If Liz Hurley loves them, they must be OK

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DID YOU miss Hedgehog Awareness Week earlier this month? Me too, I'm afraid. Another year has gone, and again it has passed me by.

It's a shame, for the little-noticed promotion is put on by one of the most charmingly idiosyncratic bodies among the hundreds that jostle for attention in the predatory world of wildlife charities. Every Christmas, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society sends out its Hogologue, a mail- order catalogue of key rings, pendants, fridge magnets, bedroom slippers, even Wellington- boot holders, in the shape of the delightful creatures.

Then there's its newsletter. Where else would you be told, for example - by John Clarke (member 703065S) - that Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Hurley may both carry rhinestone handbags in the shape of Hedgehogs to "black-tie galas" (Hedgehogs always appear with initial capitals in the newsletter, like God).

And where else would you read of the adventures of Nicole Ingleton (member X508036L) who, on safari round Tanzania's national parks, insisted on being shown not lions, rhino, buffalo or elephants but - yes, you're there before me. "My safari guide, Moubu, was uninterested, finding it amusing that I was interested in Hedgehogs," she writes. "The staff at the various lodges did not know where the Hedgehogs nested.... I gave the staff some advice, but I got the impression that they viewed Hogs as not as important as other animals."

o IT HAS been a rough winter for "our prickly friends". Last year's late summer produced a lot of last-minute litters, with babies which were underweight when it came to hibernation time. And they were wakened by this year's early spring, only to be zapped by April's cold snap.

So members have had their work cut out hand-rearing orphan baby hedgehogs and the newsletter is full of tips for "Hedgehog carers". A mixture of lemon and olive oils, for example, gets rid of ticks "but do make sure you catch the ticks, as they may move on to another Hedgehog".

The orphans are fed nuts, bananas, peanut butter and even avocados. The rest have to put up with cat or dog food. But there are hidden dangers in those cans. Correspondents warn against using can openers because they produce "little slivers of metal swarf" which "would readily perforate the small bowel".

Raising hedgehogs seems to be a pretty traumatic business. There's a story of baby hedgehogs being stillborn after their mother fell into a canister of oil in a garage (apparently a frequent occurrence) and there is an agonised poem of what goes through a carer's mind before releasing an orphan to the wild:

"Worried that we'd overtamed him/ worried that we'd overfed him/ when he went into the forest/ would he look for avocados?"

Sad to say, the hedgehog, called Sausage, did perish - but whether from avocado deprivation is not clear.

But there's a solution for those, who like me, quail at the thought of all this responsibility. The society has set up a sponsorship scheme under which you can pay for the nurture of a hedgehog without going through all the worry.

o WHETHER it is worth all the strain is another matter. For research shows that few of the hand-reared hedgehogs survive. The study, in the latest issue of the academic journal Animal Welfare, says that only a quarter of those released last as long as four months.

The biggest cause of death is being run over. The society does its best, offering to sell members a "simple but brilliant" high-pitched alarm to put on the front of their cars (guaranteed inaudible to traffic cops) and, if all else fails, there's a hymn to help people come to terms with the squashing.

It reminds me of research at Hull University, which I came across as a young reporter, into why hedgehogs get squashed. After long years of study, noting that most hedgehogs were killed on patches of road around bends or over the brow of hills, the academics solemnly concluded that "either the car doesn't see the hedgehog, or the hedgehog doesn't see the car."