They’re prickly and have a habit of staying up all night, but to Hazel Lane, African pygmy hedgehogs are the loveliest pets anyone could wish for.

Miss Lane, 44, keeps 25 of the unusual pets in her home and that’s on top of all her other pets, including cats, dogs, geckos, prairie dogs and lesser tenrecs hedgehogs from Madagascar.

Through her company Essex Pygmy Hedgehogs, Miss Lane is the largest breeder of pygmy hedgehogs in Essex and one of the most established breeders in the UK.

“We got our first hedgehog Milligan about ten years ago,” the dental nurse recalled. “I’d always loved hedgehogs but to have one as a pet was a wonderful experience.

“I found African pygmy hedgehogs to be full of character and surprisingly interactive. Since then, our hedgehog family has grown considerably and we are breeding litters of hoglets regularly.”

Despite their reputation as shy and spiky creatures, Miss Lane claims her hedgehogs are surprisingly cuddly.

“When they have been handled from a young age, it is second nature for them, “ she explained.

“When they are tame and relaxed they lay their spines completely flat which makes them easy to stroke and handle. Their underbellies are furry and warm.”

Although they’re nowhere near as well known as other small rodent pets such as hamsters and gerbils, Miss Lane claims that hedgehogs make ideal pets.

“They don’t tend to bite which is a big plus, particularly for children.

They use a litter tray which makes keeping them clean easier.

They sleep in fleece blankets, which can be washed and reused so there’s no straw, hay or sawdust to buy or clean up.

And their enclosure is lined with newspaper which is easily obtained.”

But there is one big downside to pygmy hedgehogs - their nighttime running habit. “They can run up to eight miles a night on a wheel, so a silent running wheel is a must.”

Miss Lane, and her son Mark Lane, 19, like to take their hedgehogs out and about to schools and scout groups in Essex, to show them to children.

“Kids are sometimes scared at first, but they’re always interested. I’m hoping that by showing them my hedgehogs, it will filter through to making them more aware of how to look after the wild hedgehogs.”

Miss Lane’s hedgehogs are fed dried cat food, “with mealworms as a treat”.

But breeding the hoglets is not an easy task. “The babies are born deaf, blind, utterly helpless, and not much bigger than a kidney bean,” she said.