Some time ago we applied to be foster carers for a hedgehog. We had to undergo a gruelling telephone interview with the hedgehog rescue lady: how big was our garden, did we have dogs, did we use slug pellets, did we have any water, was there access to other gardens. After a nerve-racking wait we were told we had passed, subject to inspection of our garden. There was one problem; the hedgehog was still underweight and needed feeding up.
A month passed. I rang to check whether we were still in the running. We were, but he was still too tiny. Finally the call came. Were we still keen? (I should say so!) If so, this weekend she would bring him round for a garden inspection. What a way to celebrate Hedgehog Awareness Week (5-11th May). What preparations did we need to make, assuming of course that our garden passed muster? We needed to build a house – a website told us an upturned wine crate with an entrance corridor would be perfect, with a similarly protected feeding station where we could put out cat food. The lady said that the four fox cubs who also use the garden shouldn’t be a problem. With her permission, we invited some children to come round.
They used to be fairly common and my mother’s dog, a Gordon setter of no discernible brain had only one skill – he could find hedgehogs, although he could never understand why sniffing them brought a sharp pain to his nose. But now they are endangered. Over-development, traffic, tidy gardens, pesticides and poisons, plastic lawns – all are fatal to hedgehogs. The last hedgehog I had seen, about five years ago, was dead in my allotment, and I have to admit to moving his body gently to lie next to my neighbour’s heavily slug pelleted veg.
But they retain a special place in our hearts. It’s not just the literature of Mrs Tiggywinkle, it’s the charm of their round shape, pointed noses and shiny eyes that has made them Britain’s favourite animal. A petition to ensure that every new housing development builds a 13cm hole (the size of a CD) at the bottom of the garden fences to allow hedgehogs to move freely between gardens to find food and a mate has attracted over 560,000 signatories in the last couple of weeks. How many of those signatories have plastic grass in their garden, or put down slug pellets, or over-tidy their gardens, or do any of the obvious things that would really support hedgehogs and other wildlife? A petition to stop chemical poisons in our gardens would be more useful – garden centres have shelves and shelves of bug killers, ant killers, fly killers, ultimate insect killers, pest-stop insect killer sprays… Do the 560,000 signatories buy and use them?
The lady arrived, with a small carrier containing “our” hedgehog, who she had named Sage. He was smaller than expected, he was definitely a boy, and he had a purple dot on his back. “That’s so we know which one he is,” she said. To our relief, she approved our garden, which is designed for wildlife with a flower meadow lawn, thick hedging around the outsides and lush bee-friendly planting. No need for CD-sized holes – the foxes have dug six-lane fox motorways between us and our neighbours and I had checked that neither side used pellets (it was the first time in years that I’ve spoken to one of the neighbours, so committed to the hedgehog’s welfare was I).
We all admired Sage, the kids were allowed to stroke his prickles gently, we put his bedding into the upturned crate, and then the lady inserted him into the corridor and we put a brick at the entrance, so that he should get used to his new home. She told us to release him in the evening and wished us luck.
After an hour we had a peep into the corridor; he was still there. We became worried that he was stuck in the corridor as the join between the corridor and the main box was quite tight. We took him out and modified the corridor. This time he ran happily through the corridor and into the main box. We replaced the bricks and waited for evening.
Ceremonially we approached, filled his feeding station and removed the bricks. Some neighbours had come round. There was a breathless hush. Nothing happened. We peered into the corridor, darkness. We peered through the crack into the main crate. No sign of him. We gingerly lifted the crate. Still no sign of him. We gently rustled through the dry leaves we had put into the crate to make him feel at home. Gone!
A neat little tunnel had been dug at the back of the crate and Sage, a prisoner for months, had done a bunk. Although it was an anticlimax and we had hoped to see his first steps into freedom – grass! bushes! fresh air! space to run! – it was good to know that he was fit and agile enough to wriggle his way out and head for freedom.
Later that evening I took my cup of tea out to the garden and sat quietly hoping to hear him rustling through the undergrowth. The bird song was beautiful, and encouraging in these times when all we hear is doom and destruction, but of Sage – no sign nor sound. Maybe he would come back to eat the delicious cat food we prepared for him, and drink from the water bowls placed around the garden.
When I told the lady she didn’t take it as a sign of failure, but rather of Sage’s good health and impatience to get out and on. I’m hoping she will consider us next time for a little girlfriend for him.
Meanwhile, if any of you find a small but nimble hedgehog with a purple dot on his back and a wicked sparkle in his eye, please let us know.
Stop press: The following morning the food plate was licked clean.