Back in 2014 my third book was published. Hedgehog – part of the Reaktion series of monographs examining the iconography of different animal groups is, in my humble estimation, rather fun – and it allowed me to uncover facets of the hedgehog I had not even imagined were possible … so strange were some of them that they ended up forming the basis for my show at the Brighton Fringe last year … very much an adult only event that one. Who would have thought that researching this charismatic animal would so swiftly lead one into the seedy world of very odd pornography … let me introduce you to ‘The Hedgehog’ … aka Ron Jeremy:

ron-jeremy-covers-wrecking-ball-music-video
It was an innocent mistake – I was trying to find some research on penis length in the hedgehog … take my warning, do not google that question. Though his re-imagining of the Mylie Cyrus song ‘Wrecking Ball‘ is something that is worth a watch … if you have a strong stomach (and are tone-deaf).

The reason for this post is, that despite years delving into the many worlds of the hedgehog, I am still being surprised by new versions of the stories that accompany the animal. Yesterday I followed a link to an animation from North Korea that tells the story of a plucky hedgehog (North Korea) seeing off an offensive tiger (USA) – not being able to understand what was said, I have probably missed some nuance, but it is well worth a watch just to see how the hedgehog can be used to portray pretty much anything – from porn stars to dictatorships!

Please let me know if you come across any more peculiar hedgehog stories – thanks.

So, yesterday was interesting: the afternoon before I got a call from BBC Breakfast asking if I would appear on their (apparently famous) sofa to talk about the way the weather might be affecting hedgehogs – with a hedgehog. I said no – to the hedgehog and to the interview request as Saturday was my daughter’s 13th birthday party and I had to be there and the interview was in Salford. But it turned out if I drove, got to a hotel sometime after midnight, did interviews and jumped back in car I could, motorways allowing, be back in time … so I began a mad few hours of driving.

I ended up doing three interviews – the presenters, Charlie and Naga, were very good at being interested and engaged and it felt comfortable. Each interview I tried to make a little different, even though the audience does change I have since found out. I talked about the threats that hedgehogs face, about the need for habitat, food and connectivity, about the work of BHPS and PTES and how best to rescue a hedgehog seen out in the day – it was clearly getting to the presenters who were becoming really engaged, and I ended up being told I look like a hedgehog – on BBC1 – which might just overtake being described as ‘eccentric’ in the House of Commons.

Happy, exhausted and ready for a party, I got into the car and called up Fay from the BHPS … who dropped a bombshell – I had caused an eruption of anger because I had said two things … that hedgehogs under 450g will die during hibernation and that hedgehogs will eat bread and milk. And that this was being interpreted as me saying hedgehogs are fine at 450g and that we should feed hedgehogs bread and milk … I drove off feeling rather angry – how could people be so stupid to get wound up by this – surely they just need to listen to the words I said and not leap to their own conclusions.

Near Birmingham I stopped at a service station and checked in with my wife – I told her about the furore and she said, ‘I thought it strange you did not mention the lactose intolerance, you always do’ … and that third interview slowly re-emerged in my memory – starting to say that hedgehogs will eat bread and milk (I am so often asked this point – it is true, they will) and then being rushed on by producer gesticulating, getting distracted and not finishing the sentence.

I clicked open twitter and Facebook – and found something fascinating … had people really thought I advised feeding hedgehogs bread and milk? Who knows, but the really unpleasant series of comments that were being made was so deeply revealing of the audience I had upset … more on that in a moment. But first to the facts …

Hedgehogs will eat bread and milk. Hedgehogs cannot digest milk and it can make them ill. Wild hedgehogs eating a proper diet who come across a plate of bread and milk will not drop down dead if they eat it. Captive hedgehogs fed nothing but bread and milk probably will die. So clearly it is stupid to put bread and milk out for hedgehogs – they are carnivores and need meat.

As for body weight and hibernation – there are lots of people writing to me telling me that hedgehogs have to be 600g or 650g or other … to survive hibernation. I was simply making the point, based on the research of Pat Morris, that a hedgehog less than 450g will die …. I added that if they weigh more, then that is better.

The most significant revelation of this saga is – not that I forgot to say a phrase about lactose intolerance or raised the debate about release weights of hedgehogs – but the really nasty spirited people who lurk on social media. I admit I, to borrow a politician’s phrase, mis-spoke – but the bile that followed made me question something that has for so long been important to me – the deep respect I have had for those hedgehog rescuers I had met around the country.

This is aimed at those who found time to spout mean words in my direction (and I thank those who have written to me in support, upset at the attacks) – how can you spend so much time sat on social media and getting so irate when you have also spent so much time saying how you have no time because of all the hedgehogs in your care? I find that the hardest working carers tend to be the ones with the least social media activity. The attacks were designed to be bitter, hurtful and unkind. Many were not seeking clarification, nor were they acknowledging that there were three interviews, and that the bulk of the interviews were talking about hedgehog conservation.

I am deeply disappointed in the (I hope) minority of hedgehog carers who I ‘met’ yesterday. The snide, divisive and occasionally dim reaction to my mistake makes me worry about the community I am associated with. And I know I am not alone in being on the receiving end of such a frenzy – it is not an attractive characteristic.

Looking after hedgehogs and other wildlife is a massive undertaking – and I respect those who do it. But that does not give you liberty to behave with meanness in mind. I have, for many many years, been one of the most vocal advocates for the work of hedgehog carers – I talk and write at length of the wonderful work that is done. Hedgehogs are special animals, they allow our care and should, I would think, bring out the best in people. Let us see what sort of comments appear below …

Between Christmas and New Year, while all good hedgehogs should have been hibernating, ITV (eventually) got around to screening the glossiest of programmes about the prickly beasts. I admit to being very nervous about watching it – ready to be enraged at the stupidity that usually infects programmes on the one animal I know a bit about. I have developed a bit of an over-reaction to humanity’s graduates phoning me up from TV companies asking inane questions and demanding access to a hedgehog to film at 11am on a January morning …

So … I think this will count as my first TV review … and I must admit to a degree of connection – having met with the production company a few times, trying to steer them away from silliness, and am also a patron of Vale Wildlife Rescue, the wonderful centre that was used as a base for filming.

Some may balk at naming all the hedgehogs – but I can’t, as I did when I was researching them … and Jane Goodall named her chimpanzees, so that amount of familiarity is really quite reasonable. There were some shots that I found truly novel – like the swimming hedgehog filmed from underneath … BUT … it was clear that this was a set up shot, and having seen the team who made it at work, it will have been done many many times, and begins with a hedgehog ‘falling’ into a pond. There is no doubt that a little assistance was given – and this must raise issues regarding the stress the animal was put under. In their defence, there was a good message about ensuring water features have an escape route – a slope, beach or rocky margin that will let the hedgehog climb out.

Some in the hedgehog rescue world who get absurdly irritated about references to hedgehogs eating slugs – of course they eat slugs – they just do not do it to the exclusion of tastier morsels. And to say that hedgehogs don’t or shouldn’t eat slugs is just the sort of bonkers non-science that undermines our capacity to speak with some sense of authority.

So it was good to see the same behaviour I witnessed out in the wilds of Devon being repeated on camera – a hedgehog rolling a slug to scrape off the mucilage.

Then came something laughable – hedgehogs hate the rain???? Having spent months in the field radio-tracking hedgehogs – seemingly almost entirely IN THE RAIN – this has to be questioned!

I loved the section on hedgehog vocalisations – I wonder if anyone has heard European hedgehogs making the same sort of fluting, whistling noise I heard an African Pygmy Hedgehog make though ….

The section that had images of a hibernating hedgehog caught on a thermal camera I was deeply suspicious about – either to its veracity, or if true, how it was done without compromising hedgehog welfare.

Wonderful to see Hessilhead in the show – and Baldie was great. Though I was less convinced that a single spine could support the weight of a hedgehog.

Another bit of fiction then annoyed me, where a hedgehog was clearly just tipped off a rockery to get the shot of a falling hedgehog. Oh, and then ‘mating’ … have to say that was a low point. ‘Tiggy’ clearly did not relax her spines enough for the activity caught on camera to be a mating – that was an attempt, certainly, but unless this was a particularly well-endowed hedgehog, intercourse would have been unlikely!

Lovely footage of youngsters and news to me about the saliva licking. Gill Lucraft, from Hedgehog Bottom rescue, did really well and then there was a good a sensible piece about threats and badgers – though the section of a mum and young felt very staged.

So, over all? I though this was pretty but thin. For an hour long programme there was not that much in it … lots of repetition, lots of ‘what you will see after the break’ fillers and I did not like the obvious staging of events, but understand why they did it. I also wonder about the economics of making such a programme. I witnessed one section being filmed, when there was a Hedgehog Street Party in Chipping Norton. Three camera crews filming for around 5 hours (each) to generate 15 seconds of the programme? At least they included my stuffed hedgehog!

I feel that it was a shame the programme makers did not see fit to mention the groups who have been doing so much work to help hedgehog conservation in the country – i.e. BHPS and PTES – other than in the very small and fast moving credits. It would not have been much to add a reference at least to the Hedgehog Street project. And on a slightly egotistical note – I was disappointed that they had forgotten the vast amount of information that I had given them … a thank you would have been appreciated.

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’?

 

To be honest I am not one for meditation. I find being still rather physically uncomfortable so have always been put off the practice. But I hear the benefits from the many friends who do – and have occasionally found myself in that ‘thoughtless’ state that is such a delight. When I was out at sea in looking for dolphins with the CRRU I found myself melting into the act of observation, lulled by the rocking movement and driven by the single-minded focus of looking for the change in the sea that signalled an animal.

I was reminded of that yesterday, but in a different setting. Walking along the beach at Charmouth, on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset – head down, looking for fossils. My children had been briefly engaged, but had vanished off into their own world of fantasy. I was in a place of peace. The sun warmed the air as it shifted with just enough vigour to remove cobwebs. The sea filled the space with the perfectly soothing organic white noise of waves on shingle. And my eyes were drawn to the ground.

The chaos of stones, lentil to cricket ball in size, varied beyond count in denomination – hid treasure. I have always had a passion for finding fossils. I am no expert – my passion has not shifted into detailed research, I just love the hunt. My parents had a new load of gravel added to their drive when I was young – and I was transfixed by the broken memories the stone contained. Imprints of shells – probably winkle-like animals – could be found if you looked hard enough.

I have never got into smashing up rocks in the hope of finding something amazing inside – I prefer to just look – to rely upon chance. That is how I found the best fossil – an ammonite, as most are on Charmouth. Early one morning – when the children were much smaller and prone to a lack of sensitivity when it came to adults’ need for sleep – I left them with my wife at her mother’s house and headed to the beach, just as the tide turned. Ahead of me were the professionals, head to toe in water proofs, armed with hammers, spades and buckets. I just had a tweed jacket and my eyes.

At first I thought it was a footprint from one of their boots, but the rhythm was not quite right so I stopped, looked and almost walked on – but hesitated, and found it to be the ridges of the most amazing fossil I have ever held. For the first time in around 190 million years this creature was back out in the world, pulled from a clay tomb.
ammonite

Yesterday my finds were less remarkable but no less appealing – a belemnite and a pack of pyritised ammonites, alongside the smooth touchstones that help keep me sane, and it was the most relaxing time.

picture by Zoe Broughton

I returned to the melee of half-term better equipped, calmer and happier. So my message, go find a beach and spend a hour or so being washed by the waves of noise while searching for that subtle shift in rhythm that might just mark out some treasure.

I intend to put a cat amongst some pigeons, or at least a hedgehog amongst robins with this …

Recently I was with Hedgehog Street at the Women’s Institute Centennial gathering in Harrogate. We had a garden designed by the amazing Tracy Foster that proved to be a great draw to the crowds. As with the garden we did last year at Hampton Court, we were again trying to show how easy it is to have something ravishing and hedgehog-friendly.

I was there for two days – being nice to people all day long is exhausting work, but I managed it (I hope). I have some concerns about the event and while that is not the focus of his blog, I will vent a little now – I thought it a fascinating insight into how little the people who ran the event thought of their membership. I have been all over the country talking to WI groups and they are a dynamic and feisty lot. This event was a glorified shopping trip – three soulless warehouses with stalls selling tat – and the women had to pay a large amount just to enter. If this had been set up as a celebration of the wonderful work of the WI with some shopping, fine, but it was clearly weighted the other way.

But to the real issue, for me. We at the Hedgehog Street stall were not the only wildlife charity on site …

and without wanting to sound like a pervert … can you tell who it is yet? How about this shot of the stall?

Maybe this magnificent representation of the hedgehog will give the game away …

The RSPB have noticed that the hedgehog is very attractive (far more interesting than all those birds, in my humble estimation) and have started to use it mercilessly in their advertising. I have had conversations with people that are very much ‘live and let live’, that all the money is going to help nature – and that we should not be seen as bickering and jealous as it demeans the conservation movement.

Well, balls to that. I know the rationale, I know the line they spin about ‘giving nature a home’ being for all wildlife, not just birds – but it comes down to economics. The RSPB would not be doing this unless they thought it was going to make them money. And that comes at a cost. We had people come up to the Hedgehog Street stall and say that they had already ‘given to help the hedgehogs’. If there is a person with £5 and they want to give it to help hedgehogs – and they see an RSPB stall, they will give it there and that will be £5 that does not make it to the BHPS and the PTES. That is not to say the RSPB is not doing good work, I am sure they are. But we are the ones funding the research into hedgehogs. We are the ones who working out ways to help hedgehogs in rural and suburban environments and we are the ones that are going to continue working on hedgehogs after the birders advertising campaign is done. And we are the ones who are losing out on those five pound notes.

So what is to be done? Should the RSPB lobby for the hedgehog to be reclassified as a bird? Should the BHPS start to raise money by using images of Hen Harriers, Hawfinches and Hawks? Or perhaps the RSPB could consider using some of its vast reserves to help fund our research? It would be good to hear what you think.

 

It is here again – and I have been reminded of the risk of freelance life – saying YES to too much! But the Oxford Festival of Nature is the perfect opportunity to further my plans for global domination – or at least converting people from ‘likers’ to ‘lovers’ – I want to drag people from couches and out into the woods – no more clean and remote observation of other people in the wild, but a down and dirty shared experience.

There are two talks – and I am interested to see who wins … we have BBOWT organising an event at the North Oxford Community Centre on Thursday 4th June where I will be talking about the wildlife eccentrics I have met – the wonderful encounters that made up the stories in The Beauty in the Beast. Of course I am merely observing the eccentrics being quite normal myself!

And on Wednesday 10th June, Waterstones have got me in to talk about hedgehogs – now they have not got me on a website yet, but there is a poster!

Which will get most people along?

While both of these talks are a great way for me to enthuse people, it is the real connection on Saturday 13th June at the Natural History Museum that gets me most excited … it might seem like I am just getting kids to stroke a piece of taxidermy and make some clay hedgehogs – but those moments of connection can really make a difference. I have just been at London’s Natural History Museum doing a day of talking – and the number of times it was the children who were leading the parents into a greater connection with nature was heart-warming. They were willing to come and touch my stuffed hedgehog, find out what the spines are made from and how many there are.

Some of my favourite results from previous festivals of nature have come weeks and months later, when I have met families again, by chance, and the children have told me about the fun they had and how they still have the hedgehog they made. These moments are some of the very best wildlife moments I get … who needs to be in a sweaty landrover tracking lions in Africa? Come and find a real wild life on your doorstep.

Come and see a talk or meet me and make a hedgehog!

I had fun yesterday, I got invited on to Chris Evans morning show on BBC Radio 2 to talk about hedgehogs (why did I even bother to say what it was about?) – the resulting 4 minutes is, at least for the moment, available HERE. I long ago realised that if one pauses for breath then the interviewer will tend to interrupt and ask questions. So Chris does not say much, but he does allow me to plug Hedgehog Awareness Week – a very good thing.

I am NOT allowed to mention politics, which is a shame as every other damn programme on the radio mentions politics. But balance is important and it is well known that a sway in the hedgehog vote could change things dramatically. If only they got up early enough … we all know that hedgehogs vote green.

I also got to advertise my up-coming show at the Brighton Fringe where I am sharing the stage with Jules Howard and we are cooking up a show called ‘Sex and the animal kingdom.’

Jules interviewed me for his book, ‘Sex on Earth’. It was fascinating to be on the receiving end for once – so often I have turned up in people’s lives and tried to capture a little of them in print.

“…he is largely as I imagined him – erudite, energetic and wonderfully passionate about everyday nature, especially his beloved hogs. He invites me through the door and into his world: a crowded living room, littered with hedgehog souvenirs, pictures, posters and bookshelf after bookshelf of interesting books, many of which, unsurprisingly, are about hedgehogs. Within minutes he has me standing outside in his garden, holding up a bit of cheese in my hand for a robin he has habituated…”

Before I had got on air the producer of the show had said to me ‘there is to be no searing and no politics’ – so when Chris Evans closed our chat by asking me for a joke I was immediately caught … all the funny in Brighton is going to be terribly rude featuring the likes of George the Hedgehog or Bogor!

Luckily I had a joke I had stolen from a chicken …

Why did the hedgehog cross the road, jump up and down in a muddy puddle and run back again?

Because she was a dirty double crossing hedgehog!

See you in Brighton, I hope!

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is only a small charity but seems to be able to hit above its weight when it comes to challenging some of the biggest multinational corporations on the planet. First they took down McDonalds, purveyors of ground up cows to the masses. Now they have stood up to the giant bird-killer, KFC – and won.

What is this great fight you may wonder … well first the cow-killers and then the chicken-slaughterers were found to have made their ice-cream and milkshake containers just the perfect shape for hedgehogs to insert an inquisitive snout as they search for fat and sugar rich supplement to the usual fare of macro-invertebrates.

But, due to the wonderful spines that protect the hedgehog from so much harm, there was a tendency for the poor hedgehogs to get their heads stuck in the pots. This video shows a lucky one that was rescued, however many are not and end up dying.

Now KFC have joined McDonalds in redesigning the pots to stop this happening – and this is a great and wonderful thing. Perhaps surprisingly it took years of negotiation – but the job is done and shows how the determined work of a few people who care can make a great deal of difference.

But … while it is easy to blame the corporate meat-machines that are these companies, there are other people who need to be tackled as well. First, you don’t need to eat this stuff – it is not good for you on so many levels, right up to the global impact of climate change that is driven in no small part by the absurd death-fetish of the casual meat-eaters. Just don’t use those shops – then it is simple.

And if you must indulge your cravings for pulverised and reconstituted flesh … use your brain … do not drop litter. It harms wildlife. Your laziness in not disposing of it properly kills animals. I have been noticing the vast accumulations of rubbish along the road network this year – I am not sure if this is just because I am paying more attention (new book is related to the subject) – or whether this is particularly bad – but the amount of litter is heart-breaking and depressing. If we cannot be bothered to look after our own back-yard then the rest of the planet does not stand a chance.

For happier thoughts about hedgehogs … read my books

Hedgehogs are in the news, again.

You have to admit that we have a pretty good PR machine in operation around this rather special animal. And it trundles along, oblivious to all the fuss – unless we have recruited one to be a film star as I have done on a few occasions.

But today things might be about to change – and the hedgehogs might just notice something different, especially if they live in Warwickshire and around Solihull in particular. Because the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust has employed a ‘Hedgehog Officer’ and launched an innovative ‘Hedgehog Improvement Area.‘ This project has been funded by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

They are linking up 90 hectares of hedgehog friendly habitat – incorporating a park, nature reserve and housing. This is the next step from our wonderful Hedgehog Street project – because we now know quite how large an area hedgehogs need to thrive. Computer modelling has shown that they need, in the VERY bets of conditions, 90 ha to give them a chance of maintaining a viable population.

At the current rate of expansion – streets to areas in four years – I am predicting a complete overthrow of the established order by the ‘Hedgehog Initiative’ within a decade. We will put in place legislation, through a benign version of dictatorship, that will ensure everywhere is hedgehog friendly …  Hedgehog Officers will become a regular part of every council, in fact they will run the councils.

Okay – got to go and do a radio interview about this – strange how things change, a few years ago I would have fought to get the job of Warwickshire’s Hedgehog Officer … but books have got in the way. Maybe when Oxford recognises the need to have one, I will get my chance!