What an animal the hedgehog is. Not only the source of 2009’s joke of the year at the Edinburgh Fringe from Dan Antopolski: Hedgehogs, why can’t they just share the hedge? But also credited with being the most important species on the planet. By me.

Okay, I know this is a bold claim and there are others who might argue for worms, bees, plankton or people. But I believe that the hedgehog is up there among those more obvious candidates. And that is not just because I have been studying the animal, off and on, for the last twenty years. Or because one night I fell in love with a hedgehog called Nigel.

Actually before I explain that – there is something else the hedgehog has to offer, thanks to the arch-pessimist, Schopenhauer. He described the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, a metaphor for relationships between people. Two hedgehogs are in love, but when they get too close to each other, they hurt themselves with prickles – so they back off and get to a point where they are too far apart and suffer from the pain of loneliness.

While many of us may suffer from this in our personal lives, I believe that we are all suffering from a Hedgehog’s Dilemma on a much bigger scale. Our dilemma is with the natural world. When we get too close to ‘out there’, if we were all, for example, to move into the wilds, we would simply destroy what we were seeking.

But we are also removing ourselves from contact with the natural world. Now, for the first time, we are a majority urban species; there are more and more people who have little or no contact with nature. This leaves us bereft – and a growing body of work is beginning to reveal the consequences to our physical and mental well-being.

E.O. Wilson from Harvard started this field of work with the creation of a new word – biophilia – a recognition of the fact that we have an innate need to be in touch with nature. More recently this has been wonderfully explored by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods – Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Now as soon as I heard that term, nature-deficit disorder, I knew that it was vital. It perfectly captures the consequences of our bereavement from nature and our failure to solve the hedgehog’s dilemma.

So where is the relationship between this philosophising and the importance of the hedgehog? And where does Nigel come into it all?

Okay, first to Nigel. I had been radio-tracking hedgehogs in Devon and at around four in the morning, as I went to clean my teeth outside the damp and cold caravan I was living in, I noticed one of my animals just sitting there. It was Nigel. I decided to follow him, no electronics, just us. Over the next hour I got closer and closer until there came a point where I was lying on my stomach and we were nose-to-nose. And then he looked at me. Up until then, I had been observing, he had been snuffling and getting on with the business of being a hedgehog. But at that moment, he stopped and looked up at me. The importance of this; there is no other wild animal that we can do this with. You can get nose-to-nose with your pets, but all the other wild animals I have had anything to do with just would not allow this sort of intimacy.

With that sort of intimacy there is a far greater chance of falling in love with the natural world. Love alters behaviour. And we need to alter our behaviour if we are to have any chance of averting catastrophe.

So perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the large wildlife and conservation organisations is in getting people to truly fall in love with the natural world.

How do we encourage people to fall in love with the natural world? It is a bit of a big thing to tackle on its own. So conservation and wildlife charities focus on the charismatic mega fauna to try and seduce us.

Whales, tigers, lions and elephants are the poster-children of their movement. Which is great, up to a point. The risk is that this generates a very superficial, almost sentimental, reaction. I suppose it is a bit like relying on images of supermodels to instruct our understanding of human relationships. It works okay for hormone-ravaged adolescents, but is less effective, and in fact downright destructive, when it comes to more mature considerations of our loves and ourselves.

I reckon I am about as likely to get nose-to-nose with a humpbacked whale as I am with, say, Angelina Jolie. And even if I did get that close, would there be a spark, a bond? We are much more likely to fall in love with the girl or boy next door. And the hedgehog is the animal equivalent of the boy or girl next door.

Getting moved and becoming passionate are key to us all becoming more involved in creating the change we want to see, and in fact becoming the change we want to see, to steal a line from Gandhi.

We can love a hedgehog like no other animal. It is the first and probably only wild animal that we urbanites and suburbanites have a chance of getting really close to. The hedgehog chooses to share the same space as us and if we are willing to change our point of view and get down on its level, we will be rewarded by the opening of a door into a deeper understanding of the natural world. Once the connection has been made, once we have had that chance to do the nose-to-nose thing and see the spark of wild in its eye, then we can follow it through into a new world view.

Hugh Warwick