Brian Viner: Country Life

'In five miles, we spotted a badger, a fox, two rabbits, a pheasant and two hedgehogs – all squashed'
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The Independent Online

Those strange people who take recycling to an unedifying extreme by cooking and eating roadkill would have a field day, indeed a field mouse day, on the A44. Recently, in the course of a week driving along the five-mile stretch between Docklow and Leominster, my children and I spotted a badger, a fox, two rabbits, a pheasant and two hedgehogs, all squashed. Either on the A44 or the lanes off it, our path is routinely crossed by rabbits, pheasant, hedgehogs, field mice, rats, cats, toads, stoats and weasels. It's like a pop-up Wind in the Willows out there.

We're delighted to see all of them except the rats. According to our local pest-control man, the summer floods are to blame, because they pushed the rodents on to higher ground. There had to be a Biblical-style price to pay for escaping the Biblical-style floods, and escalating rodent life seems to be it. Not that the invasion has quite reached plague proportions yet, but regular readers will recall that I found a mouse sitting insouciantly on my desk a few weeks back, eyeballing his computer namesake as if to say "call yourself a mouse? Where are your little pellets of pooh, then?"

Anyway, I was not unpleased to spy a mouse in the house since I've heard that rats and mice tend not to knock about together, and I'd rather have a problem with the latter than the former. But it would be better still to have no problem at all, to which end we have, as well as engaging the pest-control man, purchased a pair of kittens, a brother and sister named Billy and Belle. At the moment they're scarcely bigger than mice themselves, but we bought them from a farm in the hope that they will prove to be innate killers.

We also hope that they will not suffer the same fate as the other three cats we have had since moving here, all of whom wound up as roadkill on the A44. The original was Tess, who gave birth in our spare bedroom. We kept one of her kittens, Tiger, and gave the others away. Two of Tiger's brothers, Kipper and Spike, went to our friends Ali and Chris, who live on a fairly busy road in Crouch End, yards from an even busier one, along which buses roar back and forth all day between Muswell Hill and Finsbury Park. Yet Kipper and Spike continue to thrive while Tiger, who lived in a house surrounded on three sides by farmland, is six feet under. Or to be more precise, 12 inches under, since I gave the job of digging her grave to the children.

As for the ever-proliferating roadkill on the A44, we have been interested to see more hedgehogs than usual this autumn, and my son Joe reports that he spotted one ambling along a pavement in Hereford as he made his way to the station after rugby practice. Joe, that is, not the hedgehog. Mind you, it's only a few centuries since hedgehogs were reckoned to have fiendish talents. An occasional correspondent of mine, David Gorvett, has unearthed records showing that in 1675 the parish overseers in the Herefordshire village of Almeley paid a bounty of three shillings and sixpence to one Thomas Fletcher for 21 dead hedgehogs. That's about £40 in today's money, and they also shelled out the equivalent of £18 to John Richards for nine dead hedgehogs and £4 to Edward Tyther for a pair. Apparently, the poor creatures were suspected of stealing milk, either directly from cows' udders, or from pans in the dairy. How they were supposed to reach a cow's udder I can't imagine – a hedgehog pyramid, perhaps – but it was their abundance around cowsheds at night that was considered nailed-on proof of guilt.

That they suddenly became so abundant around 1675 is something to do with the dawning of the so-called Little Ice Age, according to David. Hedgehogs were able to hibernate through the severe winters and then feast on slugs during the wet summers. These days, they're meant to be getting more scarce because warmer, shorter winters upset their natural hibernation tendencies, but as I say, we've seen lots recently. Incidentally, David's research also revealed that the hedgehog bounty in New Barnet, near London, was double the Herefordshire rate. Then as now, Thomas Fletcher and his mates would have been better off exporting their skills to the Home Counties.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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