Spiny icon!

The hedgehogs have done it! They have been overwhelmingly voted Britain’s National Species.

In June the BBC Wildlife Magazine announced it was seeking a wildlife icon as part of the amazing publication’s 50th birthday celebrations. Over 9,000 people took part with a range of our most iconic wildlife to choose from.

I obviously hoped the hedgehog would win. I have been studying hedgehogs on and off for the last 30 years, have written two books about them and work with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species in trying to bring a halt to the terrifying population decline.

An article by nature writer extraordinaire Patrick Barkham accompanied the launch of the poll. He made the very good point that the UK is bereft! If you use your computer to search for ‘country’ and ‘identity’ for many other lands you get clear answers – kangaroos in Australia and kiwis in New Zealand for example. But for animal-loving Britain? There has been no distinct answer. Until now.

And it was a very clear victory … the next nearest species was the badger. Interesting to have these two creatures, already wrapped up in a complicated ecological conundrum whereby the presence of badgers tends to augur poorly for the presence of hedgehogs, side by side in the nation’s affections. Here are the figures:

1 Hedgehog championed by: British Hedgehog Preservation Society, votes: 3,849

2 Badger championed by: Badger Trust, votes: 2,157

3 Oak tree championed by: Woodland Trust, votes: 950

4 Red squirrel championed by: Red Squirrel Survival Trust, votes: 730

5 Robin championed by: RSPB, votes: 626

6 Otter championed by: Wildlife Trusts, votes: 270

7 Bluebell championed by: Plantlife, votes: 198

8 Water vole championed by: Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, votes: 150

9 Swallow championed by: BTO, votes: 108

10 Ladybird championed by: Buglife, votes: 70

I wonder what your thoughts are on this … where would your vote had gone? Would it have been to a species not on the list?

A question I am asked many times is brought up again by this poll – why do we care so much about the hedgehog? We cannot put it all at the feet of Beatrix Potter – even if she did mark a point of change for how hedgehogs were referred to in stories. Prior to Mrs Tiggy-Winkle they tended to be creatures of mystery, or portent. I think it is tied in to how our lives have changed.

We have been so removed from wildlife that my current obsession with a robin I have tamed to feed from my hand

(more on this soon) marks me out as strange. But we used to live much closer to the wild – and before that, we were of the wild. For most people there is limited opportunity for direct contact with nature. Maybe watching David Attenborough and putting out some nuts for birds is as far as it goes. And this is a shame.

The hedgehog, by dint of its behaviour, allows us to get close to a genuinely wild animal, and this is important. It is something I advocate – in fact I am trying to win £1000 from Lush (the cosmetics company) at the Green Gathering this weekend in order to help fund my project of exciting primary school children into a great love of nature by reminding them that there are still hedgehogs out there to be seen.

It is a win-win situation. We get a thrill of nature – which is good for us – and this in turn shifts us from being passive consumers of wildlife images to activists who want to help save what we have left. The hedgehog is the most perfect icon – let us embrace the spiny beast (carefully) and let us make sure that there are hedgehogs to thrill generations to come.



Namibia’s dirty secret

Today I had a horrible reminder of a story that I tried to covered back in 1995. I had been in Namibia looking into the trade in pangolin scales. Pangolins are a scaly anteater – in south east Asia they are largely arboreal but in southern Africa there is a different species, the Ground pangolin (Manis temminckii). The scales of the Ground pangolin are in great demand for the Traditional Chinese Medicine and muti trades. And as there are so few left in Asia, attention has been turned on the African species.

The scales of the pangolin are made from a rather amazing and quite magical substance, so it is no wonder that people are keen to get hold of it, because I just cannot imagine where else they could find this stuff … keratin … really – the worry at the global shortage of keratin has people biting their finger nails in fear of what might happen if they could never get a hit of that complex fibrous protein again.

But this short blog is not about the pangolins – fascinating and cute as they are. It was sparked by a video clip that appeared on the Guardian website today. And now a warning – this is a horrible clip.

The film of seal cubs being clubbed to death was shot in 2011 but withheld until now as the campaigners at Earthrace Conservation wanted to see whether the proof of what was happening would be enough to persuade the authorities in Namibia to call a halt to the controversial killing. They also wanted to leave time to allow those brave people who managed to film the cull to move far from harms way.

My personal interest was sparked when, in 1995, I visited the Cape fur seal at Cape Cross. It is a wonderful opportunity to get close to a mass of wildlife – you pay your money and you get to walk along a path right beside the basking seals. Here is a photograph I took on that walk – frustratingly the original is not on this computer so I have had to borrow my image from a library that sells images for me:

Now, I am given to occasionally push my luck and was there well aware of the cull that takes place – early in the morning, before the tourists arrive, teams of men smash the skulls of seal cubs and load them into trucks, washing the bloodstains away to keep the visitors happy. So I snooped, a little. Now, I was there with a very old, manual camera, and most of the photographs I got were not very good. But these two, again very gruesome, capture the horror of what I found – the processing factory – there was a rendering plant for the fat – and the skin was dried and sold.

I was chased out after taking these pictures, camera hidden I played the part of the lost tourist.

The arguments for the cull are as self-serving and ecologically illiterate as our very own government’s desire to kill badgers to assist the dairy industry. The cull of seals will not help the fisheries – that is not how ecology works. And it has been shown clearly that the amount of money made from tourists coming to watch the wildlife spectacle far outweighs that made from seal oil and fur.

Namibia was an amazing country to visit, full of vigour and life, even in the depths of the enormous deserts. But it is shamed by the perpetuation of the seal hunt. I am not sure what is the best way forward, there are campaign groups who are far more experienced than me, but I feel if we were to express our resolve to the Namibia embassies around the world of our intention to boycott the country until they halt the killing, that would be a start.

Sorry for the horrible stories, I will write something much happier soon, I promise.