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?

Sonic Attack

I have avoided Sonic the Hedgehog for as long as possible – mainly because I have never played the game and have absolutely no idea what the excitement is all about. That is probably more of an indictment of my age rather than the game – though I would still love someone to explain the draw.

But now I am forced to write about Sonic and the Sega empire that spawned him (is Sonic male?) because they have managed to get a splash in the Daily Mail today. Which I only know thanks to the wonders of Google alerts.

The story?

“Dramatic decline of one of the nation’s favourite creatures: 300,000 fewer hedgehogs in Britain than a decade ago”

And it goes on to say some very important things about the decline in hedgehog numbers, how the data is gathered – through the rather unpalatable mechanism of counting road kill – and brings in ideas of intensive farming being one of the key problems for rural hedgehogs. All good stuff.

So why am I grumpy?

Well that is the story really. It is a story of how the PR industry ‘use and abuse’ on behalf of their clients. It is a story riddled with self-indulgent moaning about the hard lot of a freelance writer who keeps getting drawn into doing the work for people who are being paid each and every month – even when they make such absurd mistakes as has been done in this instance. But mostly it is a story that asks the big question … what numpty put those hedgehogs in the picture?

Back in September I got a message from Sega’s PR company, Mischief PR. They wanted help in the run up to the launch of their new game and they wrote to all sorts of hedgehog related groups around the country. A few were passed on to me – and more than once, promises were made, e.g. “We would make a donation to the UIST Hedgehog Rescue for your involvement and would also be mentioning the charity in our press materials, so aiming to raise awareness of the work you guys do! It is designed to be a fun event, but also ones that highlights the serious nature of your charity.”

There were looking for the most dangerous road crossing in the UK for hedgehogs, they wanted quotes on the numbers of hedgehogs killed on the roads and they wanted a supply of hedgehogs to pose for a photo-shoot.

Given that this was done with the promise of publicity and money for the BHPS – of whom I am a trustee – I decided to invest quite some time and managed to find them a suitable place, some hedgehogs and plenty of facts about the state of hedgehogs.

I asked if I could come to the photo shoot – as by now they were hoping to do some sort of Abbey Road mock up … and I though it would be quite fun to see, and also be something I could use in my talks. I find the whole iconography of the hedgehog fascinating. I even had a positive response from Radio 4’s Saving Species programme who were interested in using this to spark a discussion on the true impact of roads on wildlife. This is important because dead hedgehogs, and dead anything else for that matter, is far from the full story. Roads, especially busy roads, act as real, physical barriers to many species. They have a far greater impact on the environment than simply dead beasts.

They agreed and said they would let me know when it was all happening … and I decided, having dealt with PR companies before, not to hold my breath. And a good job too! As the event all took place with not one jot of communication with me, despite promises to the contrary. Even my phone calls were ignored.

And if they had invited me along? Well, then they would not have made the mistake, which has made them look utterly ridiculous. Somehow they have ended up with an African Pygmy Hedgehog in the shot. Have a look at the picture, the hedgehog on the left looks a little different – smaller, whiter spines. That is not a native hedgehog. If Sega want to go helping Atelerix frontalis and Ateleric albiventris, I would suggest they start investing in conservation projects in Africa, not encourage people to take them in as pets.

I have written quite a bit about these before now. These are pet hedgehogs. The craze for keeping them as pets was big and brief in the USA – as is always the case with fad pets. And there are people who would like to see the same thing happen here. Now I have spent plenty of time with these pet hedgehogs and can see why some people, especially those unable to do much in the way of moving themselves, might find them agreeable. They are cute and they can be tamed into cuddliness.

BUT – we have our own wild hedgehogs here, and if the craze does kick off, it is inevitable that unscrupulous dealers will start trying to palm off our wild hedgehogs as pets, and when boredom sets in, as it will do, and people want to get rid of their pets, they will either just release them into the wild – where they will die – or hand them on to a hedgehog rescue centre, that will be poorly equipped to deal with – and unable to re-release the animal.

So, Sega, and your PR machine, it is time to correct the picture and to pay up – there are a number of hedgehog carers who have spent considerable amounts of time and energy, only to feel ignored, and there groups like the BHPS as well – who would all benefit from a fraction of your great wealth. More importantly, there are thousands of hedgehogs out there who would benefit from some scrapings from the Sonic table – oh, and don’t forget the unpaid writers!

Lets see Sega make good on its promises, or lets start a call to boycott Sonic.

And just as a final note – who thought that sticking boots, ‘Sonic’ boots, onto a young hedgehog was going to make it happy? Poor thing looks utterly miserable.