The Third Leader: Off-road hedgehogs

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The Independent Online

And now, as if we didn't have enough to worry about, there's bad news about hedgehogs. Actually, though, it seems at first sight to be good news: a continuing decline in the numbers sighted on or near our roads.

Optimists – there must be some left – will adduce all sorts of reasons. More of those little tunnels. More skilful drivers. Darwin-driven hedgehogs getting fitter, nippier, or learning not to cross the road without looking. The decline of that confusing threat to even the smartest, nippiest hedgehog, the three-wheeler.

But: no. Scientists are satisfied that the road sightings, dead, alive, and, presumably – depending on direction – not long to go, reflect overall numbers. Hedgehogs are still doing what hedgehogs do, regardless of larger, external forces. If they see something they like, for example, they eat it, even if it's a rare bird's egg, which has got them into a lot of trouble in Scotland.

These kindred qualities must explain our affection; consider, too, that they are also "quite noisy and can be heard snuffling and grunting during their activities". Which include, of course, mating, when the male approaches the female "and circles closely round and round, trying to claim her attention ... the female, totally unconcerned, may wander off". Then there's the rolling up into a ball at the approach of trouble, which we have modified only slightly over the millennia by adding the duvet.

So, the message is clear: let us take the squashed hedgehog as a baleful warning to change, to avoid the direct route to doom, to build bridges and more tunnels. Oh, and bread and milk is bad for them, by the way.