February 2010

Have just found that, thanks to a generous donation from wildlife camera makers HandyKam, I have reached my target on the JustGiving site … now at £503 … raised from my tattooing adventure. And the greatest part? I have shot past Ben Fogle’s £443. I hope that at the next trustees meeting of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society this is noted!


Just got a piece about the Uists onto the Guardian website about the Uists, hedgehog carers and the recession …

oh – and a photograph of a hedgehog being looked after (because it is better than the one the Guardian used!) at Sue Kidger’s rescue centre in Twickenham.

I have a little thrill of excitement as I realise that it is only five weeks until the launch of the paperback of A Prickly Affair …  a Penguin paperback no less …. and I thought that it might be nice to let you have a preview of the cover:

You can get it from Amazon if you want, better still, ask your local bookshop to stock it  … or just book me to give a talk and I will bring as many as I can carry!

Oh – and if I did not already love Jeanette Winterson … wow!

The massive difference in people’s attitudes to wildlife is starkly revealed today. On the one had the Scotsman has reported on the costs of the hedgehog-eradication programme in the Uists – so far £1.2 million has been spent, and they are planning on spending a further £1 million. This is all with the aim of improving the breeding success of ground-nesting birds – a few hedgehogs were introduced in 1974 to control slugs and snails in a garden, but have since been enjoying the freedom of the islands (freedom from badgers and heavy traffic) – unfortunately they have also been enjoying the freedom of the massive egg-breakfast laid for them by the internationally important populations of wading birds, like dunlin and ringed plover.

When the eradication started, in 2003, there was a furore as Scottish Natural Heritage were killing the hedgehogs, and many of us ended up helping to rescue them. Eventually we managed to persuade them that killing was unnecessary (for a more detailed analysis – here is a paper that summarises the research I did) and since 2006 SNH have been handing the animals over to the one-time rescuers to relocate on the mainland.

And how much is that per hedgehog? Over £800 to remove each and every hedgehog. And that is not the half of it – up until this year, the work has, in effect, been subsidised by animal welfare charities – who have used their voluntary labour to re-home the animals after their deportation from the Outer Hebrides. All of the hedgehogs come to the indescribably wonderful Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue hospital.

The other measure of our attitudes to hedgehogs and wildlife in general is a story that features another wildlife rescue hospital.  The Guardian is running a piece today, including video, from Vale Wildlife Rescue in Gloucestershire, which is making the rather important point that hungry wildlife needs to be fed and the food costs money. It is not just Vale – and I am sure they would be the first to make this clear – but wildlife rescue centres all over the country and feeling the pinch and need a little help. Not just money – find out what they actually need – is it old newspapers, tins of dog food – and see what you can do. If only all the wildlife rescuers got £800 for each hedgehog!!

And back up in the Uists, has all this money been well spent? Well, when the British Trust for Ornithology did a survey, to investigate the impact the removal of hedgehogs was having on the breeding success of ground nesting birds, they uncovered something rather startling: in some areas where hedgehogs had been removed, the birds were doing LESS well than where the hedgehogs were left alone and declines in dunlin were happening at the same rate in areas with hedgehogs and on islands without.

SNH have now acknowledge this and said that there is no “statistically robust evidence” that all their work “has as yet resulted in a positive response in wader populations”. They continue to suggest that there may be “other variables” having an impact on the bird populations … well, I hate to say ‘I told you so’ … but ‘I TOLD YOU SO’ … I did a study into a very similar story, up on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney archipelago, way back in 1986, and found that while hedgehogs did take some eggs, they were not the main cause of the problem. All too often, wildlife managers leap to a ‘Daily Mail-esque’ conclusion – blame it on the illegal immigrant and get rid of them by what ever means necessary. Well, sometimes it is not the different-looking newcomer who is at fault … so rather than spending another million pounds shifting hedgehogs, perhaps now is time to look at the problem afresh.

I have just met a team straight out of the Crime Scenes Investigator series that is begging to be made – CSI Hedgehog.

How did that hedgehog die?

For most of us, the only sight we get of a dead hedgehog is flat on the road. The staple of many jokes …

Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To see its flat mate.

Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To show he had guts.

Why did the hedgehog cross the road, jump up and down in a muddy puddle and return to the same side? Because it was a dirty double crossing hedgehog.

Already we have been learning so much thanks to these sacrifices to our need for speed – it is one of the most reliable techniques for assessing presence and absence of hedgehogs in an area. And when repeated, year after year, as it is with the Mammals on Roads project run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, it can give us an idea of how populations of hedgehogs are fluctuating. It does not tell us how many there are, but it does tell us if they are increasing or decreasing, as there has yet to be any evidence of hedgehogs learning to avoid cars.

But now there is another way in which unfortunate corpses can assist our understanding of the wonderful world of the hedgehog.

The team of Crime Scenes Investigators will be on hand to undertake meticulous studies of the insides of hedgehogs that have been found dead in people’s gardens. These animals will be a ‘silent witness’ to the environment in which they lived. The experts, Katie Conville, Becki Lawson along with team leader Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, will try and work out not just what killed the animal, but also what sub-lethal effects were at play.

Parasitology, virology and bacteriology will all help to uncover the infectious diseases that have left the hedgehogs ill at ease. And they will also, when there is evidence to warrant, investigate what manmade chemicals might be lurking, undermining the health of our slug-munching friends.

This is not just about the fate of individual hedgehogs – there is also the potential to uncover what has been causing the decline in hedgehog numbers around the UK. This sort of work has already uncovered the cause of the mass mortality of greenfinches, as well as uncover the truth behind frog deaths and cetacean strandings.

But, as ever, there is an issue of money – so if anyone is reading this and feels particularly flush, drop a line to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (or remember them in your will) – and maybe we can have our very own CSI hedgehog!!

Stamps – I never really got the point of stamp collecting, at least not just your bog-standard penny blacks and the like. But some of them are gorgeous and I reckon I could be tempted to engaged in a little philately  (is that right?) where animals and plants are concerned … and then, what comes along but the perfect vehicle for the budding philatelist … a hedgehog stamp!

Out in March, the Royal Mail is celebrating UK mammals. And while the set contains such diversions as a bat, otter, water vole, and dormouse, by far the most significant contribution comes in the form of a hedgehog.

Now you might think I would obviously say that – pure hyperbole – but I base my praise of the hedgehog stamp in sound economics. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has teamed up with the UK’s leading producer of first day covers to make an official hedgehog first day cover – and there is more …

Not just the first day cover, but a BHPS postmark …

And not just that either, a limited number are personally signed by BHPS patron (tv personality, adventurer, writer and every-bloody-ones favourite) Ben Fogle … what is it about Ben Fogle … at a BHPS trustees meeting there is pretty much a minutes silence of quivering reverence when we acknowledge the £449 he raised for doing a little run – yet not even the remotest hint of a quiver when I point out I raised £423 getting a hedgehog tattoo.

Where was I … so, not only can you buy hedgehog first day covers, but you can also buy ones touched by the soon to be beatified Ben (but it will cost you an additional £10).

If you are so moved to join in the collective Ben and hedgehog worship, please order through the link on the BHPS website – this will ensure that 40% of every sale goes straight to the society. The covers cost £11.95 unsigned or £22.95 with the possibility that a drop of Ben’s sweat might just have evaporated on the stamp.

You can also call Buckingham Covers direct on 01303 278 137 stating you would like 40% of the sale price to come to the Society.

Yesterday – 2nd February – is a day that has grown in significance for hedgehog lovers all across the USA as the nineteenth century tradition of Groundhog Day morphs into Hedgehog Day. It is a day that has attracted many appellations, Candlemas of Imbolc for example. And it is a special time of year in the northern hemisphere as it marks the halfway point between the winter and spring solstice. For pre-industrial societies this would be seen as a significant turning point for those enduring the privations of the leanest months of the year.

Groundhog Day is perhaps most recognised from the delightfully deep and funny film of that name starring Bill Murray (you might have to trust me on the deepness, just watch it with a Buddhist!) in which he plays a tv weatherman forever stuck in a repeating day, having to present the event at Gobblers Knob … I had better explain. The idea behind Groundhog Day is that if the animal casts a shadow when it is yanked from its slumber, this indicates that a further six weeks of winter are to follow.

But where did it come from? Well, there is an old British poem that includes:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

According to one history of Groundhog Day, conquering Roman legions brought the tradition of a hedgehog being the key player in this act to Germany where it took root and followed the earliest settlers to the New World. But the absence of hedgehogs required a replacement – and that is where the rather un-hedgehog-like groundhog came into the equation. So was born the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, whose ceremonial appearance now attracts tens of thousands of visitors to his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob.

Such an important date is this newly minted Hedgehog Day that it is has become the most significant day in the spiky calendar, with at least two people I have met having arranged their weddings to coincide with the hedgehogs.

But has it the remotest grounding in fact? Advocates have spoken of the writing of Plinius (Pliny the Elder) in support of the story. Plinius repeats a story first recorded by Aristotle claiming that the hedgehog does have prophetic powers over the weather. Apparently it is possible to discern the direction of the weather by looking at the way hedgehogs establish their nests. They are alleged to have two entrances, and block up the one that points towards incoming inclemency. So there is at least some ancient connection between hedgehogs and the weather … but still no evidence that there was ever a hedgehog day in classical times.

And it is not as if there is any agreement on when hedgehog day actually is. For example, in New Zealand it falls on 10th September; Ogden Water, near Halifax in West Yorkshire have chosen 5th November to call hedgehog day; Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough council held a hedgehog day on 10th August; the Isle of White declared that the 17th June was National Hedgehog Day and on top of that we have the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s Hedgehog Awareness week, that runs in early May each year. Strikes me that we should make every day hedgehog day.

Does all this diminish American Hedgehog Day as an idea? Well not really, every ceremonial occasion is a human construct. Every tradition or religious festival, whether it is Easter, Eid, Diwali or Yom Kippur is just made up by people at some point in history. Traditions are important components of societal glue, and I like the fact that we are at liberty to create our own. And then it will be down to the wonderful power of natural selection of the fittest – some ideas will, like species, fall by the wayside as inadequate in the face of newer, fitter models. Perhaps Hedgehog Day will take on a life of it’s own. Perhaps in years to come there will be archaeologists investigating the roots of the dominant, hedgehog-based, religion, excavating the holy site of Gobbler’s Knob. Perhaps I have been spending too long among these people.

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