Matt Gaw joins a project hoping to ensure our favourite spiky, snuffly garden visitors don’t disappear altogether
Saving hedgehogs in Ipswich
Iwalk slowly, peering into each garden, shining my torch across lawns and shrubs. Under cars, over walls. On the other side of the street, Ali North, Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hedgehog Officer, does the same, her head torch flicking with every footstep. It must be about 3am, maybe later. Or perhaps that should be earlier? For the past month Ali has been walking this same route around Ipswich’s streets and green spaces every night. A nocturnal mission to find the hedgehogs that have been tagged during a study with Nottingham Trent University and part of a two-year trust campaign to improve hedgehog habitat and gain a better understanding of the animals’ numbers in the town. To protect hedgehogs, she explains, first we need to know where they are and in what numbers.
Tonight though, despite almost willing hedgehogs into existence, hoping every rounded shadow would wobble away across grass and road, we’ve not seen hide nor hair of them. The only signs of life, a single taxi and a fox, slim, sleek, and with fur glowing red in the sulphur glow of the streetlights. Ali says her hedgehogs hikes have attracted a fair amount of attention from the locals, especially when she was using a giant antenna to locate radio-tagged hedgehogs. The police, who were made aware of the survey work, have been called to investigate reports of a woman looking under cars and rummaging in shrubberies, while those returning home from pubs and clubs asked her if she was ghost hunting.
In some ways, they were worryingly close to the truth. Despite being universally recognised and universally loved – the gardener’s friend, Beatrix Potter’s prickly laundress Mrs Tiggywinkle – the hedgehog has simply vanished from many of its regular haunts. It’s endearing
snuffling, rootling huffle has fallen silent. Recent data suggests the hedgehog is now in a longterm decline, a victim of the fragmentation and destruction of habitat, hazardous roads, badger predation and pesticides that have wiped out its food source.
A study by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and The British Hedgehog Preservation Society – who along with the Heritage Lottery Fund supported the project which Ali runs in Ipswich – suggests that while the decline may be slowing in urban areas, the UK has now lost up to a third of urban hedgehogs and over 50% of rural hedgehogs since the turn of the century.
I cross the road to join Ali at the gates of Colchester Road allotments, runner beans and freshly tilled beds tucked up behind military-grade razor wire. Inside, the darkness is thicker. There are no streetlights here, no passing cars. The dark is made of compost and soil, mulch and muck, the smells carrying further in the cool night air. The hedgehog when we find it is scrambling over the path and heading for a strawberry plant, curling into a ball of broom-head bristles as Ali bends to pick it up. I watch as she works, weighing and marking its spines – this hedgehog has not previously been encountered – before delicately checking for ticks and signs of injuries. The hedgehog grunts softly as Ali carefully turns it over, its feet tucked up beneath its soft belly, eyes dark like blackcurrants.
“It’s a female,” she says, “about a year old, she’ll be feeding up for the breeding season now. I’ve marked her, so we can tell if she turns up on any of our garden cameras.” The first blackbird is singing by the time we watch the hedgehog retreat into the darkness, its run a curious sprint with back legs kicking out from under a spiny skirt. The moon is setting but there’s still more ground to cover.
“Watch out for the cabbages,” Ali says as we walk further into the allotments, “every night I think they’re hedgehogs.” I laugh and then stop. There is a figure standing in the darkness. Child-sized, arms outstretched. Ali flashes her torch, revealing a pink plastic mac and pyjamas, sweeping up to a face cracked open in an unholy rictus grin. “Oh, and watch out for the scarecrow.”
ABOVE: Alexandra North, a zoology graduate from Swindon, beat about 150 applicants from countries including France, Spain, Germany, South Korea, China, the US and Nepal to land the role of hedgehog officer with Suffolk Wildlife Trust. LEFT: A prickly...