In other British animal news, hedgehogs are vanishing.
Where have all our hedgehogs gone?: the British hedgehog population in the mid-90s was, very roughly, about two million. Today, that figure might be down to a million. As nobody has any idea of the population dynamics once the overall numbers are so radically depleted, there is no telling what will happen next.
Does it matter? Of course it matters. The loss of the hedgehog would be more than just the loss of a small, prickly Mrs Tiggywinkle. Unlike any other animal in this country – except, perhaps, the mole, whose condition is, if anything, even more opaque, and just as likely to be following its own chute to oblivion – the hedgehog has always been a symbol and embodiment of something subtle and tender in the landscape. It is not a flamboyant showman of a creature, but quiet, nocturnal and discreet. Even though it has a great sense of smell – it can sniff a dog 35ft away – and can jump two feet to catch a beetle, and that a Russian hedgehog once found its way back home after it had been dropped 48 miles away across the tundra, the hedgehog is not, on the whole, a very clever creature. It has a very small brain and very conservative habits. It is no fox. One owner tried to teach his hedgehog a simple lesson – open the red door for lunch – 4,000 times. It looked the other way.
It is a widely treasured creature. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has more than 600 “carers” on its list, the stars of which are probably Ken and Sue Lewis of Rochdale, who take in up to 2,000 injured, poisoned, orphaned or burned hedgehogs a year (157 there this week). Why? “I suppose because they have adorable faces,” Mrs Lewis says. Fay Vass, chief executive of the BHPS, thinks: ‘He’s just a useful chap to have around. And if what we are doing is damaging hedgehogs, people need to buckle down and start to think of other animals apart from ourselves.” Only in England would the conservation of wild mammals be discussed in these terms, but “a useful chap to have around” sounds strangely like what a hedgehog’s rather modest description of itself might be.
This is, straightforwardly, a question of knowledge. The hedgehogs are dying because we don’t know what we are doing to them. Without that knowledge, quite silently, an unobtrusive world is being mauled and, because it is largely invisible, nothing much is being said about it. Unless that knowledge is acquired – and acted on – the hedgehog, in our lifetimes, will end up as little more than a memory.
There’s lots more lyrical stuff there I didn’t quote — including ties to a Philip Larkin poem.
I forget: Is hedgehogs vanishing one of the signs of global warming or of the Apocalypse? Or just routine ecological disaster?