September 2011


Nice and quiet Sunday – recovering from a busy Saturday in Manchester where I was talking hedgehogs at the museum thanks to ExtInked, who have a display up there. Had been planning to hang around up there and have fun with the wonderful friends who inhabit the place, but had managed to wreck my back a few days ago while splitting logs, and was too uncomfortable to play. Next time, however, it will coincide with me getting my second, and LAST, tattoo … more here soon.

But back to this morning, while I was busy washing up and Pip was playing – with enforced Brahms in the background, a phone call came through from Firebird PR – who work with the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species. Could I be an expert, in an hour, for Channel 4 News … and we need stunt hedgehogs …

Luckily, Penny Little, who runs the Little Foxes rescue put us in touch with one of her fosterers, who takes the less-critical hedgehogs in until they are fit for release. Anne Fowler lives only 20 minutes away, so, after a shave and a realisation I needed a haircut (too late for that) I was soon at her door.

‘They had to want to do it today,’ she said as she invited me in. ‘One of the hedgehogs escaped last night and is under the dishwasher,’ and she pointed to the dismantled kitchen unit. But still the hedgehog had evaded capture, when she had managed to gently grasp it with the barbecue tongs it had rolled into a ball, understandably, and had become too big to extract. So there was a stand-off. And a plate of dog food with which to lure him out.

Channel 4 were not far behind me. I had been at the launch of an important report on Tuesday in London. The State of Britain’s Mammals had been commissioned by the PTES and was written by the UK’s top mammal scientist, Professor David Macdonald from Oxford University’s WildCRU. But David was in Brazil, and anyway, the story that the press had picked up on, again, was the parlous state of the UK’s hedgehog population. So, being local, and a media tart, I was ‘perfect’!

Cut aways of hedgehogs roaming the garden in daylight will undoubtedly upset the purists – hedgehogs are, of course, nocturnal and if they are out in the day, something is probably wrong with them. But I was most impressed with the journalist presenting the piece, Asha Tanna. I told her that these images would result in letters, and she very naturally wrote an explanation into her script … and while it is important people do not think that hedgehogs enjoy sunbathing, there is also something very powerful about actually seeing the real animal … even if it is out at the wrong time.

I have watched many of these sorts of reports being recorded, and it is always great to see the cameraman (and sorry, I forgot his name) find their inner-David Attenborough and go trying to capture every possible bit of actuality.

At one point it looked as if it was the hedgehog being interviewed!

Very impressive to watch them head off at 2.15 with a plan to have it all ready for 6.15 tonight … fast work!

And the story? Hedgehogs in decline, down 25% in 10 years, and over 90% in the last 60 years (though that is based on a possibly not very reliable population estimate from 1950). What we need to do? For a start, Hedgehog Street.

While radio-tracking hedgehogs, many years ago, around the fields of Devon I became quite lonely. Working from 9pm to 4am out in the dark and rain, returning to my cold, damp and draughty caravan to sleep for a few hours before heading back out to check all the day-nests was a tiring existence.

So it was no surprise to me that I started to talk to my hedgehogs. And while each had a unique number, referring to the frequency of the radio-signal the little box on their back gave off, I found that they easily acquired names. So Freya, the enthusiastic traveller, Nigel, the speed freak and ‘little Willy’, the one who had recovered from an intimate swelling all became my nocturnal friends. Those of you who have heard me talk on the matter will know that Nigel was my favourite hedgehog, becoming a close friend and also seeding in me the idea that has gone on to shape much of my thinking since then.

But it is George I turn to, if only as a link to a film I have just been to see. And what different characters. George the Hedgehog, the Polish animation, features a spiky protagonist about as far removed from the solid and reliable hedgehog I became fond of in Devon. In fact my Devon hedgehog almost had me in tears on BBC Radio. I had had a bad run of losing animals, even my beloved Nigel, to cars and badgers. This led to a line that I thought would be edited out of my book, A Prickly Affair, ‘and I watched in horror as my Little Willy was eaten by a badger.’

George had gone missing, I was recording my thoughts for the radio, walking around with a tape recorder, and I could not find him. I was getting more and more anxious, worried that he, too, had been eaten. Eventually I got a good signal and found him – and the genuine relief that the tape captured so moved one listener of Pick of the Week that he was minded to feed it in as a sample to a dance track … not sure whether he ever did.

Which, tangentially, brings me to the film I went to see at the Barbican in London last week. It was part of London’s International Animation Festival and was irresistible. I should warn any of the faint hearted that this trailer is fairly robust – in fact the entire film, George the Hedgehog, was one of the rudest and crudest I have ever seen. The Polish title is Jez Jerzy, and we were lucky enough to have one of the directors present for a Q&A after the screening. It felt slightly odd having people asking serious questions about funding and animation styles after such a bombast of fart jokes, alcohol and sexual excess. But they did.

Director Wojtek Wawszczyk expressed pleasure that only four people walked out of the screening. And seemed genuinely surprised when I got to meet him that I was interested not animation but in the choice of the species – why a hedgehog? This is something I have been asking many people who are involved in the use of the hedgehog – either in stories or marketing. What is it about the animal that made you think it would be a great idea.

I was not aware that this film is based on characters that have featured in an adult comic strip since 1996. George is a sex-mad alcohol fuelled hedgehog embroiled in a passionate affair with a married woman (human … this is odd) and being chased by a combination of racist skin-heads and genetic scientists. I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their humour unsophisticated!

I have now written to the originators of the strip in hope of some answers as to why a hedgehog … and would welcome any suggestions you all might have as well!