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Bonfire Night: yet another hedgehog horror

Friday 31 October 2008

Britain’s favourite mammal, the hedgehog, is under threat a never before. Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a keen gardener, begs fellow enthusiasts to extend a protective hand on Bonfire Night

TWO years ago, Mr Prickles the hedgehog was voted Britain’s favourite mammal, the result of a national survey which shocked some folk who thought the otter or the red squirrel would walk it. So we love the prickly little beast – but sadly, we do very little to protect it.

Bonfire Night: yet another hedgehog horror
Courtesy: BHPS

The hedgehog is facing a whole myriad of threats, most of them man made. But this coming week, on Wednesday to be precise, it faces perhaps the worst of the lot: being burned alive along with the effigy of Guy Fawkes in the base of some previously stacked bonfire.

The collection of material for November 5th bonfires often starts weeks in advance. Some of the bigger ones can by almost the height of a house. And according to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, they can become “hedgehog hotels” for animals seeking somewhere snug to curl up for the winter hibernation.

The Shropshire based society, formed after a local MP found a hedgehog starving to death trapped in a cattle grid, issued an urgent appeal this week to bonfire organisers asking them not to build their fires in situ, to become a tempting lure.

Instead, they should store the material elsewhere – preferably somewhere where it will be kept dry – and only build the stack on Wednesday. If this is not possible, they should carefully lift the base of the fire with garden forks or something similar and, using a torch, make sure that no sleepy mammals has taken up residence.

If so, it should be carefully removed (wearing gloves, one hopes), placed in a shoe box packed with straw or similar material, and placed somewhere sheltered under a thick hedge or perhaps the garden shed.

Now this may seem like a lot of trouble to protect what many people think to be a common and not all that pleasant wild animal: its spines are very sharp and, yes, it is often heavily infested with fleas. So why bother?

There are, in fact, a multitude of answers to that and the first is that Mr Prickles, one of the favourite characters in Beatrice Potter’s timeless children’s stories, is far less common these days than only a decade ago – in some areas, its numbers have halved in just a few years.

The hedgehog is facing a whole myriad of threats, most of them man made. But this coming week, on Wednesday to be precise... being burned alive along with the effigy of Guy Fawkes

And the reasons are mainly man made, with as little help from climate change. The biggest killer is, as one would expect, is the motor car and the biggest killing grounds are country roads close to large centres of population, the southern Yorkshire Dales being a prime example.

Close behind the car comes a killer who should be thoroughly ashamed of himself, the gardener. Because in his unconscious but never-the-less indiscriminate slaughter of hedgehogs, the gardener is in fact killing off one of his (or her) best friends. Hedgehogs feast on slugs and snails, the gardeners’ most loathed pest.

Slug pellets represent an act of chemical warfare: although the hedgehogs don’t eat the pellets, they do eat the slugs and snails which have ingested the poison, and so die from the accumulated build-up.

The horror does no stop there: one of the biggest threats, particularly in the autumn when gardeners tend to be tidying up those over grown corners, the strimmer becomes a lethal weapon because those corners are just where Prickles likes to settle down for the winter. To add to that horror, a strimmer is more likely to injure than kill outright, leaving the poor animal to die a slow and lingering death.

And to add one final doleful note to this sorry tale of woe, the long, mild autumns of recent years have been encouraging hedgehogs to mate much later in the year than was normal only a decade or so ago.

The result is that many there are many “teenage” animals about at this time which have not had to time to build up the fat reserves to carry them through hibernation. This week’s heavy frosts will have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of those.

Gardeners, this is no way to treat England’s favourite mammal. Keep the strimmer a\way from those overgrown corners – most of it will die back naturally during the winter anyway – and please, please, build your Guy Fawkes bonfire at the last minute or examine it carefully before setting it alight. After all, one good turn deserves another – and Mr Prickles needs a good winter’s sleep.

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