Saving the world, one hedgehog at a time
A proprietor of several green acres whom I met last week told me he had been talking to hedgehogs. He loves them, he says. Tell us more.
He's not alone and, although he may never have heard of him, an English writer named Hugh Warwick has described looking into a hedgehog's eyes seeking rapport and swearing "there was a flicker of something".
The man of grassland on the Meath-Dublin border meets his hedgehogs as he releases them from being imprisoned in vermin traps. They are no doubt relieved to scamper away - after he has his chat.
Writer Warwick says it is easy to fall under their spell. He has written a book about them, A Prickly Affair (Penguin). "They are the most charismatic creatures on the planet with much more character than other small mammals," he writes. "With hedgehogs you get shy ones, bold ones, friendly ones. They are all individuals - and they are all different." He goes on (and this may explain my farmer's infatuation): "There simply isn't another wild animal in the world that you can get as close to as a hedgehog. That's what makes them unique."
But these days a chance sighting of erinaceus europaeus is rare, even in old gardens, and more so in the countryside where hedgerows and headlands have been ploughed up, wiping out food sources and shelter for many wild creatures.
They have been scarce for a long time. Odd ones may be seen following old tracks seeking mates, often crossing busy roads and, like badgers (who eat them), ending up smashed by traffic, rolling into quilled spheres being no defence.
They can be hapless victims of garden accidents. I once clipped one while cutting long grass; I heard it, could not find it. The poet Philip Larkin hit one while mowing his lawn: "Kneeling, I found a hedgehog jammed against the blades; now I have mauled its unobtrusive world." He never used the mower again.
A century before, another poet, John Clare, was upset by farmers who hunted the animals believing they suckled their cows at night. But the little animal is the farmer's friend, eating crop pests and may have been brought here from Wales with the Normans in the 12th century for this purpose.
Its Irish name, "grainneog" which means "horrible one," is puzzling. The little creature also provided food. According to George Borrow, who wrote of rural life in Britain and Ireland in the 19th century, hedgehogs were cooked and eaten by Romanies who baked them in clay 'overcoats'. They tasted like pork. Writer Niall Mac Coitir says Irish Travellers also ate baked animals. Hugh Warwick could never approve. He helped evacuate large numbers from South Uist in the Hebrides in a cull to protect ground bird nesting. The hedgehog population shows a 50pc decline in 20 years. Aside from farm practices there is also a mystery.
As writer Adam Nicholson put it: "Hedgehogs are dying because we don't know what we are doing to them." If you see one in your garden leave out some water - no milk. If you do this you are saving the world, Hugh Warwick says.