I was born and brought up in suburban Manchester, so it's not really surprising that I don't have an intuitive appreciation of wildlife, unless, of course, we are talking about the Continental Club on a Saturday night in the Eighties.
There are various points in our life at which we notice we are getting older - first it's the necessity to wear glasses, then it's the fact that we can't remember where we've left our glasses, and then we reach the stage when we don't even know that our glasses are on our head. Another sign of, let's say, maturity - in my case, at least - is a greater interest in the natural world, and particularly the way in which modern living threatens the established order of things.
Or maybe it's just that, 30 or 40 years ago, we never felt we had to worry about such matters. But it's with a heavy heart that I bring you the latest news from the frontiers of British wildlife. That humble, once ubiquitous, symbol of the English countryside, the hedgehog, finds itself threatened with extinction.
This is a remarkable, and dismaying, turn of events. A variety of man-made factors - loss of natural habitat, gardening methods, intensive farming, pesticides - have driven numbers of these idiosyncratic creatures down by more than a third in the past decade, and now the People's Trust for Endangered Species, who conducted the survey which came up with this alarming statistic, are mounting a campaign, in conjunction with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, to protect Britain's remaining hedgehogs.
That's right. The hedgehog. An endangered species. Up there with the Siberian tiger and the mountain gorilla. Ask around: hardly anyone sees a hedgehog these days. And while recent harsh winters have been challenging for all animals in the wild, experts say there is a particular difficulty for hedgehogs. “Hedghogs are not fussy eaters,” said David Wembridge, one of the authors of the survey, “so they should be able to get by, even in a bad year.
A fall in numbers suggests a much bigger problem.” He points to the removal of hedgerows, plus the larger fields required by modern farming methods. The fashion for paving and terracing in gardens is another contributory factor, and those who have the animal's best interests at heart urge gardeners to leave some areas wild to encourage nesting. There is, however, anecdotal evidence that the hedgehog may face another danger: British wildlife's miscreant of the moment, the badger.
Do your bit
It is not certain that badgers prey on hedgehogs, but it is certainly true that badger numbers have increased while those of the hedgehog have diminished, and farmers are convinced there is a cause and effect here. So perhaps Beatrix Potter was right to portray her badger as a villain. But the contemporary tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle need not have a sad ending.
We can all do our bit to help. From this Friday, a nationwide initiative begins to monitor the numbers and movements of British hedgehogs as they emerge from hibernation in an effort to understand what's happening on the ground, so to speak. Go to www.hedgehogstreet.org for details. Even a city boy like me can see this is important.