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.