Hog in the limelight

Yesterday the hedgehog was voted Britain's favourite garden animal. Michael McCarthy looks at the small, snuffling creature that can be spikier than it seems
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Some animals so readily capture our imagination that they take on legendary status. Lions, for example. Look at Aslan, the hero of CS Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or Elsa, the lioness of Joy Adamson's Born Free. Noble creatures. Towering. Charismatic. Almost mystical.

Hedgehogs are less suited to the heroic tradition. In fact, in the last hundred years very few hedgehogs have made it out of the garden compost heap to become household names. Yet these small, snuffling mammals appear to have a special place of their own in our affections, which was belatedly but officially recognised yesterday when the spiky insectivores, related to shrews and moles, were named as the nation's favourite garden creature.

The hedgehog came in at number one - ahead of the robin, the frog, the blackbird and the ladybird - in the top 10 of a UK-wide survey of garden wildlife organised by Royal Horticultural Society and The Wildlife Trusts.

More than 2,000 people were polled for the Wild About Gardens project, so you would have to say that the findings are statistically robust. We really do seem fond of Erinaceus europaeus, this slug-eating, usually-flea-infested walking pincushion. Why should that be?

Looking at hedgehog lore, it would seem that we tend to regard them as attractive, helpful and, perhaps most of all, curiously vulnerable in a way that catches our sympathy. Children and even adults smile on seeing a hedgehog (a live one, that is, as opposed to one squashed by a motor vehicle). Hedgehogs are clearly still welcome in gardens where grey squirrels are increasingly regarded as tree rats, and the novelty of urban foxes is wearing off.

The secret of their attraction is perhaps that they are so visibly different - Britain's only spiny mammal, with its ability to curl up into a defensive football of spikes, is a living wonder in its way, and cannot be mistaken for anything else. Also, they are elusive animals, mainly nocturnal, so actually setting eyes on one feels like something of an achievement. Ask yourself - if you saw a live hedgehog today, would you not excitedly tell other people?

Hedgehogs are also thought of as helpers in the garden, gobbling slugs as fast as they can get them down. Their appetite is pretty catholic, and they are fond of caterpillars, catfood, carrion, worms and, especially, birds' eggs - and it is this last predisposition that in recent times has got them into trouble, and in the Western Islands of Scotland, caused something of a Hedgehog Crisis.

Sometime in the 1970s a householder in the Hebrides is believed to have brought a couple of hedgehogs back to the islands - where they do not occur naturally - to vacuum up his garden slugs. Fatal decision! With no natural enemies - the only other native predatory mammal on the islands is the otter - the animals mushroomed in number until by 2000 there were at least 5,000 on North and South Uist and Benbecula, and they had started to gobble up the eggs of the beautiful Hebridean ground-nesting wading birds, which until then had nested in safety.

Local populations of dunlin, redshank, lapwing and snipe all declined drastically - the dunlin's by 65 per cent and the redshank's by 40 per cent - until conservationist cried out for the hedgehog egg-fest to be halted before the birds disappeared altogether.

But when the wildlife watchdog Scottish Natural Heritage - legally obliged to protect the birds - decided on a mass cull, the hedgehog-loving classes of Britain,the very people who have just voted the little fellow top garden beastie, rose in revolt. They demanded a translocation rather than a cull, saying that all 5,000 should be given garden homes, and rescuers from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and other animal activists flocked to the Hebrides, offering rewards to islanders who would bring in animals to be translocated. The situation remains something of a stand-off - the cull has continued, and so have the rescue attempts.

But what drew people to the Western Isles was surely that feeling at the heart of our liking for hedgehogs - the sense that in some way the animal is curiously vulnerable. Perhaps this stems from its all-eggs-in-one-basket defensive strategy - no fight, no flight, just roll up into a spiky ball, and sit tight till danger passes. Most of the time, this works. A stoat or a weasel or a fox cannot get that ball open. But there are a few cases where it spectacularly fails. The best known, of course, is when it encounters a motor vehicle, a species it never encountered through most of its millions of years of evolution. Pam Ayres, magical versifier of the mundane, put the situation uncommonly well:

It is statistically proven,
In chapter and in verse,
That in a car and hedgehog fight,
The hedgehog comes off worse.

There is such pathos about a flattened hedgehog. What was it thinking, just before the wheels of the 44-tonner cheese lorry from Boulogne-sur-Mer so radically altered its geometry? Ho-ho? Can't get me here? Let's see anything try and get through these spines?

But there are other situations where the ball-defence does not work. One, traditionally, was with gypsies, who were said to gather up the animal, cover it in mud, and then roast it in a deep fire. After the mud baked (and the animal had been roasted) it came away neatly, bringing all the spines with it. Hedgepig, it was known as, and the meat was said to be tasty.

The other situation where rolling up is useless is when a badger comes along. The badger is the nemesis of the hedgehog world, for badgers have such strong front paws and claws that they can actually unroll the rolled-up spiny ball. In experiments it has been shown that a tiny drop of badger urine dropped into a captive hedgehog enclosure fills the animals with terror, sending them fleeing in all directions to seek cover. And here's a fact you won't know. In the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where 300 acres of leafy landscape make absolutely perfect hedgehog territory, there is not a single hedgehog to be found. Why? Because the badgers of Kew - which are plentiful - have eaten them, every last one.

Human help is at hand for hedgehogs, though, such is our sympathy. They have not only their own preservation society (the animal welfare champion and former Labour MP Tony Banks has been seen in the BHPS T-shirt) but their own hospital, the celebrated Tiggywinkles near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, which started with hedgehogs and now acts as a major veterinary centre for all injured wildlife.

Tiggywinkles was named after one of the few famous hedgehogs. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, who was a hedgehog housewife - if you'll pardon the expression - in Beatrice Potter's Peter Rabbit stories. She was the hedgehog icon, if you like, for those born between the wars. In recent years there has been a much livelier hedgehog who has caught the imagination of young people - Sonic, the ball-of-energy cartoon character who became the central figure in the Sega computer game that swept the world.

But for some of us, of a certain generation, there is only one famous hedgehog who counts - Spiny Norman. Spiny Norman was the giant hedgehog who haunted the dreams of Dinsdale Piranha, the ultra-violent London gangster who was one half of the fearsome Piranha brothers (Doug being the other), as devotees of the original Monty Python's Flying Circus will recall.

Dinsdale was convinced he was being watched by Spiny Norman, who was normally 12 feet from nose to tail, although when Dinsdale was depressed, he could be up to 800 yards long. (Dinsdale became increasingly worried about Spiny Norman and came to the conclusion that he slept in a hangar in Luton Airport, and so, on February 22 1966, he blew up Luton.)

There's a figure of legend for you at last, a true heroic hedgehog! Back off, CS Lewis! Aslan your lion is nothing to Norman! If he hears the news in his hangar at Luton, he cannot but rejoice that thanks to the people who voted in the Wild About Gardens project, the true worth of his race has been recognised.