Hedgehogs, heroes of the garden

Hedgehogs are far from exotic – but we should treasure these spiny creatures, says Hugh Warwick

In the beginning, there was a hedgehog called Nigel. I can remember the exact moment we met. It was 1993, and I was doing a research project for the RPSCA in which I was studying the behaviour of hedgehogs in the wild after they had spent time in captivity. I was based in a field on the border of Devon and Somerset, and was monitoring the mammals' movements using radio tagging – attaching miniature transmitters to their spines – and noting their progress. It involved living on my own in a caravan in the middle of nowhere, but it kick-started my love of these tiny insectivores.

In the middle of one night, I had finished work at 4am. My only water source was outside, so I needed to get up to venture into the night to clean my teeth. That was when I first saw Nigel. He was snuffling around outside, and I recognised him immediately. I'd first met him several weeks earlier during the tagging progress, and was immediately struck by his speed, so I decided to name him after the racing driver Nigel Mansell. I watched him for several minutes, and when he wandered off I followed him. After about an hour, he came to a halt, and I laid down opposite him. And then something strange happened. He looked up at me, and seemed to notice me for the first time. I looked into his eyes. It was then that I got a sense of his genuine wildness. It's not something that you experience very often. You never really get close to wild animals normally. And so began my love affair with these enigmatic, beautiful, eccentric creatures. From working with hedgehog preservation charity HogWatch, recording the current number of hedgehogs in the British Isles, to becoming a life member of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, hedgehogs began to captivate me.

Many people believe hedgehogs are ubiquitous in Britain, but in 2007 they were added to the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), a document compiled by more than 500 British wildlife experts and one of the most-respected reference sources on endangered wildlife. Nowadays, their population in this country is estimated to be as low as one million. This is a problem. In many ways I think hedgehogs hold the key to our nation's rediscovery of nature. Unlike wildlife charities' traditional "poster animals" – often called charismatic mega-fauna – like lions and whales, you can actually get close to hedgehogs. They are a gardener's best friend. They love eating slugs, caterpillars and beetles, vacuuming up unwanted invertebrates. The fragmentation of our landscape – through the replacement of hedgerows with fencing in farms and gardens – has destroyed their natural habitat, epitomising man's domination of the landscape, an encumbrance which is reflected in his negative effect on the world through climate change.

And then there are their positive effect on our mental health. "Natural Thinking", a report published in 2007 by the RSPB, presented evidence that suggested contact with nature and green space has a very positive effect on our way of thinking. Richard Louv, an American author, has identified "nature-deficit disorder", a condition which affects our modern selves. That phrase makes utter sense to me. I strongly believe that through caring for hedgehogs we can feel better about ourselves.

If you are lucky enough to have a garden, see if you can encourage a hedgehog in as a visitor. But they can be pretty fickle, so don't expect them to stay. If you want to create the perfect hedgehog garden I would suggest the best thing you do is a little less gardening. Make the garden more like hedgehog habitat, have a corner that is a little wilder, make sure that hedgehogs can get in and out. My advice is to get a hammock, a blanket and a gin and tonic and sit quietly, waiting and listening to the tell-tale sounds of a snuffling hedgehog. And when the hedgehog has come to your garden a few times – or perhaps when several hedgehogs have visited (unless you mark them with a little dot of paint, it can be hard to tell them apart) – try your luck at getting closer. See if you can approach quietly enough to allow them to continue feeding. Get a better look at them. If natural light is not strong enough, a red torch will help. And as you get closer, just think, very few people take this opportunity to get really close to a really wild animal. They would rather jet off on safari to see a lion lazing under a tree, than get nose-to-nose with a hedgehog. I know which I think gives you the better wild experience. Maybe you could get close to the moment that Nigel and I once shared.

Hugh Warwick was speaking to Rob Sharp. The paperback of Hugh's book, A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs (£9.99), is published tomorrow by Allen Lane. To order a copy for the special price of £9.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk