Hedgehogs at home.

It was with great delight that I discovered the garden of our new house was being visited by hedgehogs. I was enthralled rather than appalled at being rudely awoken in the early hours of the morning by a rather rowdy run-in between two hogs underneath our bedroom window. My partner, desperately trying to recoup lost hours of sleep from travelling with work didn’t share my enthusiasm as I leapt out of bed shouting, ‘We’ve got hedgehogs!’ Flattened against the windowsill like a Leaf-tailed Gecko to prevent my feminine assets from attracting the unwanted attentions of the occasional intoxicated imbiber staggering home after a night of inebriation, I strained to see their prickly forms in the darkness.

One of the first jobs in our new home was to ‘guinea-pig proof’ the garden in order to contain the little family of rescued cavies I had been acquiring over the years. This project involved man-handling metres of uncooperative chicken wire into narrow trenches prepared around the perimeter of our plot, blocking off any potential escape routes. We also had to board up a cat sized hole in the gate to prevent our cat sized dog from utilizing it ‘trap-door spider style’ to terrorize the postman and innocent passers by.

Safe in the knowledge that my precious brood were adequately hemmed in, I turned my attention to ‘re-wilding’ the garden. Out came the Leylandii along with various other rather useless shrubs and in went rotting log piles, insect hotels, wildflower seeds and a variety of bird feeders. No plant was to cross the threshold until it had been Googled to within an inch of its life to find evidence justifying its wildlife benefit – nectar rich flowers for pollinators on the sunny front aspect and berry producing shrubs for the birds with creeping ground cover insect habitats at the shady rear.

An epic battle of wills between my partner and I soon reared its ugly head over the size of the lawn. I envisaged minimal grass, maximum borders – deep swathes of cottage garden perennials buzzing with bees. My fiance on the other hand was hoping to realize every mans dream of patrolling his estate atop his sit on mower in a testosterone fuelled demonstration of masculinity. After a heated debate about the practicalities of maintaining a luxurious, striped bowling green lawn directly beneath the canopy of a two hundred year old oak tree sporting a preservation order in a 90 square foot plot on a housing estate in the West Midlands, Chris Baines and Capability Brown shook hands, so to speak and a compromise was reached. A meeting in the middle somewhere between the neat, manicured blandness aka  ‘parks and gardens’ and the uncontrolled rambling untidiness of a wild patch.

It was during this project that we discovered having inadvertently trapped a hedgehog in our escape proof yard. The poor creature almost met his maker in two halves with the aid of a spade when we split open a bag of building sand. Luckily, he was tucked up in a ball right in the centre of the compact building material, having dug in from beneath. (Cautionary note – always check for hogs when undertaking any form of building work or gardening as they are clearly found in unusual places as well as within their preferred and well known location – bonfires under construction.) Concerned for his welfare, a quick call to the local wildlife rescue centre confirmed our opinion that he would need to be carefully released into an area in which he could freely roam up to four kilometres a night in search of food or mates. Fortunately, a family member frequently had hedgehogs visit her quiet garden, so he was safely released there along with a custom made hog house, just in case he decided stick around.

I missed our little spiky friend and wondered if there was anything I could do to help these bristly beings especially as they were (and still are) having such a hard time battling against the miles of obligatory orange lap fencing, gravel boards, decking and block paved drives. They struggle to navigate our impenetrable territory boundaries, trapped in isolated pockets with little or no food source and limited access to mates. To add to their predicament, due to the nations obsession with clinical neatness and acute dread of coming into contact with anything that lives, breathes or could potentially spread germs, we spray, spread and scatter a cocktail of poisonous chemicals over our gardens and homes. Pesticides, herbicides and slug pellets all promoting the demise of living things around us. Anihilation of life is the absolute antithesis of all in believe in, so whilst many of those around me set out to terminate as much British flora and fauna as possible, I endeavour to preserve what little we have left. No stamping, squashing or swatting is permitted in my domain. After brief online research, I found out that some hedgehog rescue charities were in need of secure gardens in which to release disabled hogs, unable to be returned to the wild. Bingo! We were in business.

A trip to the local hog group resulted in lots of advice, check lists and eventually a return trip home with a cat carrier containing a three legged hedgehog called Winston, a small male, who’s amputation made him all the more vulnerable to predators. The first task on the agenda when we arrived home was to remove all chicken wire from the ground to hedgehog height (apparently they have a penchant for getting their legs stuck – not great when you only have three to start with). So, up came all the ‘pig-proofing’, which by now was thoroughly enmeshed with the extensive root systems of all the wildlife plants I had been nurturing. Not a job for the feint-hearted or the claustrophobic as it involved squeezing between fences, sheds and trellis and under log piles. I wasn’t hugely popular with my partner by this time – he was keen to remind me of all the reasons why he wouldn’t have chosen to have pets. Finally, all the gaps were suitably blocked with hedgehog friendly fillers, drains covered over and inappropriate nesting sites lifted up out of reach. Winston was good to go.

Winston the Three-legged Hedgehog

Winston the Three-legged Hedgehog

The next few evenings afforded much excitement and rushing to the window every time the security light came on, only to be disappointed by the disheartening sight of assorted rear ends belonging to neighbouring cats disappearing over the fence. But our resident hog was definitely on the move as his food was consistently depleted on a nightly basis. A few days later, after a three hour stake out on the patio set, wearing a camouflage quilt cover and a red filtered head lamp, I finally caught a brief, shadowy glimpse of Winston snuffling around amongst the hellebores.

Other than the empty food bowls and the odd rustling in the undergrowth when putting the guinea pigs to bed, the only evidence of our spiny friend was poo. Lots of poo. In fact, despite having a long standing disposition for dung, I have never come across such an abundant array of stools or such an astonishing ratio of fecal volume to body mass. Our yorkie sized terrier, Twix is unable to give rise to excrement of such magnitude even though she is four times size of this proficient producer of poop.

When the beginning of autumn approached, I needed to catch Winston and weigh him to ensure that he was fat enough to survive hibernation. After the nonsuccess of numerous nocturnal kidnap attempts, I decided that waking him during the day would be easier. Wrong! The mistake I made was to assume that he would be utilizing one of the three lovingly handmade hedgehog houses placed prudently in various locations around the garden. Our fast becoming established and semi-overgrown garden. The garden designed specifically to contribute a conglomeration of concealed cubbyholes into which Winston could crawl undiscovered. Consequently, in order to locate said lodges, I had to crawl around on hands and knees under, over, behind and amongst the dense vegetation in which they were situated. All huts were empty, so no hog to weigh. Covered form head to toe in soil, twigs, leaf litter and other unidentified herbage (a look Worzel Gummidge would have been proud of), I retreated to the house to have a mini breakdown. Winston had escaped, the fox had mauled him, or worse, a passing band of romany gypsies had carried him off to roast over their roadside campfire.

Leaving me to hysterically torment myself with worst case scenario conclusions, my fiance reluctantly revisited the undergrowth and a methodical sweeping technique revealed Winston balled up obliviously beneath the Euonymus. It was with great relief that he was weighed and replaced, fit for hibernation. We don’t know which dwelling met with his approval in which to snugly sleep through the depths of winter, but the following spring, he reappeared unscathed and rather peckish.

I was delighted when, later that season we were asked by the rescue whether we would consider taking on another hedgehog called Herbie. I didn’t need to think twice and leapt at the opportunity before my other half could say no. Herbie was a big boy who had suffered damage to his back, preventing him from being able to raise his spines on his rear half, giving him a mullet hair style of sorts. His slightly diagonal gait prompted my partner to announce playfully that ‘…his tracking was out.’ These unusual characteristics simply made him all the more endearing.

Herbie settled in immediately, his self-assured nature meaning he was a much more visible presence in the garden compared to timid Winston. All seemed well until we noticed an increasing discrepancy between their weights. Herbie was gaining as Winston was losing. We added extra feeding stations at assorted locations in the hope that Winston could claim one as Herbie was busy in another. Provisions were devoured from every plastic parlour, but still the divergence in density dominated. Eventually, the time came when Herbie had to go on a diet. Obesity is not a condition exclusive to us humans, it seems. So in order to maintain the health of our hog and stave off the likes of arthritis, we set about rationing our prickly pal. This was easier said than done given that his timorous associate needed building up somewhat. After the reduction in refreshment, each night as soon as darkness fell, despite the issues with his tracking, Herbie would hotfoot it to the feeding stations one by one, hoovering up all the food, leaving poor Winston dithering behind the hostas, trying to pluck up the courage to cross the treacherous clearing that was the lawn.

Herbie on the scales.

Herbie on the scales.

Their relationship was as bristly in essence as they were in appearance with bullying and barging beneath the Buddleia becoming a nightly occurence. With increasing regularity, their cacophanous quarrels could be heard breaching the peace of our quiet cul-de-sac. When Winston began to show physical signs of stress, I caught him so he could be returned to the rescue centre for treatment for mites and worms as well as a general health check.

After dropping him off, we waited nervously by the telephone, hoping that he would be given a clean bill of health. When the call came, however, we were shocked and upset that there was bad news. A sudden roller-coaster of emotions – had we done something wrong, was it all our fault, had we inadvertently neglected our little hedgehog friend? The worst case – maybe he wasn’t going to make it and would have to be put to sleep. Then the voice at the end of the line bought me back to reality with a relieving thud. He was OK, alive and well, however it was explained that it would not be possible for him to be returned to us. It turned out that despite undergoing intricate surgery to amputate on of his hind legs, whilst operating adjacent to the neighbouring nether regions, nobody noticed that Winston was in fact Winnie.  So the regular rumpus behind the rockery wasn’t a boys bar-room brawl after all – it was resentful Winnie vigorously rebuffing Herbie’s incessant amorous advances. She was to be rehomed in a peaceful environment without a devoutly lovestruck male admirer. We were disappointed and saddened to lose Winnie, but glad that she would enjoy a restful life in the absence of unwanted passionate engagement.

Since becoming a single hedgehog household, we have been able to control Herbie’s calorie intake and with regular weigh ins, maintain his now moderate waistline. He isn’t a fan of the scales however, usually launching himself off and making a bid for freedom across the kitchen floor into the pantry – a situation that my partner observes with disdain. But aside from that and his predilection for stealing the wild bird food (mealworm peppered fat balls are a particular favourite), Herbie the solitary hedgehog has become a much loved, easy going and undemanding member of the family.

I still experience the buzz of excitement when I hear him foraging on his nightly foray or surprise him dining in his feeding station. Finding his empty dish in the morning always elicits a childlike, magical wonder akin to that felt upon the discovery that Santa and his reindeer have taken the mince pie and carrots offered up on Christmas Eve. And as I climb into bed, I feel a grounded calmness, falling asleep with a contented smile on my face, knowing that my day has ended, but Herbie’s has only just begun.

hedgehog, watercolour, painting, greetings card, Elizabeth Malpass Animal Artist, unique pet portraits

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