Hedgehog Street is a brilliant and simple idea – don’t just make your garden hedgehog friendly; talk to your neighbours, get them ‘onside’ and then make a hole in the intervening fence.

Habitat fragmentation is an under-appreciated threat to wildlife conservation. The presence of individuals of a species can lull one into believing that they are okay – but if they are present in numbers too low, this can mean that the population is ‘functional extinct’ – that it will just die out.

There has been some very interesting work done on ‘viable populations’ – especially with regards to hedgehogs – and it has revealed the surprising amount of land that these little creatures need. In the best habitat possible (imagine an ecologically managed golf-course with suburban gardens backing on to it – all with holes in fences) – there needs to be at least 90 hectares of unfragmented land … that is around three 18-hole golf courses … Now when was the last time you found that sort of scale of unfragmented land?

Hedgehog Street is a brilliant and simple idea – yes – but it is only a seed. It would be a rare street that could command that sort of area. And this is why the new movement around the country to take the seed and allow it to blossom is so exciting. First there was the ‘Hedgehog Improvement Area‘ in Solihull – then I have been involved with launching Heaton’s Hedgehog Highway

Hedgehog

and the North Oxford Hedgehog Conservation Area – which has already seen some lovely new holes appearing (thank you Cherwell Boathouse)

hedgehog hole

There is a project growing in Suffolk and a couple of weeks ago I got to run a hedgehog ‘masterclass’ at Chester Zoo as they launch their Wildlife Connections event. They made a short video around an interview I gave (after speaking for 5 hours … hence bags under eyes and husky voice!)

I like the circularity of this work – we need to make connections to allow hedgehogs to thrive – and the only way to do that is to make connections within our community – talking not just to neighbours but to people further away – and to the institutions who help manage the tracts of land in between.

We might not be able to agree over the EU – but we can all, surely, come together to work for the improvement of the life of the hedgehog.

In or Out – as with previous elections it is important to learn from those nearest and dearest to help inform your decisions. As we have seen before, hedgehogs have a natural tendency of hedgehogs to vote Green, but the looming referendum presents a slightly different range of questions …

Hedgehogs are, mostly, fairly grumpy, solitary and smelly – so you could be forgiven for thinking this would suggest they were natural bed-fellows of Nigel Farage. They are a quintessentially British animal, we revere the hedgehog and it is the most popular species in the country – it is, therefore, important to know the truth.

And the truth is rather straightforward. For all the faults of the EU, for all of the very well paid bureaucrats and for all of the waste that comes with shifting offices back and forth there is a measure that we cannot ignore, and the hedgehogs most certainly do not.

Politicians in this country, particularly those on the right, HATE restrictions on ‘development’. Cameron declared a desire to ‘get rid of all that green crap‘ – or at least is alleged to. That ‘green crap’ is the fine line that keeps the biodiversity in this country as protected as it is – and if it goes, there will be an unfettered assault on the natural world. Roads, agriculture, fracking and housing will lose some of the very minor shackles that keep them in check.

The EU is flawed, but being outside it will see much of what we love threatened to an even greater extent than it already is. And this might be enough for a hedgehog to decide. Remember also that our hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, is the Western European Hedgehog – it is an animal of Europe.

But there is one other argument that must be considered. Who would you rather have round for dinner? Nigel Farage, Nigel Lawson, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove? Or Caroline Lucas? This is actually one of the easiest decisions of all!

Caroline Lucas

 

Another year, another Wood Festival – and another tent filled with the thoughts and passions of amazing people. My little empire, a small geodesic dome, has become one of my favourite places. I get to invite people to speak on subjects that interest them – and the results, well, while it is not as carefully crafted as a TED talk, can be rather special.

I won’t go through everyone – but here are some of the highlights.

George Monbiot – I have been wanting to get him here for three years now – so glad he came and spoke on the theme of rewilding – he opened proceedings, thus setting an impossibly high marker for following acts in terms of eloquence and audience …

George Monbiot

George Roberts stepped into the breach when I found that my second speaker was unable to appear (while my first was on stage) – thank you George for poems that continue to startle and sparkle.

George Roberts

Merryl Gelling was given the chance to talk about Oxfordshire’s mammals (she is chair of the Oxon Mammal Group of which I am the world’s least attentive member) – she was assisted in her presentation by her very own small mammal … who sort of stole the show! Lovely to hear about otters making their way back into Oxford – and one being seen right by the Hinksey swimming pool!

Merry Gelling

Great to have news of the update of the success of the Oxford City Farm in getting planning permission from Lucie Mayer – she has been and talked each year about their plans – now it is really happening.

I had booked in Tom Burnett on a recommendation but had not followed up what he planned to talk about very well – so I thought it was about playing football in Palestine … which it was, sort of … but it was also about the plight of Palestinians who are finding themselves subject to a brutal regime. He went out with the Bristol-based social club – the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls. As he pointed out, yes, there are some idiots who shout about wiping Israel off the face of the earth, but for the majority of Palestinians, there is a desire for peace – painting them all with the same brush is like assuming all Americans are represented by Donald Trump.

Easton Cowboys

Saturday night is always tricky at Wood – working hard all day means I feel I have earned a pint … but I have to work hard the next day too – and in this instance also had to get up at 0630 to ensure my son was bathed and smart for choir duty … which was always going to be a challenge.

Tiger facepaint

However, I managed it while having fun too – highlight of the night – Xogara.

Xogara

Sunday – bleary Sunday – came with a shock of sun. When you run a tent like Kindling the rain can be your friend, driving people in for cover … damn you sun … but still there was a demand – for Richard’s didgeridoos!

didgeridoos

I was very disappointed that the entire field of the festival did not descend to see Stevyn Colgan – he is one of the QI elves – witty and with a voracious need to know things, he was wonderful. Buy his book! He is as close as I am ever likely to get to Douglas Adams or Stephen Fry …

Steven Colgan

Following on was Charles Foster – his latest book, Being a Beast, is magical – eccentric and transcendent nature writing (I think I said something like that for the book cover) – how does it feel to be another animal? Not an easy task to accomplish – and I will be finding out more from him when we share a stage for the Oxford Festival of Nature on the 8th June.

Charles Foster

How to become a climate rebel was the mission of a quartet of mischief – Danny Chivers, Sheila Manon, Phil Ball and Richard Howlett … tales of derring-do from blocking Heathrow runways to months in a Russia prison – but what is the best way to tackle this global issue? They were brilliant, challenging and entertaining.

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Somewhere along the way I talked about hedgehogs – I packed up my tent on Monday lunchtime – it is now Wednesday afternoon and I am still shattered. The Kindling tent makes me equally happy and tired! So, who will be on stage next year? Will Robin, Megan, Claire and Joe Bennett let me back in? Leave a message if you have a story to tell.

hedgehog picture

Tuesday night was interesting. I had been invited to talk to a public meeting organised by Devon and Cornwall Against the Badger Cull – about hedgehogs.

I was, to be honest, apprehensive. I know that some badger lovers can be quite defensive about their beasts. And while I have been very clear – in The Beauty in the Beast – of my love for brock (nearly got a tattoo of one) – I have also had to contradict many badger-fans who think that they would never eat a hedgehog.

My companions on the panel were Dr Chris Cheeseman (ecologist and expert on bTB) and Dr Mark Jones (vet working with the Born Free Foundation). I was to speak last – following their detailed look at the failings in the management of this disease – and deal with a question that is thrust at campaigners many times – ‘what about the badgers eating all the hedgehogs?’

One of the reasons that this annoys me is that it is clearly nothing to do with the badger cull. A cull that was set up to protect wildlife would need an entirely different research base on which to justify it. The call to protect hedgehogs is often coming from people who have only recently discovered how much they love them (because they can be used to beat up badgers) – it is a deeply cynical move.

The cull is supposed to be helping control the spread of bovine tuberculosis from badgers to cattle. From the words of both Chris and Mark it is clearly doing nothing of the sort. The highly respected and extremely detailed Randomised Badger Control Trial showed how, with an exacting set of protocols, it was possible to gain a 12-16% reduction in the incidence of bTB in cattle over 9 years (5 years of culling, 4 years of extra surveying) if badgers were killed at a rate of 70% in the clearly identified zone.

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Culling in a different way will produce different results and the scientists are sure that what is happening now will generate far less in the way of benefit to farmers and cattle. In fact it is quite possible, probable even, that the current action will be making matters worse as the perturbation effect will cause infected animals to move far greater distances.

The evidence is clear, the cull, as it is being done now, will not benefit farmers or cattle. Yet despite the case being put with thoroughness, the farmers in the room would not hear it … despite seeming to acknowledge many of the most important facts.

Two things were clarified for me during this discussion. First – the only way to survive the extremely hard work of farming is to be bloody stubborn – to be as obstinate as the most recalcitrant bull. Farmers tend to be friends with farmers, so the stubbornness rarely gets challenged. The conservative view of the world this engenders does not react well to outsiders coming in and trying to change how things are done. Therefore it is up to us, critics of the cull and elements of industrial agriculture, to find better ways of communicating.

The second point I realised is that when we get hung-up and defensive about the messiness of ecology we quickly lose focus. Yes – badgers do have a population level impact on hedgehogs. But the cull has NOTHING to do with hedgehogs – the cull, in its current form, is nothing more than a carrot being offered to the farming community.

If we want to see more hedgehogs in this country there are ways we can make it happen without resorting to the gun. For example, where there is Higher Level Stewardship of the land (part of the Agri-Environment Scheme), there are more hedgehogs. The more of this ecologically aware farming that goes on, the more food there is in the environment for both badgers and hedgehogs and the greater complexity there is in the landscape.

Lets not scapegoat the badger for our own failings – and remember, it is ours – we are the people (apart from my vegan friends) who demand cheap food and are unwilling to pay the real price at the till. If we don’t pay a decent price for our food there will be payment taken from the environment – and if we don’t want that, we need to change the way we shop.

 

I think you are not allowed to release new polling data on the day of an election, but as you will probably know, hedgehogs are notoriously slow at responding. So it is only now that the results are in and I can reveal the startling news that ….. hedgehogs around the country are near unanimous in voting Green.

There was a time when many hedgehogs were seduced by the silvery words of David Cameron – he promised the ‘greenest government ever’. But then he imposed the arch-enemy of the natural world, Owen Paterson, as Environment boss … for a short while hedgehogs thought this was some sort of elaborate joke – about like Donald Trump running for the Whitehouse … until the truth emerged and ‘all that green crap’ started to be dismantled.

As George Monbiot said: “The final shred of credibility of “the greenest government ever” has been doused in petrol and ignited with a casual flick of a gold-plated lighter. The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary, is a declaration of war on the environment, and another sign that the right of the party – fiercely opposed to anything that prevents business from doing as it wishes – has won.”

There was a time when hedgehogs were tempted by the moderate words of Nick Clegg – he seemed so reasonable on all the key issues – friends to everyone. Whatever happened to him?

A few generations ago I met some hedgehogs who were partial to new Labour – Tony Blair, bright-eyed and evangelical was seducing some of the suburban hedgehogs into thinking that he might present a solution to the massive housing shortage that has followed rapacious industrialisation of agriculture. But he turned out to be just like all the others too.

Clearly there are some hedgehogs who are rather insular in their outlook – who do not take kindly to incomers (all those African Pygmy Hedgehogs, coming over here and clogging up the internet with cute buck teeth, or setting up cafes). And for them the easy lure of the fascist had, for a short while, the potential to swing a few votes. But even hedgehogs are not stupid enough to vote for UKIP.

And that leaves, for hedgehogs in England at least, only one option – it has to be the Green Party. They are the only political party to have a deep understanding of what underpins everything we do – and that is not the economy. It is the ecology on which the economy rides. As the ecological economist Herman Daly said:

“Once you sit down and draw a little picture of the economy as a subset of the larger ecosystem, then you’re halfway home as far as ecological economics is concerned. That’s why people resist doing that,” he says. “That means you would have to say well, there are limits, we’re not going to be able to grow forever. That means the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system. That means you don’t grow beyond the optimum. How do we stop growing? What do we do? These are very threatening questions.”

Without this rudimentary understanding of the way the world works, no political party can be trusted with power. So – if you can – get out there and vote Green – it is what the hedgehogs would want!

 

 

The disrespect given by the news to matters ecological was made even clearer to me just now. I had a call in from BBC Radio 4 World at One – they wanted me to present a one minute guide to why Hedgehog Awareness Week was important and give examples of what we could do. They stressed that they wanted it to be humorous.

Sounds like my kind of challenge, so I said yes and pointed out that if I could manage to get John Humphreys laughing on the Today programme (yesterday) I am sure I could give them what I wanted.

Oh dear … the producer had to go away and talk to her editor because they can’t use someone who has been on the Today programme so recently.

She called back – and it was all off … despite the fact that I talked yesterday about the impact that HS2 was going to have on the hedgehogs of Regent’s Park … not about how and why we should make our garden’s hedgehog friendly.

Now imagine this was a story about economics – about banks and money? Or even about politics? I listen to Radio 4 a great deal and the same voices come on repeatedly talking about these topics. What is so different about hedgehogs?

Some years back I tried pitching something about hedgehogs to Radio 4 – ‘we’ve already done something about hedgehogs this year’ was the response.

And this does not have to be hedgehogs – but all issues ecological seem to be considered ‘light’ – not serious news. Only when there is a real economic impact – flooding and just possibly climate change now – is there scant attention paid.

I have said it before and am happy to repeat myself. We need to treat ecology with the same seriousness as we do the economy. Just because the politicians are so myopic as to not be able to see more than a term of office into the future it should not be the case that we ignore the long term. And by looking long term it is clear that only an utter moron would ignore the ecosystem on which life on earth relies.

The news is able to help set this agenda, if it were a little braver. They would treat wildlife and our shared ecology with respect and allow the news of the disastrous impacts our actions have to be given airtime. Instead these subjects continue to be disregarded as real news. Maybe I need to set up my own media channel – WildNews perhaps – that will give proper attention to the fragile system in which we live. Never mind markets up or down – how about a species count – new ones found, others we have driven to extinction. Or carbon dioxide ppm in the atmosphere? These are the metrics by which we will live and die.

We are all stardust – every atom of every molecule that makes up our bodies comes from a dead star (apart from the hydrogen and helium that are the result of solar fusion). It is just that some people have more starry stardust than the rest of us.

As a campaigner I do like to think that our issues should achieve public and political attention on their merits – that the importance of the subjects should be enough. But that is naive. We always need more; we need luck, certainly, but we also need a little bit of the magic that comes with stardust.

And that is what was happening today in Portcullis House in London. This is the building that houses the offices many MPs and their staff, and it is also has the room that saw the launch of a new campaign to help hedgehogs – Amazing Grace. This is the latest part of the work started by Brian May and Anne Brummer’s  Save Me Trust, which has, until now, focussed on badgers and foxes.

I have been campaigning to help hedgehogs for years. Working with the BHPS and PTES we have the very successful Hedgehog Street campaign that now has nearly 40,000 households signed up as Hedgehog Champions. But despite that, it would be a push for us to get hold of a room in the centre of the parliamentary world and pull in a series of MPs of all different political persuasions.

Many were avowedly keen fans of the hedgehog – but it was the chance to see Brian May perform the song Amazing Grace with the wonderful Kerry Ellis.

Brian May and Kerry Ellis

And also a chance to get good publicity being photographed with someone generous with the stardust.

Oliver Colville, Brian May and Kerry Ellis

It was Oliver Colvile (above) who started getting parliamentary attention for the hedgehog. And there was a good show from the Tories. But it was the SNP who were out in force – here are a couple I snapped – Patrick Grady and Patricia Gibson.

Patrick Grady

Patricia Gibson

 

We know who supported this campaign and we know who came to share in the stardust – so lets hope that they live up to the promise they have made to help hedgehogs – and to recognise that we will NOT tolerate the plight of the hedgehogs being used as a weapon with which to beat badgers … as I have written before, this is a complicated ecological relationship.

I almost forgot to add – there was also awesome cake:

Hedgehog Cake

Many thanks to Brian and Kerry and all the wonderful people at Save Me who made this happen – it is lovely to get a sprinkle of that dust too!

Felix would have been 16 today. And tonight we are going to celebrate his life with the launch of the Felix Hedgehog Project.

I never knew him, but his mother, Jane, got in contact with me last year to talk about about her son, about his love of wildlife and in particular his love of hedgehogs.

He died two years ago after contracting meningococcal septicaemia. Jane told me the story as we sat in a cafe in north Oxford, we both started crying. The pain she was experiencing was intense, but so was her passion to do something positive, to create a lasting memory for the boy she loved so much. We talked about hedgehogs and she asked what she could do, in his name, to help.

The plan we came up with was absurdly ambitious, I thought. After examining a map of her ‘patch’ it became clear that there was an area of over 100 hectares, bounded by the River Cherwell, the Banbury Road, the Marston Ferry Road and the city centre. An area that was full of large gardens and playing fields.

The scale of this area is important. Recent research from Dr Tom Moorhouse of Oxford University’s WildCRU showed that, in the very best hedgehog habitat, a viable population needs an unfragmented area of at least 90 hectares to thrive. And this reveals a significant probable cause for the dramatic decline in hedgehog numbers in Britain. Where are hedgehogs going to find such a large space un-bothered by fences, walls and busy roads?

Our project, Hedgehog Street, has been a wonderful start – nearly 40,000 households have signed up. But how many of them are going to be able to open up enough gardens to reach that magic figure of 90 hectares? Clearly it is better that holes are made to allow hedgehogs to move, but we need more than just a street. And this is why Jane’s work at communicating with her neighbours has been so crucial. We have the potential space to open up.

But … there is a problem. Many of these gardens are bounded by substantial brick walls – double thick and well set in deep foundations. How were we to meet the first and most important component of the Hedgehog Street manifesto – to make a hole? Again, undaunted, Jane set to work and found a serious drill to tackle the walls with which there are no other solutions. So impressed with the hole, the local press have been down to see what she has been up to, and also written a short piece to accompany the launch of the project to the wider community this evening.

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                            photograph: Oxford Times

The work won’t stop with tonight’s event. Neighbours will come and enjoy wine and canapés, suffer me talking about hedgehog ecology and being encouraged to take a more active role. The Dragon School is going to find a ‘hedgehog officer’ among the children. We hope that the college, Lady Margaret Hall, will also start to consider their gorgeous grounds with hedgehogs in mind.

Jane has recruited a volunteer, Nadia, who is launching a survey of the gardens before the work begins and she will be ensuring that everyone who comes is signed up to help. This will be repeated in a year to see if there is a notable change.

And as the good folk of north Oxford enjoy an evening in their gardens this summer, and they hear the tell-tale snuffle of a passing hedgehog, they should raise a glass to the memory of a boy who loved hedgehogs.

A charity has been set up in his memory. For more details, please visit their website.

Malevich Black Square

Why do oil companies fund the arts?

Is it because the oil companies are massively generous? Or is it because the oil companies see it as an investment … and if so, what are they getting in return?

These are important questions. Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be alerted to occasional ‘interventions’ at oil sponsored events by ‘artivists’ – art-activists – who have taken the theme of the performance or exhibition and turned it into a critical piece of performance themselves.

The first target I heard about was the campaign against the sponsorship of the large Shakespeare festival by BP – this lead to some delightfully crafted performances performed on stage – always before the play started – and often met with a warm response from the audience. The RSC has dropped the oil money.

In Tate Britain Lady Macbeth came to life in a beautiful impromptu performance – with disturbing revelations about the role of BP – ‘Is this a logo I see before me?

Lady Macbeth at Tate Britain

Then I got to photograph two Viking interventions at the British Museum – they even managed to get a 10m longship in, despite there being enormous security (and Thor being arrested!).

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Given all this attention it was obviously going to be impossible to get an oil rig into the museum – wasn’t it? No!

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Tate Modern has not been immune to the attention of protesters disturbed at the use of art to greenwash the image of BP. I was lucky enough to happen upon a beautiful scene as Malevich’s Black Square came to life.

Malevich Black Square

And when Tate dropped BP money – I was there at the party too.

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Working with art-activists is such a pleasure. The work is thought through, nonviolent and gently confrontational. It is work that has generated great results too – but absolutely no complacency. Only last night I got to go and see the latest intervention as three actors took to the stage before Russia’s Mariinsky Orchestra was due to begin a performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet … and thanks to the delay caused by conductor Valery Gergiev’s rehearsal over-running, the audience thought, for a short while, that they were officially part of the show … though the balcony scene featured ‘Ramira and Juliet’, a gentle dig at Putin’s homophobia (its not a phobia, just nastiness). Again, the use of the arts to try and gloss over the murkiness of the oil industry was not allowed to happen.

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The amount of money the oil industry gives to the arts is disproportionately small compared to the exposure they receive. While investment from central government is stifled, it is easy to see why the arts would turn to the easy money – but there is a great cost attached. There is a moral cost that will continue to be illuminated by courageous and creative art activists. The money comes stained with the blood of generations gone and yet to come. Dirty money has no place in sponsoring great work.

 

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 …