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Rob Hardy: A hedgehog obsession

 

Rob Hardy

 

You may spout any praise of America, but you cannot conceal the fact: America has no hedgehogs. Not native ones, anyway. Oh, we have hedgehog hobbyists who enjoy having imported hedgehogs as pets, and even have them compete in the International Hedgehog Olympic Games (the Olympic Committee who runs the human version wants you to be sure they do not themselves sponsor or endorse the hedgehog version).  

 

Writer Hugh Warwick attended the IHOG one year, but competitive or domesticated hedgehogs are not his passion. Hedgehogs, the wild sort familiar to anyone in Britain, are what he favors, and he makes a convincing case for his enthusiasm in "The Hedgehog''s Dilemma: A Tale of Obsession, Nostalgia, and the World''s Most Charming Mammal" (Bloomsbury). Warwick is a British freelance writer and photographer who covers environmental issues, and it seems he has spent half his life studying hedgehogs. The other half must have been spent addressing members in meetings of that venerable British foundation, the Women''s Institute, his favorite audience. (He praises the WI as the bakers of "some of the finest cake known to humanity," and is happy to take a cake to cover travel expenses.) It is these talks that got him asking himself, "Why hedgehogs?" After all, he finds that other hedgehog enthusiasts (and they are legion) have trouble putting their fingers on the attraction of hedgehogs: "smelly, flea-ridden, solitary, prickly, and nocturnal, they are hardly the recipe for unrestrained, or even restrained, love." 

 

His talks to the WI must have brought out his own charming and jocular side, always on view in this book, which is memoir, history and field guide. He is a trained ecologist whose first professional involvement with hedgehogs was for his university degree thesis, to try to answer a question about hedgehogs in Devon. There are many charity hospitals for injured animals in Britain, some specializing in hedgehogs, and the question was, when animals were released from them back into the wild, did they survive? Warwick writes about often difficult attempts to get objective knowledge. He had to use radio tags on the little beasts, and to track them; the equipment in 1993 was primitive and temperamental. The hedgehogs had to be caught repeatedly, weighed to see if they were thriving, and released. The verdict was that the hedgehogs did quite well, justifying continued treatment and release; but if the evidence had been otherwise, we can be sure that the hedgehog hospitals would have changed to long-term hedgehog hospices.  

 

He was doing the same work 20 years later on a little Orkney island, North Ronaldsay. Although the island was tiny, there were reports that there were 10,000 hedgehogs on it, and they were putting at risk the survival of ground-laying birds by eating their eggs. Yes, hedgehogs eat eggs from ground nests, but were they the villains? Tagging and counting once again showed that there were actually about 500 hedgehogs, and further research showed that climate change was forcing plankton northward, so that the sand-eels that fed on it had to go northward, and the sand-eels were the birds'' food, and that was a bigger hazard. Ecology is messy. A similar problem arose on South Uist in the Hebrides when Scottish National Heritage declared the hedgehogs to be villains in nest thefts, and was set to cull them. Some did get culled, because SNH said the hedgehogs could never survive transportation to mainland Britain. Others were smuggled out by do-gooders, and a local airline generated goodwill by offering free flights for hedgehogs. Warwick tagged the immigrants to show that SNH had nothing to worry about; hedgehogs did just fine in their new homes. The hedgehogs sometimes, however, are unambiguously villains. Colonists to New Zealand wanted to make the place look just like home, and brought hedgehogs starting in 1871. New Zealanders still like the little creatures, but they really do put at hazard some of the native fauna, including rare native beetles. 

 

Even in England, hedgehogs were not always beloved. The Vermin Act of 1566 doomed many of the animals; the little parish of Bunbury recorded 8,585 hedgehogs killed during 35 years in the succeeding century. Egg thieves they were, but they were also accused of stealing milk by suckling cows, which they do not do. Maybe a total of two million hedgehogs were killed for bounty. Only the head had to be presented, so that the body might go into the stew pot. (Lest you think Warwick is too reverential toward his subject, he does include a recipe for hedgehog spaghetti carbonara -- one hedgehog serves four -- but adds that the chef who invented the recipe specializes in cooking roadkill.) The greatest change in feeling toward hedgehogs occurred in 1905, the year Beatrix Potter brought out "The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle." Warwick reminds us that Potter was a gifted naturalist, whose idea that lichens were a symbiotic joining of a fungi and an algae was slow to be accepted, mostly because she was a female. Her heroine captured a true part of the character of real hedgehogs; Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was benign and quietly industrious. However, Warwick does point out that as a washerwoman, she would be handicapped by tearing garments on her spines, and by infusing them with hedgehog smell. 

 

Warwick''s title comes from a problem posed by the philosopher Schopenhauer, who pondered for hedgehogs the dilemma usually posed about porcupines: how can they get close enough to mate without the male getting skewered? Schopenhauer was not a biologist, and Warwick explains a little of the unbloody hedgehog mating process, but that wasn''t Schopenhauer''s point; he was more interested in the problem of how a human can get close enough to another human to relieve loneliness but also not to cause pain. The larger issue on which Warwick concentrates is that humans do have a dilemma with the natural world; living near the wilderness seems to be good for us (the "biophilia" defined by Edward Wilson), but we cannot seem to get out there without destroying some of its wildness. Warwick sees his animals as sort of a bridge. As much as humans have to interact with them, whether just watching them in the woods or gardens or rehabilitating them in hedgehog hospitals, they don''t show affection or gratitude. They remain wild, while they also remain unabashedly cute, which stimulates our interest in the wild animal. Incidentally, if you have wondered about how hedgehogs mate, I bet you haven''t considered the consequent problem of how hedgehogs are birthed. Baby hedgehogs are, after all, born with spines. The answer to this poser, and many other surprises, can be found in an agreeable book that was originally written for British readers about a native mammal. American readers will find that ecological issues are similar the world over, and will enjoy Warwick''s happy way of spinning anecdotes. 

 

 

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is robhardy@earthlink.net.

 

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