Down In The Hibernaculum: The Hedgehog Handbook By Sally Coulthard
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
The humble hedgehog – hygehoge in the Mediaeval vernacular – is very newsworthy at the moment, not least in our own pages. And mostly because the species’ existence is under threat. The prickly beast was a commonplace of my childhood: finding them mooching purposefully about an urban garden or under privet hedges was one of the joys of growing up – a kind of non-specific link with a rural past we seem to have lost somewhere along the margins of temporal change.
The 30 million or so ‘hogs’ that littered the landscape of 1950s Britain have diminished to an estimated 1 million in 2018, a figure which is as alarming as it is unexpected, and almost compels the old prophecy: ‘You won’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’. The catastrophic decline happened when your – our - back was turned, obviously.
One of the many good things about Sally Coulthard’s wonderful new book on the subject of hedgehogs is the attention to telling statistics like the one above. The Hedgehog Handbook is full of them. A responsible perspective on animal conservation is underwritten by presentation of the shocking facts, all the better to shake the reader out of the kind of complacency which is a part of the problem.
The decline is not related to predation or natural attrition. The hedgehog’s only serious ‘enemy’ – the only one capable of getting beyond the spiky exterior – is the badger. The hog’s instinctive defensive position – to roll itself into a ball like a ‘drawstring washbag’, protecting its soft underbelly – releases the spikes on an unsuspecting predator. The spines themselves are incredibly sharp, hollow tubes tempered with Keratin, a toughening agent which is elsewhere found in animal hooves, rendering the hog almost impervious to attack.
Man, as Coulthard relentlessly avers, is hedgehog nemesis: the onset of intensive farming on a mass scale has denuded many landscapes of the animals’ natural habitats in hedges and field borders. The increase in population, and a concomitant explosion in car use, has exposed the hog community to insurmountable danger – an estimated 10,000 a year die beneath the wheels of vehicles.
The march of urban expansion has, ironically, occasioned a migration of many hogs into towns in search of food after the long winter hibernation. Which phenomenon brings Coulthard to the second part of her convincing thesis: the needfulness of a changed attitude towards our new animal neighbours in terms of provision of food and an environment of relative safety. Helpful lists of significant ‘Do’s and Dont’s’ intersperse Coulthard’s story, along, at one point, with a logical and comprehensive chart detailing diagnostic signs of a hedgehog in distress, and offering practical methods of assistance.
But the real beauty of The Hedgehog Handbook, from an entirely selfish reviewer’s perspective, consists in Coulthard’s highly engaged, and engaging, yielding of natural description. A skilled hand directs the tiller: the writer’s experience – she is a best-selling author of outdoor living books – informs her stylistic direction. Her chronological approach is linear; a month-by-month unfolding of the narrative shadows a year in the life of an imagined hog.
And, prefacing ‘soundbites’ of practical instruction, the reader is entertained by lyrical flourishes whose expressions of seasonal change amount almost to an elegy. Coulthard is a fine writer; her italicised introductions to each month are poetically focussed. Here, an early Spring evening is introduced in the tenderest of vignettes:
‘Come the dusk and, at the bottom of a blackthorn hedge, the tip of a snout appears from a pile of leaves, sniffing the air.’
And elsewhere, August is heralded in self-consciously Keatsian metaphors:
‘Clouds of butterflies...drunk on buddleia, its honey fragrance proving too delicious to resist.’
Coulthard is fully aware of the imperative to hold the reader’s attention, and she sugars the prosaic pill of instruction by satisfying aesthetic urges with the seductively abstract lyricism of the seasons; an ecologically constructive message is conveyed in subliminal imageries of something that feels like a halcyon past.
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‘How does a hedgehog mate?’ asks Coulthard rhetorically, and the only and obvious reply is ‘very carefully’. A mirror to the subsequent immediate departure of the boar – hedgehogs are intrinsic loners - the rare and brief rutting act takes place whilst the accommodating sow flattens her spikes and posture so as not to impale her mate. Small wonder, in the context of the omnipresent spine, that one of the collective nouns for hogs is a ‘prickle’.
The explosion of myths relating to the species acts to encourage the general reader to participate in the book’s crusade, if only in vicarious spirit. I wasn’t aware, for instance, that hedgehogs are lactose intolerant, rendering the blandishment of a saucer of milk redundant at best, dangerous at worst. Or that the kind of flea which adheres to the body of the animal is of a type which will not naturally migrate to human skin, however intimate the contact.
The problem seems to be our fundamental lack of understanding. Hedgehog decline is collateral to a more general disregard for landscape (mis)management over the course of the postwar period; one more side effect of a cycle of land (ab)use and complacency. The latter, especially, is surprising in a nation of apparent animal-lovers, whose interest is briefly piqued by cosy-cute images, but does not sustain beyond a figurative Christmas. With characteristic brio, Coulthard nails the inconsistency:
‘We can love an animal to distraction, obsess over it, sentimentalize it, make it the subject of childhood stories and national pride and yet, in the same breath, be immune to its plight.’
Good, then, that she fills the vacuum between fiction and practical experience with an engagingly written and ecologically sound guide. Coulthard conveys her passion with consummately persuasive skill, and it is to be hoped that her beautifully bound new book will generate and encourage an upsurge of interest in the plight of the little fellow under the hedge.
Fans of Hedgehogs may also enjoy this Yorkshire Times article.
The Hedgehog Handbook will be published by Anima in September, 2018, and is available for pre-order.
Down In The Hibernaculum: The Hedgehog Handbook By Sally Coulthard, 10th August 2018, 8:06 AM