How much is a hedgehog worth?

The massive difference in people’s attitudes to wildlife is starkly revealed today. On the one had the Scotsman has reported on the costs of the hedgehog-eradication programme in the Uists – so far £1.2 million has been spent, and they are planning on spending a further £1 million. This is all with the aim of improving the breeding success of ground-nesting birds – a few hedgehogs were introduced in 1974 to control slugs and snails in a garden, but have since been enjoying the freedom of the islands (freedom from badgers and heavy traffic) – unfortunately they have also been enjoying the freedom of the massive egg-breakfast laid for them by the internationally important populations of wading birds, like dunlin and ringed plover.

When the eradication started, in 2003, there was a furore as Scottish Natural Heritage were killing the hedgehogs, and many of us ended up helping to rescue them. Eventually we managed to persuade them that killing was unnecessary (for a more detailed analysis – here is a paper that summarises the research I did) and since 2006 SNH have been handing the animals over to the one-time rescuers to relocate on the mainland.

And how much is that per hedgehog? Over £800 to remove each and every hedgehog. And that is not the half of it – up until this year, the work has, in effect, been subsidised by animal welfare charities – who have used their voluntary labour to re-home the animals after their deportation from the Outer Hebrides. All of the hedgehogs come to the indescribably wonderful Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue hospital.

The other measure of our attitudes to hedgehogs and wildlife in general is a story that features another wildlife rescue hospital.  The Guardian is running a piece today, including video, from Vale Wildlife Rescue in Gloucestershire, which is making the rather important point that hungry wildlife needs to be fed and the food costs money. It is not just Vale – and I am sure they would be the first to make this clear – but wildlife rescue centres all over the country and feeling the pinch and need a little help. Not just money – find out what they actually need – is it old newspapers, tins of dog food – and see what you can do. If only all the wildlife rescuers got £800 for each hedgehog!!

And back up in the Uists, has all this money been well spent? Well, when the British Trust for Ornithology did a survey, to investigate the impact the removal of hedgehogs was having on the breeding success of ground nesting birds, they uncovered something rather startling: in some areas where hedgehogs had been removed, the birds were doing LESS well than where the hedgehogs were left alone and declines in dunlin were happening at the same rate in areas with hedgehogs and on islands without.

SNH have now acknowledge this and said that there is no “statistically robust evidence” that all their work “has as yet resulted in a positive response in wader populations”. They continue to suggest that there may be “other variables” having an impact on the bird populations … well, I hate to say ‘I told you so’ … but ‘I TOLD YOU SO’ … I did a study into a very similar story, up on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney archipelago, way back in 1986, and found that while hedgehogs did take some eggs, they were not the main cause of the problem. All too often, wildlife managers leap to a ‘Daily Mail-esque’ conclusion – blame it on the illegal immigrant and get rid of them by what ever means necessary. Well, sometimes it is not the different-looking newcomer who is at fault … so rather than spending another million pounds shifting hedgehogs, perhaps now is time to look at the problem afresh.

1000 visitors and drunken hedgehogs

Someone very soon is about to be the 1000th visitor to my blog … now that may not strike you as much (I think that Mr Fry has over 1,000,000 twits) – but for me it is an achievement and will make me feel just a little bit more loved!

Please pass on the blog link to anyone you think might be interested in the wonderful world of hedgehogs and the peculiar way I manage to see a hedgehog in pretty much every story out there … more to follow – though perhaps I should be advocating hibernation now our toes are beginning to be nipped.

And for the hedgehog relevant bit – just had a question in about a hedgehog behaving in a drunken manner … this is not the result of hedgehogs eating slugs that have been killed in beer traps (at least not at this time of year) – but it is a very clear indication that the animal is suffering from hypothermia – and will die if not taken into care (that is not a judgement call by the way, it is just an observation). If you want to find out the basics of keeping a hedgehog alive, have a look in my book; at the British Hedgehog Preservation Society or call your local carer (details again via the BHPS).

Happy Hedgehogging xx

The Tattoo …

To get to the ‘tattoo parlour’ – a temporary affair above the gallery, cordoned off by a red-rope barrier from the crowds, I was lead up the back stairs by Jai, master-mind of the madness that was about to begin. I was in the first batch of three – out of the 100 to be tattooed over the long weekend.

I think that Jai was probably more nervous than I was – so much to worry about, from media, to health – even so, there were a few butterflies tumbling as I walked out into the glare of the stage. I shared a quick smile with Kate, who was also about to get her first tattoo – before we took our places.

Many people I know already have tattoos, so the details will be well appreciated, but for me, this was a first, and probably last, opportunity to experience the art.

Simon – already fairly well covered with a wide array of images, was to be my artist. A quick shave of my lower left leg, a swab down with some fancy gel that allows the image on paper to transfer across to the skin … so that is how it is done … not just the freehand genius, they have help! And then, after attaching a fresh needle to the Heath Robinson tattooing machine, he began. He dipped the needle into a small pot of ink – preparing his quill.

As I had sat down I had realised there was quite a crowd come to see the start of the show, but found I was facing away from everyone. Not sure what it would have been like looking out at everyone.

I tried to relax, but there was a slight moment of bracing as the needle, buzzing like a gentle dentist’s drill, first touched my skin. Remarkably un-uncomfortable – though there was a strange taste in my mouth that started almost immediately and lasted for a couple of days.

It was such a benign experience that I picked up my camera and started taking photographs … proof of the calmness came in the steadiness of my hand – no flash and no shake. As my back was turned towards the crowd, the only way of finding out who was looking was by taking photographs over my shoulder – you can understand that I did not want to move too much while Simon was needling my skin.

And then it was all over – so quick. He had been dabbing away at flecks of blood and excess ink – along the way and the result looked remarkably complete. Yes, a little bruised, but otherwise fine. But that was not it … there was another component to the process – to be photographed with a 120 year old camera – big plate film, masses of detail I am sure. And not of the tattoo, but portraits of each of the ambassadors.

All 100 are done now – and I am hoping that we can arrange some sort of reunion – and as I discussed in a piece in the Guardian, possibly linking up with people doing this in other countries to present a block of wildlife ambassadors at the next meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

So, to the healing – the instructions were simple – get hold of nappy cream and cling film … I was so disappointed that when I left the restaurant with a friend all the supermarkets were closed, I just wanted to imagine the look of confusion when all that was bought was beer, nappy cream and cling film.

After three days of that, it was on to coco butter – and there is general appreciation for the tattoo – in fact more than that. People are surprised at how cute it is … there is an association between tattoos and anger I think, so it is pleasing to have an image that subverts this. There is no attempt to repel with the hedgehog – it is there to attract.

Is that it? Will there be any more? Well, the night of the tattoo, back at my friend’s flat and her partner asks about my next book idea – the one where I track down people with animal passions similar to my own, but for different species … and Ian’s thought? “You are just on the hunt for the next tattoo, aren’t you?” Well, that has set something stirring in my mind …. will just have to wait and see.

Save the hedgehog; save the world: Why the hedgehog is the most important species on the planet.

What an animal the hedgehog is. Not only the source of 2009’s joke of the year at the Edinburgh Fringe from Dan Antopolski: Hedgehogs, why can’t they just share the hedge? But also credited with being the most important species on the planet. By me.

Okay, I know this is a bold claim and there are others who might argue for worms, bees, plankton or people. But I believe that the hedgehog is up there among those more obvious candidates. And that is not just because I have been studying the animal, off and on, for the last twenty years. Or because one night I fell in love with a hedgehog called Nigel.

Actually before I explain that – there is something else the hedgehog has to offer, thanks to the arch-pessimist, Schopenhauer. He described the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, a metaphor for relationships between people. Two hedgehogs are in love, but when they get too close to each other, they hurt themselves with prickles – so they back off and get to a point where they are too far apart and suffer from the pain of loneliness.

While many of us may suffer from this in our personal lives, I believe that we are all suffering from a Hedgehog’s Dilemma on a much bigger scale. Our dilemma is with the natural world. When we get too close to ‘out there’, if we were all, for example, to move into the wilds, we would simply destroy what we were seeking.

But we are also removing ourselves from contact with the natural world. Now, for the first time, we are a majority urban species; there are more and more people who have little or no contact with nature. This leaves us bereft – and a growing body of work is beginning to reveal the consequences to our physical and mental well-being.

E.O. Wilson from Harvard started this field of work with the creation of a new word – biophilia – a recognition of the fact that we have an innate need to be in touch with nature. More recently this has been wonderfully explored by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods – Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Now as soon as I heard that term, nature-deficit disorder, I knew that it was vital. It perfectly captures the consequences of our bereavement from nature and our failure to solve the hedgehog’s dilemma.

So where is the relationship between this philosophising and the importance of the hedgehog? And where does Nigel come into it all?

Okay, first to Nigel. I had been radio-tracking hedgehogs in Devon and at around four in the morning, as I went to clean my teeth outside the damp and cold caravan I was living in, I noticed one of my animals just sitting there. It was Nigel. I decided to follow him, no electronics, just us. Over the next hour I got closer and closer until there came a point where I was lying on my stomach and we were nose-to-nose. And then he looked at me. Up until then, I had been observing, he had been snuffling and getting on with the business of being a hedgehog. But at that moment, he stopped and looked up at me. The importance of this; there is no other wild animal that we can do this with. You can get nose-to-nose with your pets, but all the other wild animals I have had anything to do with just would not allow this sort of intimacy.

With that sort of intimacy there is a far greater chance of falling in love with the natural world. Love alters behaviour. And we need to alter our behaviour if we are to have any chance of averting catastrophe.

So perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the large wildlife and conservation organisations is in getting people to truly fall in love with the natural world.

How do we encourage people to fall in love with the natural world? It is a bit of a big thing to tackle on its own. So conservation and wildlife charities focus on the charismatic mega fauna to try and seduce us.

Whales, tigers, lions and elephants are the poster-children of their movement. Which is great, up to a point. The risk is that this generates a very superficial, almost sentimental, reaction. I suppose it is a bit like relying on images of supermodels to instruct our understanding of human relationships. It works okay for hormone-ravaged adolescents, but is less effective, and in fact downright destructive, when it comes to more mature considerations of our loves and ourselves.

I reckon I am about as likely to get nose-to-nose with a humpbacked whale as I am with, say, Angelina Jolie. And even if I did get that close, would there be a spark, a bond? We are much more likely to fall in love with the girl or boy next door. And the hedgehog is the animal equivalent of the boy or girl next door.

Getting moved and becoming passionate are key to us all becoming more involved in creating the change we want to see, and in fact becoming the change we want to see, to steal a line from Gandhi.

We can love a hedgehog like no other animal. It is the first and probably only wild animal that we urbanites and suburbanites have a chance of getting really close to. The hedgehog chooses to share the same space as us and if we are willing to change our point of view and get down on its level, we will be rewarded by the opening of a door into a deeper understanding of the natural world. Once the connection has been made, once we have had that chance to do the nose-to-nose thing and see the spark of wild in its eye, then we can follow it through into a new world view.

Hugh Warwick