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?

The hedgehogs have done it! They have been overwhelmingly voted Britain’s National Species.

In June the BBC Wildlife Magazine announced it was seeking a wildlife icon as part of the amazing publication’s 50th birthday celebrations. Over 9,000 people took part with a range of our most iconic wildlife to choose from.

I obviously hoped the hedgehog would win. I have been studying hedgehogs on and off for the last 30 years, have written two books about them and work with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species in trying to bring a halt to the terrifying population decline.

An article by nature writer extraordinaire Patrick Barkham accompanied the launch of the poll. He made the very good point that the UK is bereft! If you use your computer to search for ‘country’ and ‘identity’ for many other lands you get clear answers – kangaroos in Australia and kiwis in New Zealand for example. But for animal-loving Britain? There has been no distinct answer. Until now.

And it was a very clear victory … the next nearest species was the badger. Interesting to have these two creatures, already wrapped up in a complicated ecological conundrum whereby the presence of badgers tends to augur poorly for the presence of hedgehogs, side by side in the nation’s affections. Here are the figures:

1 Hedgehog championed by: British Hedgehog Preservation Society, votes: 3,849

2 Badger championed by: Badger Trust, votes: 2,157

3 Oak tree championed by: Woodland Trust, votes: 950

4 Red squirrel championed by: Red Squirrel Survival Trust, votes: 730

5 Robin championed by: RSPB, votes: 626

6 Otter championed by: Wildlife Trusts, votes: 270

7 Bluebell championed by: Plantlife, votes: 198

8 Water vole championed by: Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, votes: 150

9 Swallow championed by: BTO, votes: 108

10 Ladybird championed by: Buglife, votes: 70

I wonder what your thoughts are on this … where would your vote had gone? Would it have been to a species not on the list?

A question I am asked many times is brought up again by this poll – why do we care so much about the hedgehog? We cannot put it all at the feet of Beatrix Potter – even if she did mark a point of change for how hedgehogs were referred to in stories. Prior to Mrs Tiggy-Winkle they tended to be creatures of mystery, or portent. I think it is tied in to how our lives have changed.

We have been so removed from wildlife that my current obsession with a robin I have tamed to feed from my hand

(more on this soon) marks me out as strange. But we used to live much closer to the wild – and before that, we were of the wild. For most people there is limited opportunity for direct contact with nature. Maybe watching David Attenborough and putting out some nuts for birds is as far as it goes. And this is a shame.

The hedgehog, by dint of its behaviour, allows us to get close to a genuinely wild animal, and this is important. It is something I advocate – in fact I am trying to win £1000 from Lush (the cosmetics company) at the Green Gathering this weekend in order to help fund my project of exciting primary school children into a great love of nature by reminding them that there are still hedgehogs out there to be seen.

It is a win-win situation. We get a thrill of nature – which is good for us – and this in turn shifts us from being passive consumers of wildlife images to activists who want to help save what we have left. The hedgehog is the most perfect icon – let us embrace the spiny beast (carefully) and let us make sure that there are hedgehogs to thrill generations to come.

 

 

Today I had a horrible reminder of a story that I tried to covered back in 1995. I had been in Namibia looking into the trade in pangolin scales. Pangolins are a scaly anteater – in south east Asia they are largely arboreal but in southern Africa there is a different species, the Ground pangolin (Manis temminckii). The scales of the Ground pangolin are in great demand for the Traditional Chinese Medicine and muti trades. And as there are so few left in Asia, attention has been turned on the African species.

The scales of the pangolin are made from a rather amazing and quite magical substance, so it is no wonder that people are keen to get hold of it, because I just cannot imagine where else they could find this stuff … keratin … really – the worry at the global shortage of keratin has people biting their finger nails in fear of what might happen if they could never get a hit of that complex fibrous protein again.

But this short blog is not about the pangolins – fascinating and cute as they are. It was sparked by a video clip that appeared on the Guardian website today. And now a warning – this is a horrible clip.

The film of seal cubs being clubbed to death was shot in 2011 but withheld until now as the campaigners at Earthrace Conservation wanted to see whether the proof of what was happening would be enough to persuade the authorities in Namibia to call a halt to the controversial killing. They also wanted to leave time to allow those brave people who managed to film the cull to move far from harms way.

My personal interest was sparked when, in 1995, I visited the Cape fur seal at Cape Cross. It is a wonderful opportunity to get close to a mass of wildlife – you pay your money and you get to walk along a path right beside the basking seals. Here is a photograph I took on that walk – frustratingly the original is not on this computer so I have had to borrow my image from a library that sells images for me:

Now, I am given to occasionally push my luck and was there well aware of the cull that takes place – early in the morning, before the tourists arrive, teams of men smash the skulls of seal cubs and load them into trucks, washing the bloodstains away to keep the visitors happy. So I snooped, a little. Now, I was there with a very old, manual camera, and most of the photographs I got were not very good. But these two, again very gruesome, capture the horror of what I found – the processing factory – there was a rendering plant for the fat – and the skin was dried and sold.

I was chased out after taking these pictures, camera hidden I played the part of the lost tourist.

The arguments for the cull are as self-serving and ecologically illiterate as our very own government’s desire to kill badgers to assist the dairy industry. The cull of seals will not help the fisheries – that is not how ecology works. And it has been shown clearly that the amount of money made from tourists coming to watch the wildlife spectacle far outweighs that made from seal oil and fur.

Namibia was an amazing country to visit, full of vigour and life, even in the depths of the enormous deserts. But it is shamed by the perpetuation of the seal hunt. I am not sure what is the best way forward, there are campaign groups who are far more experienced than me, but I feel if we were to express our resolve to the Namibia embassies around the world of our intention to boycott the country until they halt the killing, that would be a start.

Sorry for the horrible stories, I will write something much happier soon, I promise.

 

I have just had a new review posted on Amazon for The Beauty in the Beast – and I have never read anything quite so lovely … And as it is just on their site I thought I would massage my ego by spreading it far and wide … and possibly just tip one of you over the edge into buying the book for your friends and relatives for Christmas! So – here it goes (and I did no write this – but to whomever did, thank you!) Read More →

When I hear a Government Minister say ‘but the science is clear’, my alarm bells start to ring. Most Ministers know as much about science as I do about how my computer works. But this minister from DEFRA, David Heath, has a background in science – at least to some extent, being a qualified optician. So was there cause for concern with what he said to the BBC yesterday?

Yes. Because he is a politician and yes because he is keen to support his constituents in rural Somerset. Which has left him, despite all he knows about eyes, rather blinded to the real situation.

There have been BIG scientific surveys – and the most recent one (the Randomised Badger Control Trial) concluded that, “It is highly unlikely that reactive culling – as practised in the RBCT – could contribute other than negatively to future TB control strategies” and that “Proactive culling – as practised in the RBCT – is unlikely to contribute effectively to the future control of cattle TB.”

The trials did find that, locally, a 70% effective cull lasting for four years might lead to a 16% reduction in the incidence of bovine TB. Farmers are arguing that this is enough to warrant the expense of a cull.

But I wonder whether there is a subtext? Currently it is difficult for farmers to get rid of badgers – after all, they are an awful nuisance – making holes and possibly spreading disease. Dead badgers are difficult to dispose of – and can lead to prosecutions in rare moments. My wonderful badger-man from The Beauty in the Beast, Gareth Morgan, told me of the awful things that were being done to the badgers while under full protection. How their setts would have slurry pumped into them; how poisoned food would be left for them; how many of the road casualties he saw were rather suspicious – either due to the unsubtle presence of lead shot, or because they were in the wrong place (badgers are creatures of habits and are usually killed on roads at regular crossing points).

When killing badgers becomes acceptable again there will be an inevitable change in the how people react. No longer will it be a shock – it will be the norm. And as the slaughter of wildlife becomes normalised so the massive amount of work done over the last few decades to protect wildlife will unravel.

But back to the science. What David Heath and his masters miss is that for the cull to be effective locally, there needs to be a 70% reduction in the badger population for four years. We do not know how many badgers there are to start with. This is one of the very first lessons anyone looking at wildlife management has to learn – you cannot control a population the size of which you do not know.

And by the time a proper survey has been completed, the vaccines will be ready and we won’t need to engage in wildlife warfare.

This is a cause for which direct action seems appropriate – and there are people out there willing to ensure that badgers are saved. But they should be aware that the Gloucestershire Constabulary has already made it clear that those attempting to stop the slaughter of badgers could be arrest for … … ‘disturbing badgers’.

One thing that can be said for the Government, while they may be losing a grip on science, they have not lost their sense of humour!

As a post script I must add, I am not the world’s greatest badger fan – for those of you who have read A Prickly Affair, you will realise that they sometimes have a rather poor relationship with hedgehogs (from the perspective of the hedgehog that is) … this relationship is complicated – and the BHPS and the PTES are currently funding a PhD that might help unravel what is going on and possibly enable us to find a way of helping to re-establish more of a balance in nature.

 

 

Last night I learned that my badger-man and friend, Gareth Morgan, had died.

I met Gareth as I was writing The Beauty in the Beast – he took me to the sett he had been studying for the past 30 years and talked so lovingly and movingly about the beautiful animals. He loved them, and nature, with a passion and a deep, wise, knowledge.

mid-Wales badger-man

Though he was a very gentle man, buzzing with an energy belying his 70 years, he could be moved to anger and action. As it was in protection of the badgers he loved, when he spoke out about the plans to cull. His anger was directed in large part not at the farmers, but at the supermarket chains that bind farmers into impossible contracts so that they pay the farmer less for the milk than it costs to produce. We walked the fields of his mid-Wales home and he pointed to the grass in what seemed like a idyllic field. But no, his sharp eyes had noted just one species of grass. ‘I detest silage,’ he said. ‘I think it is the worst thing that happened in farming, because that’s why we have no flowers…That is why we have no birds nesting in the fields…This is like Astroturf.’ And there is evidence that the poor quality of food this produces has an impact on the cows and the badgers, increasing the risk of bovine TB.

But mostly, as we sat and watched his badgers come within a few feet of us, it was love that drove him. ‘I love them like I love my wife,’ he told me, without a hint of hyperbole. ‘Sometimes she will ask me not to go up on a night, but it is like a magnet, something pulls me…she thinks I am setts mad.’

I recorded the time we spent together and have made a short podcast of him talking about badgers and featuring his amazing voice – I could listen to him for hours.

It was not just badgers, he was in love with the natural world. And so it was that his last outing, when he died, was to  the osprey project he so loved near Machynlleth. His wife, Marion, told me that he died doing something he loved. And he will be buried in the clothes he wore out in the wilds – his camouflage trousers, old jumper and body-warmer and ‘his dirty old cap’. There will be wild flowers at the funeral and they have had to book the biggest church in Newtown, such was the impact that this wonderful man had on so many people.

I will close this with a few more words he gave me.

‘We’ve got to fall in love with nature. And my badgers and your hedgehogs, they are like gatekeepers to the wider wonder of the natural world. I bring people down here at eight o’clock for an hour and I find I am still here at one in the morning. I get the barn owls quartering the field, probably hunting for the woodmouse that sometimes sits on my knee. And then there was the stag beetle that would come and take peanuts, one at a time. You know, there was a blackbird who would sit on my shoulder and a chaffinch who would follow me from the car to the sett where he would wait for a peanut.’

‘We should be in love with nature; it’s all we have got. I’m coming on seventy now, and I’m not going to be here soon. But for my children and for theirs, we have to do something.’

Dear Gareth, you will be missed.

 

 

Okay – an experiment. Or a warning!

Things are going to be changing around here in the next month or so, my new website is being built to arrive in time for the launch of my new book, The Beauty in the Beast (published by Simon and Schuster at the end of April). And part of this new website will be a little additional bit to go with the book – I recorded all of the interviews with my wonderful animal advocates, and am now in the process of editing them into short pieces … so not only will you be able to read about these amazing people, you will be able to hear them too. Read More →