Prickly Pricklies

HERE'S a prickly question. What is the name of the small brownish animal with beady eyes and a wandery nose that lives all over the world but not in North America?

Here's another prickly question. What is the name of the small animal that lives off beetles, earwigs, and other insects and whose babies are called piglets?

Finally, what is the name of the small animal who appears as a washerwoman in a children's story by the English writer Beatrix Potter called "The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle"?

Have you guessed? You want another clue?

This small animal can roll up into a round ball when it feels it is in danger, and this round ball is prickly all over.

No - it's not a porcupine. It's a hedgehog.

Hedgehogs are not dangerous like porcupines. Their spines don't come out and stick in you. They're just there for protection.

Hedgehogs are harmless and actually quite useful. They are funny little snuffly grunty characters who like to make nests in piles of leaves or warm compost heaps in the garden. Mostly they come out at night. In the cold winter they don't come out at all for months: They hibernate. Sensible gardeners like hedgehogs because they eat insect pests that eat garden plants.

Today we love hedgehogs, but in the past people have been very silly about them and attached all sorts of myths to them. They have been accused by farmers of drinking the milk from sleeping cows at night. They have been accused by farmer's wives of stealing hens' eggs. Both of these so-called hedgehog habits are quite untrue. For a long time, anyone who killed a hedgehog in Britain got a reward.

Some of the fables about hedgehogs are amusing. Like the idea that a hedgehog will sometimes climb an apple tree, knock a piece of fruit to the ground, and then go down and roll on it so that it sticks to the animal's spines and can be carried off for supper. An Englishman who has become an expert on hedgehogs, and who has written a book about them called "The Complete Hedgehog," is Les Stocker. He laughs at this old wives' tale and points out that hedgehogs don't eat fruit much at all and can't climb tr ees.

Mr. Stoker's book is full of fascinating things that are accurate about hedgehogs:

* They have a very keen sense of smell.

* Full-grown hedgehogs can have as many as 7,000 spines.

* Sometimes an orphaned baby - a piglet, that's right - if it's adopted by humans, will snuggle up to a scrub brush for comfort, for a substitute mother.

* The kind of hedgehogs that live in Britain have been here for 2 million years. Mr. Stoker says he is amazed how they have survived all the awful treatment man has given them over the centuries. Even today in Britain where people are supposed to be animal lovers, the hedgehog is not a protected species.

One of the worst dangers to hedgehogs are car drivers. When I lived in the country, I used to regularly stop and lift hedgehogs off the road to safety in the fields. Because they curl up when feeling unsafe, they do not always run when a car comes charging toward them. But they can run, surprisingly fast. Mr. Stocker says that if a hedgehog were to run a mile without stopping (which is unlikely), he would take 13.5 minutes to do it.

Because hedgehogs are quite secretive and hide away during the day, you don't just see them all around the place. You have to keep your ears and eyes open for them. The first live hedgehog I saw was when I was a child, but I didn't find it, the dog did! He brought his find into the house through the front door. My mother was horrified! She thought it would be covered with fleas.

Fleas do like hedgehogs, it's true, but Mum needn't have worried: Hedgehog fleas don't like cats, dogs, or humans. They don't even bother hedgehogs much. These engaging little creatures are thick skinned! `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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