This is a bit of a local entry – in that it will be of most interest to people who are not too far away from Oxford … but will also be of interest to people passionate about hedgehogs. 

Whenever I give talks I always say how much fun is to be had from getting really close to wild hedgehogs – how much of an insight into the animal can come from simply observing them in their natural habitat. And I also say, if you ever see a note from someone looking for volunteers to help them with some research – grab the opportunity in both hands and don’t let go …. 

And now there is a fantastic opportunity for people who are keen to commit themselves to some hard work – and in return get a chance to help us understand more about the reasons why hedgehog numbers in the UK are plummeting. 

The amazing WildCRU of Oxford University has recently taken on a researcher to help us answer these questions – in fact I was so tempted to apply to do the research myself, but as I am on the steering group that set the project up there was a clash of interests. The money for the project has come from the PTES and the BHPS.

Now that researcher has put out a call for volunteers

In fact I can save you the bother of following that link – all you need to know is here:

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Dedicated volunteers are required from late March for a hedgehog study. This will form part of an exciting new study to look at hedgehog behaviour in relation to habitat in the rural landscape. Volunteers will have the unique opportunity to observe first-hand a variety of techniques being used including footprint tunnels, radio-tracking and macro-invertebrate surveys. Successful candidates will be required to assist in tracking hedgehogs at night at study sites in the Oxford area. Additionally there will be some day time work quantifying habitat at the study sites and surveying for macro-invertebrates.

The ideal candidates will be enthusiastic, robust, energetic and committed. They will be able to carry out fieldwork as part of a small team, through the night and early morning, outdoors and in all weather conditions. They will preferably be located, or be able to locate themselves in the Oxford area as accommodation, unfortunately, cannot be provided. Applicants must be available for a minimum of three specific weeks or longer from late March to October and preferably hold a driving licence.

Please email CV including two references to carly.easby@zoo.ox.ac.uk.

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This is a wonderful opportunity … please spread the word … and you might even meet me out there – it is hard to resist the opportunity to get back out with my hedgehogs!

 

I was visiting my mother this weekend and found myself browsing the bookshelf in the old playroom – and while much of the evidence of childish times has gone there was a block of books that stood out. Blue Peter Annuals from 1972 to 1980. My first book, their ninth, was a complete treat for me as a six year old. I thought the world of John Noakes and Shep.

Flicking through these Annuals I found I recognised so much – though why they insisted on putting Valerie Singleton in such odd period costumes escapes me. Blue Peter was a very important part of my childhood.

So, can you imagine the tremor of excitement when the wonderful folk at Firebird PR (who do so much to help the People’s Trust for Endangered Species) told me that Blue Peter might be interested in doing a hedgehog feature and that I might be involved?

I add the ‘mights’ as I am well aware of the slippery nature of Auntie Beeb – not everything that is promised comes to light … but the mights grew stronger and stronger. I secured some stunt hedgehogs from Hedgehog Bottom Rescue, near Reading (thanks Gill); Firebird found some willing school children and I ironed my shirt (this was getting serious).

To prime myself I watched an episode on i-player – oh my … how young …

But unfortunately the children have aged – the show is now aimed at 10 yrs + … so my wonderful duo of Mati and Pip  were too young to be part of the show.

And then last Friday it really happened. The Blue Peter team were great – the weather was toe-teasingly cold, I was very glad I pilfered my wife’s down jacket – and the presenter, Naomi Wilkinson – showed how that sort of work should be done. The interview segment was focussed on Hedgehog Street – how to make gardens hedgehog friendly and interconnected.

Then a wonderful thatcher called Kit stepped in to help Milly and Joe make a hedgehog house. Which then lead up to the finale – where we placed the hedgehog house under a big bush and I introduced Gill’s ‘stunt ‘hogs’ to the show.

photo from Hedgehog Bottom Rescue

These two hedgehogs had been in her care for a while and will be released when the weather is a little milder. We made the point that these were ‘stunt’ hogs and that hedgehogs should not be out in the day … people always complain, but I really think it is important that we seduce people with images of hedgehogs, and then, when they are drawn in, we can educate them.

As I placed the hedgehogs in front of the newly made hedgehog house I declared that, obviously, they would not go into it right away. At that, Rogan, one of the hedgehogs, took a look at me and decided to prove me wrong, by making a bee-line for the entrance tunnel and disappearing.

photo from Hedgehog Bottom Rescue

This resulted in general amazement – I was thrilled! And then, a little later, we took the back of the box and propped a night-vision camera in the opening, allowing them to film Rogan entering the hedgehog house from a different angle. What a very excellent stunt ‘hog.

I am so excited about this – the short film will be broadcast on Thursday 9th February at 1745 on CBBC, and repeated on Friday 10th February on BBC1 at 1630. I am excited because I will be on Blue Peter, obviously, but I am mainly excited because this has been a great opportunity to talk to a different audience about the importance of making your garden not just hedgehog friendly, but wildlife friendly. What is good for hedgehogs is good for so much else. And our project – run in conjunction with the PTES and the British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyHedgehog Street – is such a great way to get people and their communities involved.

It is possible, however, that the main thrill has come from this …

I now have a Blue Peter badge … something that the six-year old me, looking at the wonderful John Noakes doing derring-do, dreamt of earning.

 

What moves from the south of England to the north of Scotland at walking pace, and goes slower up hill? (answer at the end of this blog)

Forty years ago my mentor, Pat Morris, did a fascinating survey looking at the different times hedgehogs emerged from hibernation across the country. He showed what one would expect, that hedgehogs emerge from hibernation earlier in the warmer south west of England and later in the north of Scotland.

As you can see from this graph of his work, the evidence is clear. And like the good scientist he is, he has kept this idea bubbling away … because often scientists will find that data collected for one purpose can later be used to investigate another.

His survey measured the geographical impact on hibernation. But it allows us now to look at the temporal impact too – how emergence from hibernation has changed over time.

Why should we be interested in this?

Because the biggest environmental story of the moment could be revealed in the data – the impact that a warming climate has had on us so far might be hardly noticeable, we are so insulated from the outside world that we hardly notice the passing of the seasons! But for wildlife out in the wilds – well subtle changes in climate can manifest subtle changes in behaviour. And one measure is WHEN the hedgehogs emerge from hibernation – which we can measure most effectively not with specialists in lab coats or satellites – but with YOU – citizen science.

The survey is simple – all you need to know is HERE on the Hedgehog Street website. You can take part in a study of phenology! (phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate (taken from Wikipedia … which is down today in protest at web restricting legislation))

This is not the first use of citizen science to study the changes in the seasons, for example the Woodland Trust and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology also run Nature’s Calendar – but the hedgehog hibernation survey is going to be a wonderful addition to our knowledge of the changes afoot.

And why should we worry?

Well, before we can worry we really need to see what is happening … so PLEASE do the survey. However, there are concerns about how changes in the climate might affect the lot of the hedgehog. More extreme weather events, for example, could be bad. Warmer winters might NOT benefit hedgehogs either. Being disturbed by unexpected mildness during the winter can deplete important fat reserves within the hedgehog, reducing its chances of survival when it re-enters hibernation.

There is a chance that if there are shorter, milder winters, hedgehogs might also benefit from being able to feed longer before entering hibernation – putting on more weight and increasing their chances of survival. This would be particularly valuable for late born young (possibly second litters).

And if climate changes are so severe that in the end hedgehogs give up hibernation, should we worry?

Perhaps surprisingly, no. Hedgehogs do not NEED to hibernate – and when our European hedgehogs were exported to New Zealand in 1855 (a long story – read my book for more details!) the ones that made their home in the warmer north island hardly hibernate at all.

But to repeat – for now what we need is data – data which we can use to compare now with Pat’s first study 40 years ago. It will be fascinating to see what changes there have been – so please join up and fill in the survey.

And the answer to the question at the top? … Spring!

To be honest, the title should probably be A LOT of self-promotion and bonfires, but that seemed somehow wrong.

To get the nitty-gritty of this dealt with first – there are a lot of bonfires planned for this week and some of these will exact a miserable toll on the country’s wildlife. If you need proof of that, pop along to a wildlife hospital and take a look at the few who survive being roasted. So the British Hedgehog Preservation Society makes a very big point at this time of year to ask you all to just check before you light your fire.

I did a piece on BBC West Midlands a while back where the slogan they were generating was, I think, ‘poke a bonfire, save a hedgehog’ … and as long as you use the handle end of a garden fork, that is great. Try and see if you can lift it a  little and look underneath. Better still, collect all your fuel in one place and then move it to the bonfire the day you are going to light it.

In 2009 the hedgehog lovers at Spontex have got in on the act, securing bouncers to protect a large fire, stopping hedgehogs unwittingly installing themselves in the wonderful shelter …

(photo by Fay Vass – BHPS boss)

Spontex have a good history of idiosyncratic hedgehog-related advertising as my previous post has shown …

So please, check out your bonfires before you light them. Hedgehogs face enough of a threat from everything else we do, so please give the pile a poke before setting it alight.

And now the payback – I have asked you to consider the dark misery of roasting hedgehogs, now I offer you some relief …

I am performing my almost ecological-stand up routine at the Idler Academy on November 22nd … and I want (to be honest, NEED) an audience of enormous proportions … and that is only partly because the amount I get paid is relative to the number of tickets sold … it is also because I want to instil my brand of hedgehog-love deep into the hearts of as many people as possible … and also to introduce new people to the wonder that is the Idler Academy … So, please, book tickets and tell your friends. It will be fun …

The One Show, at last – and about 23 minutes into the show (please save yourselves, do not bother with the rest of it, it is painful!) is a whole section about our wonderful project, Hedgehog Street. Laura from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species does a wonderful job of getting a community to open up their gardens with judicious holes … though some of that was a little unnecessary as the there were clearly holes big enough for hedgehogs already … but that is the delight of television. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

And then my moment … wow, those 15 seconds flashed by rather quickly, but I am pleased I managed to say what I needed to say. Though they did introduce me as ‘Hedgehog author and aficionado’ … which is okay, but I had asked to be from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. At least we have a friend with Kate Bevan, the presenter who was snooping around my garden – she likes hedgehogs too.

The programme will be up on the web for another six days – here.

And a screen grab of me in mid flow, just to prove, after the web version is down, that it did all happen!

So lets get out there and make all our streets, Hedgehog Streets. Share the hedgehog love!

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.

Hedgehog Street is such a great idea, and when it was launched at the beginning of June we did loads of media and were thrilled with the way it had grabbed the attention. Within a few days there were thousands of people signed up and – in fact as of now there are over 11,000 people who are out there actively helping to improve the lot of the hedgehog. And now, thanks to the politicians taking some time off from their mistresses (what is the male version of a mistress?) to be with their families, there has been a second spate of interest. A week or so back I did an interview with The One Show – a BBC1 sofa-based chat thing that I have never watched. I had a few hours, on returning bleary eyed from five days at the wonderful Buddhafield festival, to make my wildlife friendly garden seem more suitable for the non-human wildlife (this required putting the superfluous toys and bikes in the neighbour’s garden). The interviewer (forgotten her name already, must get a brain) teased me about the state of the place, piles of prunings gradually being munched by minibeasties, but it all seemed to go well. She was then off to interview Laura from the PTES and get an idea of how best to link up all the wildlife friendly gardens – the key to Hedgehog Street.

Then today I was back with the wonderful Sue Kidger in Twickenham to be interviewed for the Right/Write/Wright Stuff on Channel 5 (which one is right?). Great fun, camera operator Rosie ended up covered in hedgehog poo and having a little hoglet named after her – assistant David took a photo of me performing for the camera.

And I got photos of the hedgehogs performing for camera too …

And my first half decent photo of a hedgehog self-annointing.

So all in all a very successful day. As yet we have no idea when the pieces will make it to air, but I will let you know when I do.