Hotchi Witchi. An Apology.
Near-dark, and I am trying to point out a small, still hedgehog under a hedge by the Scout hut to my son. He only sees it when it trots off, a conker on fast little legs. He is astonished I spotted it.
But I have a special eye for hedgehogs. And it is because I have an apology to make, a confession to absolve: a dirty little secret.
You see, years ago, I mistook a hedgehog for a football. One late summer night with friends, in the dusk-near-dark, barefoot and in a dress, I ran from the touchline that ran parallel with a badgers’ boundary, pitted at intervals with blackberry-filled latrines, and swung a kick at the ball. Only, it wasn’t. I yelped in surprise and pain as the inside of my right foot connected with an immovable pin cushion as my short-sighted, low-light vision clocked the actual ball. Over-wintered itself under a hedge, and partially-deflated, it had long lost its white leather gleam.
Horrified, we sat in solemn vigil around the bristling, sizable ball. A full five minutes later, it unrolled, snuffed the air, stood up via a press-up in reverse and trotted off. I cried with relief.
Just three years later, driving home, a hedgehog emerged from the shadowed kerbside undercliff and I struck it unavoidably with my near side wheel, killing it. More recently, another got stuck in the cage of our live rat trap. For 40 minutes it defied efforts to free it, rolling into a defensive ball too big to fit back out. We released it unharmed eventually, only to catch a furious polecat in the same trap a week later.
We seem to have 50 regrettable ways to kill hedgehogs, finding them dead at the bottom of cattle grids or drains, drowned in steep-sided ponds, strangled in garden netting, flattened on roads, burnt in bonfires, or mangled horribly by mowers, strimmers or tractor flails. And more sinisterly, blithely, we thank them for eating slugs by poisoning them with pellets, often in industrial quantities over our farmfields. We do not mean to harm. But we do.
Dead hedgehogs are tragedies – as well as indicators of a wider population. Now, like the moth snowstorms in car headlights of the seventies, they are rarer: declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers globally – around 5% a year.
So, I am good at spotting hedgehogs; I have ground to make up. This summer, I rescued two from the road, weighing their heavy prickliness in my two hands with due reverence for these most marvellous and ancient of beasts. The lines of Philip Larkin’s poem The Mower, ran through my head: ‘we should be careful of each other, we should be kind while there is still time.’