Kindling again …

The idea of the Kindling stage at Wood Festival is straightforwards. I recruit speakers who are passionate about thinking and action and give them 30 minutes and an audience. The fires of revolution will not take without a little kindling …

And this year, well, it was the ‘Year of the Hedgehog’ at the festival. The amazing Nick Cope had been coerced into writing a hedgehog song – one that happened to feature a hedgehog called Hugh. I even got invited onto stage with him when he performed it, so I could talk a little to the audience about hedgehogs … and when I asked them what hedgehogs did when frightened, well, this is what they did!

Hedgehogs featured everywhere, on the programme, in the craft tent and clearly in my tent. Despite my latest book only just having been published I used the opening slot of the 16 to talk about hedgehogs.

Blessed by the clouds opening, I got a great crowd. Thanks Zoe for photo.

I am not going to go through all the speakers, who were all fantastic – here is an indication of what you missed (if you indeed did miss)

Here are a few highlights …

Steve Larkin is part comedian, part musician, part poet and he brought all three bits of himself along to the tent. He videoed himself and I hope that sometime soon there maybe a recording …

Helen Baczkowska talked on the subject of England’s common land – it was utterly fascinating, intelligent and accessible. It was one of the talks I would have been happy to let over run (but I am a ruthless host).

I was also ruthless this year in kicking out regulars (sorry!) but really it was great to get in so many new faces and voices. One of the only repeats was Lucie Mayer – who has been coming every year to talk about her dream of creating a City Farm for Oxford. And each year there has been a story of massive obstacles, slight progress, irritating bureaucracy and dedication. This year was different. They have signed a 40 year lease on hand not a frisbee throw from my front door.

Kate Sudweeks I know firstly through dancing but more recently as a writer. She was working with a group of girls that included my daughter – a sort of coming of age group – and gave her a copy of the book she had written. Mati loved it, so I recommended it to an agent, who has since gathered Kate under her wings and I hope for great things … So Kate brought writing to the tent and offered it up less as a way of communicating (what I try to do) but as a form of healing. It was impressive.

I have known Helen Edwards for years – when I photographed her dancing with a Butoh troupe I thought I had found her ‘edge’. But no, she is always pushing and this year, in January, she did a ‘Dip a Day’ raising money for homeless charities in Oxford. Swimming in rivers or the sea, ever day, takes some dedication.

Literary agent Jemima Hunt came and talked about how to sell a book – this could have gone on for ages too as she generously gave of her time and roped in my agent – James Macdonald Lockhart too. He was there with his wife, Nichola Deane and the musician Ben Avison to capture the wilds in music, poetry and prose. Clover Stroud talked movingly about her wild love and her new book, The Wild Other. The heart and other wonders featured in Caspar Henderson‘s introduction to his new book. And Kindling Housing Cooperative came and talked about the challenges and successes of setting up an alternative to the daunting conventional housing situation.

Tom Moorhouse manages to juggle being serious ecologist at University of Oxford and a highly successful author of children’s books about animals. So did I get him hear to talk about the minimum viable population analysis he did for us on hedgehogs? Or about water voles, rats and toads?

And last, Sasha Norris, who came equipped with hedgehog, owl and rats, that entranced and entertained while she educated.

Wood was awesome – wonderful people in a great setting – thanks to all who made it possible.

John Lewis and the fake hedgehog!

My friends know me well – and it was not long after the new John Lewis Christmas advert was launched this week that they were telling me on social media about one of the ‘stars’ – a bouncing hedgehog.

If you have not seen it yet, the advert stars an enchanting boxer dog called Buster which can’t wait to bounce on the trampoline his six-year-old owner Bridget receives for Christmas.

The dog is seen watching from a sitting room window on the night before Christmas as all sorts of wild garden animals frolic on the trampoline, which is wrapped in a red bow in the garden, as Bridget sleeps upstairs. There are a couple of foxes, a badger, a squirrel … and a hedgehog, all jumping away as Buster looks on, missing the fun.

johnlewis3

Now, I know something about hedgehogs. I started studying them over 30 years ago, have written two books about them and am a vigorous advocate for this most wonderful of all Britain’s creatures. So I pay great attention when they appear in something so grand as a John Lewis Christmas advert – which has become as much a fixture in the calendar as an EastEnders Christmas fight.

And what is not to love about it? Doting parents, dotty Buster and amazing computer-generated imagery of wildlife having a party. The story is perfect – the energy and glee of the child is brilliantly captured, though I do have to question the ease with which she settled down to bed on Christmas Eve. 

Criticising the John Lewis advert is like admitting to having a hobby of sticking pins in puppy’s eyes – and I completely accept that doing so may result in my social death. But … it’s the wrong sort of hedgehog!

flying hedgehog john lewis

The hedgehog that features is one of the African hedgehogs that have been bred as pets mainly in America and they are very different in form to our wild European hedgehogs. African Pygmy Hedgehogs are, as their name suggests, smaller than our European ones. They can come in a multitude of patterns with the spines being pale, white, brown or even piebald. Our ones are always a greyish brown and utterly unsuitable as pets.

It is not the first time I have spotted this mistake. There was that Ribena advert last year. Great music, robins and rabbits and geese all featured and the company made great play of sourcing their blackcurrants from a bucolic Britain. But the hedgehogs they used in the advert? Again, pet hedgehogs and the wrong species.

Ribena hedgehog

Sega, the company behind Sonic the Hedgehog video games have fallen foul of this as well. In 2010, they backed an advert drawing attention to the declining wild hedgehog population, which featured a hedgehog crossing a blue and white zebra crossing, complete with lollipop lady – and three of the four stunt hedgehogs they used were of the wrong sort.

Sonic the Hedgehog lollipop lady

Does this matter? Or am I just being a hedgehog nerd?

Well I would argue it does matter. These ‘cute’ hedgehogs kept as pets are often abandoned. Owners can’t cope with their nocturnal activities – hedgehogs go to the loo on the move and when running on a wheel often get covered in their own faeces so have to be cleaned every morning. They are covered in prickles and, unless really well reared, potentially quite bitey. Which all means they can end up in hedgehog rescue centres blocking beds which might be used by their wild European cousins.

But perhaps more importantly, their use in the John Lewis advert is a reflection of the way we regard our native wildlife.

It would be a shoddy advert that used an image of Buckingham Palace when talking about the Palace of Westminster, for example, or the Mona Lisa when discussing the works of Botticelli. So why do we not pay as much attention to the very real natural wonders that we can find in our garden?

Was this carelessness or ignorance? The advertising company, Adam&EveDDB, claim their aim in the John Lewis advert was not to represent any particular species, as these animals are all ‘mythical’ anyway. Hallie – they’ve given the prickly little creature a name – is apparently the computer-generated imagery result of a composite of hedgehogs, though none of them European I fear.

The complaints that the advert has generated are more about the other species, though. The effective campaign of hatred against badgers and foxes has manifest in considerable ignorance, reflected in worries of the badger giving children TB and foxes attacking sleeping toddlers.

Foxes and badgers are among my favourite animals. Some of my first memories of wildlife came from the thrill of being watched by a fox. I remember hiding in the hedge in the fields behind my parents house in Chester, I would have been 8 or 9, and getting the sense that someone was looking at me and turning, slowly, expecting to see a person, and finding I was sharing a gaze with a fox.

The excitement of seeing a badger crossing your path at dusk is very real, they always seem much larger in the half light. And of course, I would not have spent 30 years studying and writing about hedgehogs if I was immune to their charm.

Now to the tricky bit – badgers and hedgehogs cavorting together? Well, I get regular links to videos sent to me from trail cameras set up in gardens that show hedgehogs and badgers feeding together, or in one memorable instance, the hedgehog scaring off the badgers.

When there is a rich source of food this does seem to happen. But, this is not, and forgive the joke, a black and white issue. For while we know that badgers eat hedgehogs, and we know that where there are increasing numbers of badgers, there are decreasing numbers of hedgehogs, it is actually a more complex issue. 

Badgers and hedgehogs are primarily competitors – they both eat worms and other invertebrates like beetles and caterpillars. But when the environment changes, when there is less of this food available, then predation can be a problem.

These two species have lived together since at least the retreat of the last ice sheet around 10,000 years ago. It is only now, because we humans have placed pressures on their habitats, that the hedgehog suffers from the attentions of the badger.

And while foxes would be hard pressed to tackle an adult hedgehog, they too are known to injure them and kill the young. Though it is not thought that they have an impact on the population as a whole.

Can we ‘blame’ these larger carnivores for their action? Nature can be rather red in tooth and claw, but nature can also be wonderfully adaptable. If we want, as I most certainly do, to see more hedgehogs in the wild we do not need to go attacking badgers and foxes, but instead should look more widely at improving the lot of all wildlife.

Hedgehogs face many problems at the moment. Their population has declined by around a third in urban areas and up to three quarters in the countryside. There are many factors at play.

The roads busy with cars kill thousands and chop up the landscape, stopping hedgehogs moving about.

Fields given over to industrial agriculture, smothered in agrochemicals and stripped of wildlife are no home to hedgehogs.

Even in our own gardens, lovingly tended for beauty, birds, bees and butterflies, we sometimes forget about the more interesting beasts that snuffle in the night.

This is why we launched the Hedgehog Street campaign. The collaboration of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is encouraging us all to think more about hedgehogs, and as a first step, make a small hole, only the size of a CD case, into our garden fences so that these prickly beauties can move.

hedgehog hole

In a rich environment, with plenty of food and shelter, foxes, badgers and hedgehogs can co-exist. These are not fantasy environments. We used to have such a countryside, and we can have the potential for similar diversity in our gardens, if we are willing to take the time to ‘think hedgehog’. 

It does not take much – a compost heap, leaf pile, escape ramp out of the pond, not forgetting those hedgehog-sized holes in fences and walls – small enough to keep out badgers and foxes.

So does the scene on the trampoline represent a vision of garden harmony? A deliberate attempt to show us some sort of ecological utopia?

Or is it, as I rather expect, like the choice of Hallie, an African hedgehog – done without any thought for our natural surroundings, but because it is cute and might just get us to spend a little more in the store?

Hedgehog Cafe!

I have covered a lot of hedgehog stories over the years – and helped generate them too. There has been, as I am sure you will have noticed, a recent and definite upswing in hedgehog output in all forms of media. This is not by accident. The more I can get hedgehogs into people’s consciousness the more likely we are going to be able to see the necessary shift in attitudes that might just slow and reverse the decline in numbers of this charismatic beast.

But even I have been taken by surprise with the latest offering … today the media is full of the Hedgehog Café in Tokyo. My facebook and twitter feeds have been full of people asking me if I have booked a trip there yet.

For those of you who have missed it, here is a short film from the Guardian. And if you can’t be bothered with that, well, here is what goes on – there is a café in Tokyo where you can have your coffee in the company of a hedgehog … simple as that. Not just any old wild hedgehog though, they have a very strict door policy. These are all pet hedgehogs, bred from a couple of species from African that are known as ‘pygmy hedgehogs’. The craze for this started in the USA in the early 1990s and swiftly became big business with breeding pairs exchanging hands for eye-watering fees. Different colour patterns were obtained through selection and now there is a wide range on offer – from albinos to patterned. I wrote about this in my first book, A Prickly Affair – and even got to visit the International Hedgehog Olympic Games! The photo is, obviously, of the sprint event …

The sprint at IHOG 07

Do hedgehogs make good pets? Well, if I had one I could probably be booked out all year long giving talks and letting people pet the prickly bundle (if I was lucky and had a nice one … remember, these solitary, nocturnal animals that like to run all night on a wheel while defecating, resulting in a rather messy hedgehog and cage). But I do not have a hedgehog – for those very reasons. And also because I am a relay big fan of WILDlife – I love our wild hedgehogs and I would hate to have attention pulled away from them and onto a pet. We do not own wildlife and we should never think that we do – we are part of wildlife and do well to remember that we are dependent on wildlife for our own well-being.

What we need to do is to pay attention to the work being done by Hedgehog Street – learn how to held hedgehogs in our gardens, learn how to share our hedgehogs with the wider community and appreciate the wonder of this animal.

Would I go to the Hedgehog Café? Well, if they bought me the ticket, I might just do so – if these are well cared for pet hedgehogs they will be fun to handle. I just would not want to have one myself. However cute they might be …

 

The Day (Week? Month?) of the Hedgehog

I knew it would be a busy time, running up to The Day of the Hedgehog. But I had not counted on the extra impetus the hedgehog would receive from a bumbling MP speaking in the House of Commons in an adjournment debate on 10th November.

The day before I had been busy briefing the Defra Minister, Rory Stewart, in anticipation of Oliver Colvile’s statement. Stewart was sharp-whitted and keen to learn. I explained how the hedgehog was threatened in two different populations – rural and urban. How rural hedgehogs were suffering from a lack of food and shelter – and urban from a fragmented and diminished habitat. Yes, badgers are part of the problem, but it is wrong-headed to ‘blame’ them as many in his party are keen to do.

The debate began with bumbling … and some rather feeble attempts at humour. But at least it got the hedgehog being discussed in parliament for the first time since 1566. Here is the transcript from Hansard (scroll down to the end) – and here is a link to the video of the event. Perhaps most significant to me was the fact that I have now been mentioned in parliament, recorded in Hansard – and referred to as ‘eccentric’! Who would have thought?

This debate sparked off a mini-media-tornado and I got strapped into a studio in BBC Oxford the next day as part of the ‘General News Service’ – a system whereby all the local radio stations around the country can book an interview with one person – by the end of the day I had done 13 interviews … the last one from the offices of my son’s choir … and on being overheard it was said I sounded like I was on ‘Just a Minute’ …. I knew I had little time, I knew that if they asked a question it would just waste what time there was … so I just spoke. All the time promoting the up and coming event of the year – The Day of the Hedgehog!

Just to add to the excitement, the day before the Day – the Friday I was heading up to Telford – I got a call to be on BBC Politics – BBC2 – first time in ages I have done the solo TV studio – and so disconcerting, knowing that the people who are talking to you can see you, but you cannot see them …

And no, this is not a studio on top of South Park (for those familiar with Oxford, the backdrop must always generate a little concern …) The interview went okay, I think – though Zoe Williams, from the Guardian, was on as a pundit and proved herself to be embarrassingly thick … Here is a link to my moment of fame (52 minutes is where it starts to get interesting)!

The Day of the Hedgehog started, for me, with the publication of something a little different – a feature not by me, but about me, in the Daily Telegraph – I had had a wonderful time with the journalist Martin Fletcher back in August, going to a WI meeting, linking up with researcher Lucy Clarke and spending time at Vale Wildlife Rescue.

And the actual meeting? Over 300 people had a brilliantly managed day (I was not part of that side of things – much respect to those at the PTES and BHPS who did so much work beforehand to make it work so well) – and I got to jump up onto the stage and thank the speakers before welcoming on the next ones. All of whom kept to time (something I really appreciate) – all of whom were fascinating, articulate and entertaining. We could not have had a better gathering of people. And around this, I managed to sell over 60 books! So all in all, well worth the time and effort I think – would be great to hear from you if you were there and either agree with me, or have concerns … and if you were not there … would you like us to organise another ‘Day’?