Stunt ‘hog

Just had a great morning at Vale Wildlife Rescue filming a taster dvd that a company is going to use to try and persuade the BBC (or anyone else who is interested) in commissioning us to head off to China in search of Hugh’s Hedgehog (and if you have not read my book (shame on you) then I will not spoil the surprise – but there genuinely is a species of hedgehog called hugh – Hemiechinus hughi to be precise.)

Vale have got an open day on Sunday 6th June. I was there last year and will be there again this year, giving a couple of talks and generally helping their fund-raising effort (I have been elevated to the status of Patron, which is very flattering).

And here are a few of the photos of my stunt hedgehog (well, as the observant of you will notice, two different stunt ‘hogs).

Hedgehog T-shirt

The post arrived early this morning (very unusual) – and with it a t-shirt I have been waiting for. A friend (thanks Jess) sent me a link to Shirt Woot – who have a very strange fashion business – they produce a brand-new t-shirt design every day – which are then subject to the pressures of the market – which in turn identifies the best.

Obviously this is not a perfect selection process as my new shirt does not make it on to the front page. In fact now I have a rummage through the site, I cannot find it … I might be the only person in the UK with this shirt … I should have bought more – I could sell them on at talks … I will never be the capitalist I was supposed to be.

And in case it is not clear – that is a mountainous hedgehog eating a bulldozer. It is an image that makes me very happy!

where do hedgehogs come from?

My little boy, Pip, got back from school full of excitement. They had been looking at mini-beasts and, apart from the slug that a little girl stamped on, it seems to have been a memorable morning. But then he told me about the ‘great big fat caterpillar’ – what does that turn into, I asked.

‘A hedgehog,’ Pip responded.

Now, remember the book, I pursued, The Very Hungry Caterpillar … what did that turn into – it had beautiful wings.

‘A hedgehog with wings,’ Pip concluded – and dashed outside.

I think he was teasing me (he is a canny four-year-old)! I hope so, otherwise my gentle introductions into the world of zoology have gone seriously wrong – time to start reading him A Prickly Affair at bed time I reckon!

Hedgehogs help save the world, again

This is just a quick note to reveal yet another attempt by the hedgehogs to help stave off planetary annihilation. It is not that long ago that the Big Issue carried on its front cover the bold claim ‘Save the Hedgehog, Save the World’. I had brazenly purloined that from Heroes – and feel that it is more important when attached to hedgehogs, not cheerleaders. My favourite bit about the cover was that the following was pushed over to the margins, to make way for me and the hedgehogs – ‘Obama and me, Desmond Tutu speaks’ –  I had managed to marginalise two of the most important people on the planet!

But now, even more serious, hedgehogs are back.

There is a plan by the current government to help maintain our standing in the world by buying large bombs. They want to replace the Trident nuclear missile system with something even snazzier. It is a bit like a poorly endowed middle aged man buying an expensive sports car – he sits in it thinking he is cool while everyone around him is thinking of a joke … what is the difference between a hedgehog and a Ferrari/Porsche/Range Rover etc etc …. the hedgehog has its pricks on the outside … boom boom (goes the trident replacement).

So, the UK is trying to maintain its geopolitical standing with go-faster stripes and the loud revving threats of – ‘don’t mess with me or I will drive me car very fast at you and kill you’ – because that is what would happen if we entered into a nuclear exchange – we would all die.

But it is not just about the absurdity of this stance – there is also the cost. Whether it is a sports car of a new nuclear missile system, these things don’t come cheap. And in the case of Trident, we are looking at £97 billion pound. Banks and bombs – always money for banks and bombs … but what else could that money be spent on? A very interesting question, and one that Greenpeace has asked my dearly beloved to ask many many people – and feed the resulting films up onto a video wall … there is a great range of opinion – from a retired General (who thinks that troops could do with proper kit rather more than a very big bomb that they will not use) through to George Monbiot, George Marshall Alastair McGowan and a host of others who have very good ideas about how to spend that money. And me … I point out that just one millionth of that figure would help us to find an answer to the problem of declining hedgehog numbers in the UK and around the world – so by funding research into the complexities of life, rather than funding arms manufacturers to destroy life, the world would be a much better place. So, see what the hedgehog says on the video wall – and vote for your favourite … no pressure now!

First of the year

It took until the night of the 20th April to see a hedgehog this year … partly due to me not being out wandering around, but partly, also, due to hedgehogs taking a little longer to emerge from hibernation this year.

I had been giving a lecture to the Devon Mammal Group in Exeter – a great crowd filled with interesting questions (and also eager to buy books, I like that a lot) – and went to stay with my old friend Kelvin Boot. I met him when he was the presenter of the Natural History Programme and I was but a menial researcher … back in 1993. He is a great naturalist and is full of stories about the wildlife in his patch of Devon as well as the wider world. Just now he is involved with ocean acidification – ‘the other CO2 problem’.

Not sure whether hedgehogs will be affected by this for a while, but their namesakes, sea urchins, will be affected. As CO2 levels in the atmosphere increase, so the amount absorbed by the sea also increases. This creates an increase in the acidity of the water – which makes it harder for organisms that require calcium carbonate (ie all the ones with shells and bones … which is a lot of them) to gather it from the water. An extreme version of this is to drop something rich in calcium carbonate into vinegar … it will dissolve. Now, the sea is not going to turn to vinegar, but the changes will affect all marine life – and in turn, all life on the planet.

There are hard-nosed scientists out there who fear that this is a more serious problem than global warming/climate change. And some of them fear that it is already too late to change the course we have set.

Kelvin helped a school make this movie about the problem:

The Other CO2 Problem

now that is homework I would like to have received.

And while out with Kelvin yesterday, we got to see Little Egrets and hear their courtship noises – a little like a dunk man trying to impersonate a turkey … not the sort of think one would expect from an elegant white bird. The RSPB have more info and a sound clip here.

Just to add to the great day, on the way back from the estuary where we had been watching the egrets, a stoat dashed across the road.

Now I need a hedgehog to visit my garden, it is only fair really!

saving species

My first, and last, real job was with Natural History Radio in Bristol, part of the elite BBC unit that produces the ultimate in blue-chip wildlife films. It was a fascinating insight into that amazing world, it turned me on to radio and also made me realise that I am not really cut out for a real job (and have been freelance ever since).

So it was really exciting to be back in the studio this morning to do a live insert into the new 40 week series, Saving Species. What a turn around – for the first time ever, a programme of this scale has been commissioned with the express focus of looking at conservation. And I got my chance on the second episode – which, just in case you missed it (!) is available to listen again here …. It can also be downloaded here …. My bit crops up about 7.30 minutes into the programme if you are impatient.

I just loved the look on presenter Bret Westwood’s face as I advocated people taking sledgehammers to fences, decking and patios in the quest for a hedgehog-friendly garden!

I would love feedback – I really enjoyed doing the show and hope to do more. I also recorded a longer interview that will be placed on an Open University website soon – that I will share as soon as I can.

who would a hedgehog vote for?

If ever there was evidence needed for the importance of hedgehogs, then it has come with the launch of the Labour Party election manifesto. We now have broken out of the niche – hedgehogs are mainstream …

It is only a matter of time that ‘Support the hedgehog’ becomes ‘Save the hedgehog, save the world’ … and at that point I will know I have been well and truly thieved.

Should it bother me? Well, it is easy to see why the Labour spin doctors have chosen the hedgehog – they see it as the most charismatic and benign of the country’s fauna – everyone loves a hedgehog.

But who would a hedgehog vote for?

Even though I have a recollection of the Monster Raving Loony Party calling for the lowering of the buttons on traffic lights, to enable hedgehogs to press them and facilitate their crossing … I am not sure there is quite enough coherence in the overall environmental and wildlife strategies to seduce most right-thinking hogs.

Tories? Well, there is a streak of green running through that party – the old-school conservatives were and are frequently into many of the things that hedgehogs like – countryside, hedges etc – even if the motivations are rather suspect, driven more often than not by a desire to kill something for fun. But – arch-Tory Ann Widdecombe is a very keen hedgehog supporter. She insisted that on her 60th birthday her friends did not give her presents, but donate money to the BHPS. I met her and chatted about this – she is, despite some rather less-pleasant views, a delightfully intelligent and slightly intimidating woman with more than a toe slipping over the line between animal welfare and animal rights. Another surprising Tory supporter was that ‘semi-house-trained polecat’ (thanks Michael Foot for that) Norman Tebbit.

Though I wonder whether the Tory love of nature may in part be motivated by a general misanthropism.

Liberal Democrats should be pretty green, mainly with envy at the other two main parties hoarding the votes, but their local track-record is not as pleasant as it should be given the generally benign nature of their presentation. I will need to read a little more about them to see if they really do have anything to offer the hedgehog.

Labour? Well, the closest they have come to supporting hedgehog-rights is in their video! Though under their leadership the hedgehog has been upgraded to a priority species on the Biodiversity Action Plan (even if this means nothing unless I and my colleagues get on and do something about it).

But none of the three main parties seems to have grasped the bigger picture – that will appeal most to hedgehogs (and wildlife around the country). It is impossible to have a sustainable environment – one in which wildlife is able to flourish and is not at risk of being wiped out by development and climate change – without addressing the central tenet of capitalism. Growth – growth cannot go on forever – it is a biological imperative – growth has to stop at some point. In our body, when there is growth that does not follow basic biological laws, we have CANCER. Society that is driven to consume more and more – and industry that collapses without continual growth – is all completely doomed to failure.

The big problem for us is that politicians do not give a damn – they are going to be in power for a brief moment – and they want to hold onto as much power as they can in that time. They are not giving a thought to what is going to happen to their children’s children. Politics is so obscenely focussed on the short term interests of the greedy and so depressingly ignorant (or uncaring) of the long term impacts of their actions that it is hard to find a voice to turn to …

And that leaves the Greens. Can they? Will they earn their first seat in the House of Commons? In Brighton there is one of the most honest and hard-working people I have ever met – Caroline Lucas. And she is in with a real chance. We are not going to get a Green government any time soon – but I think it is to the Greens we must look if we want to find a party that is truly on the side of the hedgehogs (oh, and the rest of us too!)

countryfile and empathy

It was great to see, but over in a flash … here is the link to the i-player for Countryfile. I appeared just after the hedgehog at 11.00 minutes in:

And if that was not enough, the wonderful Roman Krznaric has published an interview with me on his blog – Outrospection.

Here is our conversation – but I really recommend a rootle through the work of this fascinating man:

Roman Krznaric: You’ve written a whole book about hedgehogs, and were described in a recent review as having an ‘endearingly batty’ obsession with them. Why do you personally care about these creatures so much?

Hugh Warwick: I started studying the ecology of hedgehogs nearly 25 years ago. To begin with I was just fascinated by how little we knew about this charismatic animal. But the more time I spent with hedgehogs, the more I came to realise that they have a wonderful quality. They endear themselves to people, they are attractive, quirky and eccentric. But my epiphany came on a night out with Nigel – when I ended up nose-to-nose with this hedgehog I was radio-tracking. As he looked up at me and our eyes met I became aware that there is no other wild creature we can do this with. I had a glimpse of his essential wildness, while at the same time he was obviously looking at me. He went back to eating, I was left feeling slightly altered. So at the heart of the whimsically titled book I have written (A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog) is something a little deeper about our connection with the natural world.

RK: There is a lot of debate in empathy circles about whether it is possible for human beings to empathise with animals. The suggestion is that we are so different from bats, dolphins, elephants and most other animals that we are incapable of understanding their feelings and thoughts, and stepping empathetically into their skins. Their experiences are, ultimately, alien to us. As someone who has become intimate with hedgehogs and spoken to hedgehog aficionados worldwide, do you think it is possible for us to empathise with animals in general, and hedgehogs in particular? Can we really step into their spiny skins?

HW: I completely agree that it is impossible to know exactly what it feels like to be a hedgehog, we do not have the vocabulary. But that does not prevent a degree of empathy – and what I ask people to do is to change their perspective. Literally. Get down at hedgehog level, get nose-to-nose with a hedgehog and then look at their world from this position. This will give you an insight into the complications we have thrown in the path of hedgehogs.

But on the whole, and despite the contradiction with my night out with Nigel, I am not that keen on the idea of empathising with a hedgehog – but with hedgehogs. I believe there is a risk of getting mired in sentimentality if you focus your attentions on an individual. But there is freedom to be had when allowing this to spread to the species as a whole – and then on to the ecosystem that supports it. The individual hedgehog is a gatekeeper of a deeper love of the natural world. The risk I believe is in getting stuck in the gate. Don’t stop, keep moving.

RK: You refer to the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia, which he describes as ‘the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms’. It has always struck me that empathy and biophilia are very closely related. What do you think?

HW: I am not sure whether we are empathising with nature – it would be as if we were empathising with the air we breath and the water we drink. It is more than empathy – it is a deeply seated physical need. There is plenty of evidence that shows we humans suffer when removed from contact with nature.

But certainly the idea is closely related – and I use our empathetic relationship with the hedgehog as a way of altering our perspective on the world around.

As an aside, I wanted to call my book The Hedgehog’s Dilemma (it has that title in the US). It refers to the Schopenhauer idea – two hedgehogs / people want to be close to each other, but if they get too close, they get hurt, yet if they are too far apart, they become bereft. And I believe we have that relationship with the planet – we cannot all go and do a Thoreau and live in the woods, we would destroy it. But if we are totally removed from it, we get sick.

RK: Even if we are able to empathise with hedgehogs and other animals, does it really matter? How can it help us nurture our bonds with the natural world, especially in a way that inspires us to take action to preserve it?

After what I have just said this seems a little prosaic. By sharing a hedgehog’s perspective we can see what problems it faces. Whether it is the cars on the roads that not only threaten extinction, but also fragment the environment, preventing movement – to the litter that collars and kills hedgehogs to the gardens given over to car-ports, decking and patios and the borders cleaned of life with agro-toxins – we get to see those anthropogenic threats all the more clearly.

But for me the most important thing is the contact of the eyes – looking at a hedgehog looking at me – eyes meeting and there being this almost intangible spark of wildness. We cannot get that connection with wildness easily. Maybe hiking up a mountain or along a forest trail, there may be that sense of wildness. But here, in my own back garden, I have a doorway into the wild, one that many people can share without corrupting what we so need to survive. Which is a long way round of saying, gaze at a hedgehog and let yourself fall in love with nature. Once you have fallen in love you are all the more likely to change yourself to enable the relationship to continue. So, go love a hedgehog and help save the world. Or as I put it in the book – ‘Save the hedgehog, Save the world’ (thanks to Heroes for that one).

hedgehog feet

A friend has just sent me this picture he took last year of hedgehog feet – and Brian Goddard has kindly let me put it up on the blog as it is a lovely image and a view that we don’t often get.

Brian is a great photographer and I heartily recommend a visit to his website to have a look at the images he has found from around the world.

I did a talk last night in Oxford for the Oxford Urban Wildlife Group, at Science Oxford, and it was sold out! I think everyone had a good time – just remember, I am available for very reasonable fees to come and talk pretty much anywhere.

There are still so many hedgehog stories – I can’t keep up. But because it is silly, I will share the successfully dieted hedgehog story …. though it would have been nice if the BBC had got Colin Seddon’s name right. Fourteen hedgehogs had been fattened up so much over winter that when it came to release time, they were too fat to roll up tightly into a ball!

Hedgehogs in the news – again

I am quite amazed – the number of hedgehog stories that the press can tolerate is remarkable. Just today I have a piece on the Ecologist website and in the Western Morning News. To top it all, I have been booked to appear on Saving Species – BBC Radio 4’s new natural history  programme on Tuesday 13th April … live on Radio 4 .. do they know what they have let themselves in for? The producer was telling me that I would have 5 minutes and that there will be questions leading me along … Questions?? They would be interruptions!

My John Craven excitement is being broadcast on Sunday at 1815 on BBC1 – evening making it onto the blog.

Will there be more? Hope so – though now I am preparing for the talk in Oxford on Thursday … oh, and working.

Easter held no hedgehog excitement – but I still had fun. Pip got to meet a new born lamb:

and Mati got to walk with my gorgeous fairy-odd daughter: