Here we go again!

Originally published February 2016

Hello Everyone! This time last year we found ourselves speculating on the future of all those flowers, insects and birds that made an appearance in January due to the, supposedly, unseasonal, mild weather.

Last year our concerns were unfounded as our corner of the world did not experience anything that even resembled a cold snap, a fact that contributed to 2015 being the warmest year on record. This year started off in similar vein as a series of, mild weather, randomly-named storms (could this be the height of anthropomorphism?) continues to bring misery to people up and down the country. Thus far, we have escaped the worst of it in our village despite our newly opened, flood-proof, Link Road resembling a white-water canoe course at times!

In the middle of all this soggy bluster we experienced a few days of traditional winter weather which did nothing to cool the ardour of the vociferous Feathered Folk and screeching Foxes.  It did not even halt the progress of Quarry Wood’s Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) as they took pole position, albeit briefly, over the ubiquitous Snowdrops this year.

However, following on as it did, from a prolonged period of rain, it is highly likely that the drop in temperature had a catastrophic effect on one of our most familiar, yet most threatened native species.

Our beloved Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) has been the recent topic of column inches in the broadsheets, many thousands of pixels on the Internet and even a notable, if brief, mention in the House of Commons. Sadly, this flurry of interest has all been for the same reason, the dramatic reduction in the UK population in recent years.

hedgehog 2

It is estimated that Hedgehogs are declining in number at a rate of approximately 5% each year with rural populations down to half the size they were in 2009. Several factors are to blame, chief among them are the loss of hedgerows and the rise in the number of Badgers in some areas. As if to counteract this evidence, last year I saw my first Hedgehogs in Crowhurst, a place rife with Brocks, in over fifteen years. The trends towards artificial grass and gravel are creating garden spaces free of leaves and vegetation and thus a dearth of places for the animals to hibernate. Members of Parliament have been discussing the plight of the ’hog and how to reverse its decline. The Government rejected the call from one of the Members for gardens to have compulsory ‘superhighways’ for Hedgehogs. The suggestion was that all neighbouring gardens have a row of holes, 13cms by 13cms wide, in their fences so that the animals can roam freely throughout the area to forage and, hopefully, breed. Although this idea was rebuffed, there is talk of a possible Hedgehog Summit in order to try and save the species. Let us hope it is much more than talk.

An abundance of litter accounts for a huge number of wild animals becoming distressed and, more often than not, dying (see The Wrong Sort – Feb 2012). Last Christmas saw The British Hedgehog Preservation Society launch a vigorous campaign to discourage Posties (not ours of course) from discarding their rubber bands carelessly. The charity, one of the beneficiaries of the Times newspaper Christmas Appeal, reported that the postal service gets through two million red rubber bands each day and that many of them end up wrapped around the spiny animals restricting movement and causing infections where their skin grows over them. The Society is urging the public to inform them of any Hedgepigs found trapped in rubbish so that they can gain a better understanding as to the specific items of litter causing problems. Previously the charity successfully persuaded two giants of the fast food industry to change the shape of their ice-cream cups, in which hedgehogs were trapping themselves due to their spines getting caught on the rim. Once inside they often walked into roads or ponds, or simply starved to death. In the case of one of the companies, it took six years of campaigning; potentially a large number of dead ’hogs.

hedgehog 1

In the face of all this adversity, the last thing that our Prickly Pigs needed was for the elements themselves to go against them. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened over the last few months. The mild weather resulted in many Hedgehogs, who normally hibernate in November, remaining active throughout December, the wettest month on record in the UK. In addition to the very real danger of them being swept away in floodwater, both adults and hogglets alike struggled to find food in the heavy rain. Several have been rescued in an underweight and weakened condition and Hedgehog hospitals around the country are filling up rapidly. These are the lucky ones, as they will be nursed and released back into the wild in April. The cold snap will have driven the remaining Hedgehogs into hibernation, many of them still underweight. This is very likely to result in numerous casualties over the next few months as they either die in their sleep or wake up too enfeebled to get up and feed properly (see A Question of Perspective – Dec  2013).

Many apologies for a rather gloomy start to the year, but whilst enjoying the flowers, the birdsong, the drumming of the Woodpeckers and the sight of Buzzards dancing in the skies over the village please spare a thought for our Hedgepigs. Keep an eye out for them and help them by disposing of our rubbish properly and providing safe, natural habitats. Their very existence is in our hands, and the world would be a lesser place with their demise.

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum
The fox has many tricks; the hedgehog only one great trick
Erasmus (Adagia, 1500)
Credited to Archilochus (7 BC)

Any thoughts?

Paul Johnson




Image 1: Early Purple Orchids at Quarry Wood, Lorna Neville; Image 2: Baby Hedgehog by Kalle Gustafsson, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Image 3: batwrangler by DSC01718r used under CC2.0