| Some surprising facts about hedgehogs|
|For a familiar sort of wild animal, hedgehogs are full of surprises. In the past few months, I've found a lot of things out about them. One is the popular belief that the first thing you should do if you see a hedgehog is weigh it. A hedgehog that weighs under 600g – which will usually be one that has been born late, in June or July – might not survive the winter, and needs to be rehabilitated before being released back into the wild.|
Sadly, when I saw a hedgehog sitting companionably in my garden with my cat Ralph last summer, I didn't weigh it. Instead, I tried to make friends with it. Weighing just isn't the first thing on my mind when I see a wild animal. I don't spot, say, a skinny muntjac deer and think, "RIGHT! Time to get the scales out." What I tend to think is, "Maybe this one won't be like all the others and, instead of running away, will come and live permanently in my garden and let me call it Ron or Clive."
My particular method of attempting to befriend this hedgehog was to head inside and fetch it a saucer of milk. By the time I'd returned, however, it had gone. And a good job too, since – as I soon found out – hedgehogs are dangerously lactose intolerant. It turns out that "It's good to feed hedgehogs milk" is one of those misguided bits of folk wisdom I was told as a child in the 1980s, along with "Cats on the continent prefer to be stroked backwards" and "Girls like you more if you use hair gel". Milk could in fact be considered one of hedgehogs' main enemies, alongside slug pellets, badgers and cars.
I was intrigued by the hedgehog's relationship with Ralph who, if I'm honest, has been a bit bereft since 2002 when his soulmate and brother, Brewer, was run over and killed outside my house. Ralph, kind of like Waiting for the Sun-era Jim Morrison, is a paradoxical combination of beauty and questionable personal hygiene. He's the kind of cat who, were he left outside to fend for himself, would probably be followed everywhere by a squad of opportunistic flies, in much the same way that seagulls follow ships. I wondered if, in the form of the hedgehog, he'd finally found a companion who could love him not just for his majestic tabby sideburns and tail but for the collection of leeches, slugs, tics and other random crap he often gets stuck to them. I felt bad about the possibility that I might have frightened it off, and this led me to want to find out more about hedgehogs.
Here are a couple of other surprising things I found out about hedgehogs: it's illegal to drive them through the state of Pennsylvania, and David Bellamy sometimes eats them, often accompanied by herbs. I learned the latter in the section about hedgehogs as roadkill delicacy in Hugh Warwick's definitive hedgehog memoir-cum-bible, A Prickly Affair. Warwick also taught me that hedgehogs have been known to scale walls and turn up in people's first-floor bedrooms. Julie, a friend of a friend in Suffolk who can be found fostering a dozen hedgehogs at any one time, also told me that they can travel up to 12 miles in one night. Warwick puts it at more like 4km. Whatever the case, they move more swiftly than a lot of us give them credit for.
Last month I visited Shepreth Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire, which hosts East Anglia's biggest hedgehog hospital. With her hardworking hedgehog team, curator Rebecca Willers is researching better ways to care for and understand hedgehogs, including looking at the possibility of fitting hedgehogs with GPS tracking systems. Underweight or injured hogs – one, tragically, had been the victim of a garden strimmer – are usually brought to Shepreth by thoughtful members of the public. "One hedgehog arrived here alone in a taxi," Rebecca told me. "The driver said the fare was already covered. It had come 40 miles, all the way from Watford."
Hedgehog carers such as Rebecca and Julie are adamant that people should not attempt to turn wild hedgehogs into pets. Julie's daughter, Jessica – who got the idea for looking after hedgehogs after overhearing a conversation in a local pet shop involving a lady who said she had "a load of poorly birds and hedgehogs flying and running around her front room" – loves looking after the hogs but, when they've recovered and reached a healthy weight, they go back into the wild. The one exception is George, the hedgehog who lives in Julie's garden. George could go elsewhere if he liked, but seems to prefer to stick around.
Julie and Jessica told me they named George after a local vet who is particularly sympathetic to the hedgehog cause (not all vets are, sadly). I immediately knew who they were referring to, as he is also the vet whose quick-thinking kindness saved my cat Shipley's life in 2011, and who got very confused when, last year, I called "GeeeORGE" at him in a soppy voice. I didn't actually know he was called George at the time, my girlfriend and I were simply trying out potential names for a feral cat we'd caught and brought in to be neutered. In the circumstances, I think the vet responded very politely to my overfamiliarity.
When I head out into Julie's garden with her brother-in-law, Phil, George the hedgehog is nowhere to be seen. There is a creature in one of the small, doorless wooden hutches where George likes to sleep, but it's definitely not him. It's bigger than any hedgehog I've ever seen, hasn't got spines, and is, it transpires, to all intents and purposes, dead.
Phil's reaction to this surprises me, largely due to the fact it doesn't involve him screaming: "Sodding hell! What the buggery is that? I'm calling a top local zoologist this instant." I ask him if they often get rats that big in their garden. "Oh, yeah," he replies, calmly poking it with a gloved hand to confirm its crusty deceasedness. "They're often a lot bigger than that."
Thankfully, we find George in his other favourite hutch, curled up safely for the winter. I look at him and say "Aah" and he stirs slightly but, in the end, there's not a lot else to do. He's a hedgehog, and, for all the quirks of his species, in this somnolent state he looks a lot like other hedgehogs. We head back indoors and leave him to what appears to be a blissful sleep, safely away from Pennsylvania, main roads, David Bellamy, and the kind of fool who might feed him milk or try to cajole him into a lasting friendship with a large, unkempt, emotional cat.