Catalyst is coming

I am friends with a wonderful woman, Polly, who has a wonderful home in East Oxford – Grove House.

Polly’s home has an addition, the Rotunda. This, unsurprisingly round, building was where Vivien Greene (wife of Graham) had her doll’s house museum and is now a space for eclectic performances from around the world (as well as much else – have a look at the website).

And on Thursday July 7th there is going to be one of those eclectic, eccentric and hopefully downright entertaining evenings of performance. The Catalyst Club is coming to Oxford.

The Catalyst Club hails from Brighton where it has been hearing from passionate communicators for the past seven years. It draws on the old traditions of French Salon and debating societies with three guest speakers taking to the stage for 15 minutes during which they talk on a subject close to their hearts. Previous contributions in Brighton have included: Bees – Emergence Theory – Hitler’s Moustache – Victorian Lantern Shows – Cunnillingus – The Exciting World of Slime Mould – Giant Squid – The Dawn of Civilisation.

And what should I talk about, now I have been asked to join such exulted company? I have been considering this long and hard. Topics that spring to mind: Ultimate Frisbee; Love; Wildness; The Importance of Dangling Small Children by their Ankles Over Muddy Puddles in the Woods; The Global Height Conspiracy; Why does Music Make us Cry …

Yet, despite proffering all of these fascinating opportunities, I have been asked to talk on: Why Hedgehogs are Crucial for the Survival of Humanity…

I am joined by renegade potter Carrie Reichardt who, among many other extraordinary things, travelled to Texas to say farewell to her friend, Ash, on death row; and after he was killed, took a death mask of his face to be exhibited around the world, highlighting the brutality of the American penal system.

And the third leg of this veritable stool of pleasure is David Bramwell – founder of the Catalyst Club – who has forsworn modern media for the last ten years and done more stuff than I care to think about.

In fact both of these contributors are ever so slightly intimidating, so this is a plea to my friends – come and support a small spiny mammal as he does his best at the Catalyst Club in Oxford on July 7th. You can buy tickets via here.

huffing and puffing

I should not be doing this – I should be concentrating on Beauty in the Beast, but I just had to pop this up here. I am regularly asked about the noises that hedgehogs make, and I do have some tape somewhere of a male pet African Pygmy hedgehog singing like a rather excitable bird, but that is for another time. For now, I just wanted to share the link I found that revels in the wonderful snuffling that is tragically vanishing from our hedgerows…

In the news

This is just a very quick round up of some of the coverage we have managed to get for the launch of Hedgehog Street campaign and also the report, the State of Britain’s Hedgehogs.

1st June was launch day and we had pieces in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. Then there was the radio blitz, I did the breakfast show on BBC Wales, then BBC West Midlands followed by a manic cycle ride to the BBC studios in Oxford. But that was nothing compared to what others got up to. Fay at the BHPS did three interviews I think and Laura at the PTES had the joy of sitting in a studio and being pinged around the country, doing 13 local radio stations, one after the other.

The night before the launch I was asked to write something for the Guardian website, as part of Comment is Free – and thank goodness for Harry Potter, as my two children watched half an episode while I wrote it after dinner. It emerged on the Guardian website around lunch time and by the next morning (as I am writing) was still on the front page and had stimulated such a debate that there were 175 comments – mostly from people sympathetic to hedgehogs (though there were a few offering recipe tips).

Then this morning, well, I had forgotten I had been interviewed by a journalist from the Independent a week or so ago … not sure if I sound entirely sane in this piece, but great to see my old friend Sue in there too.

There have been a host of re-postings, and local media interest too, so the story is out there. Which feels like something of a triumph. I have played this ‘game’ many times before, but rarely with such success – and while this was undoubtedly down in part to the wonderful pr team at Firebird (thanks Jane) it is also down to luck … if bin Laden had been shot yesterday, we would not have had a fraction of the attention; if another footballer had been caught with his injunctions around his ankles, we would have been lost.

The last time I helped launch a hedgehog story on the world the UK government, without a whisper to anyone else, released a hedgehog-related story the day before … and we were sunk … the media are happy to cover tittle-tattle day in day out, delighted to revel in economics and way without fatigue, but hedgehogs? Can’t do them too often … people would get bored …

Well, I would disagree with that idea … bored of hedgehogs? Never!

Hedgehogstreet

Perhaps the biggest hedgehog story for some time, and I am in the thick of it. Today, 1st June, we are launching ‘Hedgehog Street‘. And, as Melvyn Bragg is so keen on saying as he befuddles audiences on In Our Time (one of my favourite radio programmes), now I ought to ‘unpack’ that a little.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species have been working together for many years, but this is our biggest effort yet. In the past we have developed projects such as HogWatch and we also support the rather unfortunate Mammals on Roads surveys (unfortunate because it relies on the murderous rampage of the motor car to help us monitor fluctuations in the hedgehog population).

What these projects have revealed is alarming. But we wanted to check that the serious decline in hedgehog numbers was ‘real’ and not just a quirk of the way the data were collected. So we employed some of the best ecological statisticians at the British Trust for Ornithology (I know, they do birds, but they also do numbers REALLY well) and they used our figures along with data they had collected. From this we can unequivocally state that in the last ten years, the hedgehog population of Britain has declined by around 25%.

This is alarming. The hedgehog is an excellent indicator of the state of our environment, it is also a wonderfully robust creature that has managed to fit brilliantly into our world. So what has changed? And what can we do about it?

The answer is something I have been banging on about for years. Habitat fragmentation.

At its most obvious, this would be a busy road being built through an area of hedgehog habitat. Hedgehogs would then be unable to get from one side to the other. But fragmentation is far more insidious. It happens in the rural landscape because fields get bigger and hedges remain unmanaged. It is exacerbated by the increase in badgers, the presence of which prevents hedgehogs moving along the remaining hedgerows. And it happens in the last refuge of the hedgehog, suburbia.

In A Prickly Affair, I wrote about the suburban doughnut … the circle of rich hedgehog territory that surrounds the desert its heart. But this doughnut of interconnected gardens is also being fragmented. Obviously, busier roads make a hedgehog’s life harder. But so does infill development, so does the destruction of wildlife friendly gardens with extensions, decking, patios and car-ports. And so do fences with concrete footings. You might have the very best hedgehog friendly garden in the city – and I have had this question asked of me many times – but no hedgehogs. Well, if they cannot get into your garden, they will not appear.

And this is where Hedgehog Street comes in. This innovative project has been set up to help us all recreate a mosaic of interconnected habitats in suburbia. There is an information pack with all the details, the website also has top tips, but what it comes down to is the simple fact that if we open out our gardens to hedgehogs by allowing them to move between them, we massively increase their chances of survival.

The figures are amazing, there are around 433,000 hectares of garden and if we could get just 0.1% of them involved, that would create a hedgehog refuge larger than Sherwood Forest!

So log on to Hedgehog Street, get your pack and get active – and don’t forget to share the fun, post your stories on the forum, get local media interest (this will be on SpringWatch soon) and get out there with a saw and a sledgehammer!

So there is plenty we can do, but there is one fact that this analysis of historic data has thrown up that shook me to my core. The population estimate for hedgehogs in Britain in 1950 was around 30 million. In 1995 it was about 1.5 million. Now, probably nearer one million. That is less than 5% of the 1950 figure. That means we have lost over 95% of our hedgehogs in just 60 years. Please re-read that sentence. It is possible that the original figure is an over-estimate. But, say, it is double what was really out there, that would still mean we have a 90% population decline on our hands.

This leads me to something else that has been bothering me for sometime. It is the idea of ‘shifting baselines’. We are worried about the substantial decline we are aware of – and there is no denying how serious it is – but this is a quite small decline compared to what we have already lost. Shifting baselines kick in when we make assessments about the state of populations based on the knowledge that we personally have. So my idea of a healthy population of hedgehogs will be heavily influenced by my early memories of abundance. That memory acts as a baseline from which I now look in distress at the current population level. But the situation is far worse than that as my baseline is drawn from an already devastated population. And this is true for everything. There is simply far less wildlife out there than there was. And the reason is because we have killed it or we have destroyed the habitat necessary for it to flourish.

This is something to feel sadness and anger about, but it is vital we do not let that beat us into submission. I know many people think my passion for hedgehogs a little eccentric, but the truth is, it is a passion for all wildlife, and the message the hedgehog tells us now is one we must heed. Remember – we might have already lost 95% of the country’s hedgehogs. Grieve, then act; give the hedgehogs a treat.