When I started out as an ecologist I had fantasies of working with the charismatic megafauna. Jane Goodall’s work on chimpanzees had been an early inspiration and I wondered where I would end up. Maybe with elephants or rhinos in Tanzania? Or perhaps orangutans in Borneo?
So there was a part of me that felt a little subdued at the thought of studying hedgehogs. It was a good project - seeing if they were responsible for the decline in breeding success of ground-nesting birds on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkneys (they weren’t) - but however you look at it, hedgehogs are hardly charismatic megafauna are they?
But it started something. I did not quite realise at the time how important that early work was, but 25 years later and I am still working with hedgehogs. I have counted them, radio-tracked them, helped rescue them from the Uists and campaigned on their behalf ever since.
I even wrote a book about them – A Prickly Affair. I got invited to the US to speak at the Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show (very similar to Crufts – or the film Best in Show – with the minor difference of no dogs and lots of pet hedgehogs).
Move over pooches
The Denver show was organised by the Hedgehog Welfare Society and was one of the strangest events I have ever been to. There are no hedgehogs native to America: all these were descended from what are known as African Pygmy Hedgehogs. They were imported from Nigeria as exotic pets in the early 1990s and for a while were the fad-pet (stepping into the shoes vacated by the discarded terrapins and pot-bellied pigs).
I even headed off to China in a quest for Hugh’s hedgehog, the rarest of the 14 species of spiny hedgehog that bestride Europe, Africa and Asia. You will have to read the book to find out what happened there.
But one of my most profound experiences began with a hedgehog called Nigel. I was working in Devon, radio-tracking hedgehogs to see how well they coped with life in the wild after time in wildlife hospitals. They were doing great (apart from badgers and cars that is) and one of them, Nigel, had become my favourite. Jane Goodall gave her chimps names, so I felt in good company. And anyway, I was alone for much of the study, living in a damp and draughty caravan, and it is always good to have someone to talk to.
At four in the morning I had just finished work and stepped outside to do my teeth. Nigel was sat looking up at me, and then he headed off towards the narrow lane. I decided to follow, unencumbered by the radio-tracking gear. And over the next hour, I got closer and closer, watching him, seeing how he used the warm dry tarmac of the road. Much easier to walk on than cold wet grass, and also the warmth attracted the invertebrate prey he sought. And also revealed why even the quietest roads kill so many.
A deeper connection
I ended up lying on my stomach just a few centimetres away from my busy friend. Then he stopped, turned, and looked at me. Up until that point, I had been the one doing the observing, now he returned the favour and for a brief moment there was a glint of the innate wildness in his eyes as he most definitely checked me out. And then he was off, back to the quest for slugs and worms. And I was left feeling moved.
What dawned on me was that there is no other wild animal that most people can do this with. That level of intimacy allowed me to see the real heart of the wild in an accessible form. If I had got that close to any of the charismatic megafauna I once craved, I would have been lucky to have had just my nose bitten off.
The importance of this is in the perspective. By being nose-to-nose with a hedgehog I was able to see his world from his point of view, and I was also able to see into his world through the glint of wildness. And once we have seen that spark, it is hard not to be drawn into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the natural world.
Or, to put it another way, ‘fall in love’ with the natural world. I am a scientist; I do not do dippy nonsense. But something changed in me with that one encounter, and I believe it can change in anyone who has an opportunity to get really close to something genuinely wild. And the reason the hedgehog is so important is that it is wild, it is as wild as a tiger, but it is there in our gardens, acting as a gate-keeper to this alternate view of the world.
We have an innate need to be in touch with nature. We are happier and healthier if we have that connection. And the more intimate that connection the better. But we cannot all manage to live in the woods or stomp up mountains. We need to find a way of falling in love with the natural world, as it is the only way we will be truly moved to alter our behaviour and stop its destruction.
Hugh Warwick’s book, A Prickly Affair, The Charm of the Hedgehog, is out in Penguin paperback April 2010. He also keeps a regular blog of hedgehog-related material … strange, wonderful and frequently very funny
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