Hog hunt­ing

Matt Gaw joins a project hop­ing to en­sure our favourite spiky, snuffly gar­den vis­i­tors don’t dis­ap­pear al­to­gether

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

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...

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