Shakespeare had a low opinion of hedgehogs. He placed them in the same category as “spotted snakes with double tongue” and other unsavoury witch’s assistants. It was well known back then that hedgehogs stole hen’s eggs and invaded barns at night to steal milk from cows. Little wonder that, in medieval England, they were routinely exterminated, or rolled in clay and then baked in the oven. Despite being obnoxious little monsters their cooked flesh was thought to settle the stomach and cure leprosy and elephantiasis, amongst other diseases and ailments, thereby proving that out of an imaginary evil can emerge imaginary good.
In contrast, the Romans thought they were accomplished meteorologists, able to accurately forecast the change of seasons and predict the direction of the wind. The Chinese regarded them as sacred, whilst the Incas and the Eskimos didn’t have any kind of opinion because hedgehogs don’t naturally occur in the Americas, least of all in the frozen north.
Charles Darwin, like many before him, believed that hedgehogs rolled around under fruit trees to impale the fallen fruit on their spines so that they could transport the haul back to their nests for later consumption. He even wrote to a magazine to relate how a friend of his had seen just such a thing in Italy. However, there is no evidence that hedgehogs have a fixed address, let alone a cosy underground home with larders, lounges and libraries. They tend to doss down wherever daybreak finds them, snuggling under leaf litter or disappearing into a convenient hole. As for the fruit trick, if you wander around like a toothpick dispenser things are bound to get stuck on your back; it doesn’t mean you’re a hoarder.
The Southern African Hedgehog, Atelerix frontalis, is typical of its kind, one of seventeen extant species, five of which live on the African continent. They are all similar in size, appearance and habits. Despite the co-incidental defensive strategy, they are not remotely related to porcupines, and they’re not rodents; instead they share their lineage with shrews.