against the prickly ball that instantly confronted each counter attack.
The hedgehog's first experience of snake-killing occurred late one evening, when she discovered a viper, some distance from its hole, coiled asleep on a bare patch of soil where the sunlight had lingered at the close of day. Her manner instantly changed ; she became eager and alert. Pausing only a second to make sure of her attack, she bit the snake sharply near the neck, then, withdrawing her head and limbs into the shelter of her spines, rolled over, an inanimate ball. The viper, mad with pain, thrust back its head from its sinuous coils, rose, and struck with open jaws at its assailant. Its fangs closed strongly, but failed to get a grip, and the smooth underside of its throat glanced past the hedgehog's slanting prickles with such force that the whole body of the snake was lifted from the ground, and fell, like a bent arrow, about a yard behind its foe. Again the snake rose, and struck with no effect; but this time the stroke, coming from the rear, was met by the sharp points of the spines, and the adder's mouth dropped blood from a clean-cut wound on the upper edge of the palate. Repeatedly, the snake, hissing loudly and fighting for its life, attacked its armoured enemy — at first dashing itself senselessly against the sharp points of the hedgehog's spines, then, with caution, swaying to and fro its bleeding head and snapping harmlessly at an apparently unguarded spot, till, from sheer exhaustion and pain, and with its store of poison almost exhausted, it retired from the unequal combat and slowly wriggled into the grass. Presently, the "urchin" uncoiled, and, as soon as the inquisitive little snout discovered the whereabouts of the snake, started in pursuit. With a hard, firm bite, she luckily managed to break the backbone of the viper; then, at once, she again assumed the shape of a ball. Desperate now, the snake expended all its remaining strength in wild attacks, till, limp and helpless, and utterly at the mercy of the hedgehog, it lay outstretched. Then the relentless hedgehog, assured that her prey was quite defenceless, severed almost every bone in its body, tore the scales from the flesh, and fed to repletion.