A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (a remembrance of things past) – a prickly tale

It all began on the 26th of June last year; we were in the middle of a summer heatwave and a prolonged drought, which had begun with the lockdown in March. I saw a good sized hedgehog on the front lawn at 1:30 am, so took it out some water and offerings – a few scraps of chicken, I think. It froze for a time and then headed off across the road, disappearing behind a car parked on the verge. It was the first one we had seen in 2020, but we had heard that hedgehogs and other small mammals were suffering and dying from lack of water and natural food as a result of the parched conditions and hard ground. From then on I put water and food out nightly, scraps of meat and dried meal worms, which we buy for the birds so had to hand.

I became addicted to hedgehog watching and would often be peering out of the window into the small hours. Sometimes I would see a hedgehog departing from the garden at about 4 am if I was getting up to visit the bathroom, or if I could not sleep. As the summer wore on, more and more hedgehogs visited during the course of the night. At its peak, there were six or seven nightly visitors; the most seen at any one time were four in the front garden and one in the back. By now three dishes of food were put out at the front and water back and front. There were two particularly large hedgehogs, two very small hedgehogs and three medium sized, one distinguishable by the fact that it was continually scratching itself, poor thing.

At the end of September, my daughter, Kate, bought me a hedgehog house as an early Christmas present. It was quickly inhabited in the daytime, at first by one of the smaller hedgehogs, which was displaced by a large hedgehog by the time we went on holiday to Scotland in October. Kate, who was in charge of hedgehog care while we were away, referred to the new inhabitant as “Bruiser” as it found it difficult to squeeze its large shoulders through the doorway of the house when it emerged in the evening. There was a problem with one of the small hedgehogs; it was sleeping near the back wall of the house in the winter flowering iris leaves but was not covering itself up, so she piled some hay over the leaves. After a few days, it moved off to sleep elsewhere.

Hedgehogs continued to visit throughout October, November and into December, though in decreasing numbers as they gradually chose to hibernate. As the evenings became dark earlier, so did the hedgehog visits and feeding times had to be adjusted. With multiple bowls, these were generally peaceful occasions, but sometimes there would be animosity with one or two hedgehogs turning on another. They would circle one another and suddenly jerk forward aggressively with their snouts until the unwanted hedgehog departed. Once or twice a more serious fight broke out with loud screams coming from the combatants – I had not realised hedgehogs could make such a noise, as well as their normal snuffling and grunting. By this time we were feeding them calci worms rather than meal worms as they are better for their bones. We also tried dried kitten food, as recommended by hedgehog experts, but our visitors did not care for this, either dry or soaked. However, Kate’s hedgehogs at Cantley gladly ate them up – not so fussy as the Bessacarr hedgehogs.

By late December we had just one rather small hedgehog still coming. He would appear at about 4 pm and we assumed he was living in the hedgehog house as Bruiser had moved on some time before. Hedgehogs often move four or five times during hibernation. We bought some tinned hedgehog food to supplement the chicken I cooked and then discovered kitten pâté in a local supermarket and bought some. We were amazed to find it smelt absolutely delicious when we peeled back the foil lid; what is more, the hedgehogs thought it was too. At 29p per container, it was cheaper than the tinned hedgehog food and came in two varieties: chicken and turkey. We thought the hedgehog was a young one from a late litter and would not survive hibernation as he was not heavy enough, so we were happy to continue feeding him. He was very distinctive as he had a very pink nose rather than the usual black nose. I came to refer to him as “Prickles” or “The Boy” as I had realised he was a male when I saw him cleaning himself just outside the study window; he did not seem to notice anyone standing quietly inside the house.

It snowed on the 2nd of January to a depth of two or three inches and so I thought it would be best to place the food and water just in front of the hedgehog house. We kept glancing out to see if the hedgehog had emerged; he was usually feeding between 6-7 pm at that time. Geoff had taken over the bowl washing and feeding as hedgehog supper could coincide with my preparations for dinner. At about 8pm, I looked out and saw the hedgehog flailing in the snow, searching for the bowls where  we normally placed them. Both Geoff and I dashed out and retrieved his food and water for him and cleared a small area of snow. I noticed that there were no tracks coming from the hedgehog house across the vegetable garden or lawn. So where was he sleeping? We watched from the back windows and saw him going into the winter flowering iris leaves growing against the back wall of the house. He often combed his way through these plants to search for wild food as they harbour a lot of snails and slugs. Next morning I encountered a rather bedraggled hedgehog with snow and ice on his prickles on the path in front of the irises. I realised he had spent the night in them. We gave him food and water and I rigged up a shanty dwelling for him, using the hedgehog house to form a front wall; hay, a double sheet of big bubble wrap and a plasticised table cloth gave him protection from above. After eating, he returned to his hollow and slept until evening.

The hog slept in the shanty home until April when it got too hot for him owing to its south facing position. I had removed the bubble wrap at the end of March. From mid-April, he moved further along the irises. His suppertime had become earlier and earlier, and he often got up for breakfast too. He seemed to recognise our footsteps and would get up if he heard Geoff crossing the garden. One morning I opened the front door for an expedition to the supermarket only to be greeted by a devastating sight: there were small pools and drops of freshly dried blood at the driver’s side of the car. I peered underneath the car; there were smears of blood as if a scuffle had taken place. I went round to the passenger side and saw a trail of bloody hedgehog prints leading from beneath the car, across the drive and down the side passage. The prints continued the other side of the wrought iron gate and stopped abruptly in a large, still congealing pool of blood. We feared the worst! A hunt of the back garden did not provide a corpse, but we could not find our hog asleep in the iris leaves.. We went shopping with heavy hearts. When there was no sign of the boy by eight o’clock, I phoned Kate to tell her the dreadful news. Another daughter arrived while I was on the phone, so I told her too. As she was backing off the drive to go home, I glanced outside the back window once more and there he was, emerging from the irises as usual, appetite undiminished. I had seen another hedgehog in the front garden a couple of times. He may have been the poor creature to suffer a horrible end, probably inflicted by a fox. By the end of April our hog was looking for food between 4:30-5 pm in full daylight. Once he was sleeping on the edge of the path, half out of the plant cover. This worried me as it is a sign of distress, but he soon retreated back into shade and seemed his usual self in the evening.

HOG STOPS TRAFFIC! On Sunday the 2nd of May at 5 pm I was ironing in the large front bedroom and, glancing up, I saw a certain hedgehog slowly crossing our busy road. Abandoning iron and garment, I rushed downstairs and out of the front door, calling to Geoff as I went. I was relieved to find all the traffic had come to a standstill and a kind lady was picking up our boy. I took him from her and explained we had been caring for him and thanked her and the other motorists for stopping. Some excited little boys were hanging out of car windows. I carried the hog through the house to the back lawn, noticing he had a deep groove in the prickles running across his forehead. I had never seen this before, but I did not think he had been damaged by a car. I later found out that hedgehogs have a very strong frown muscle running right down their backs. He was not impressed at being rescued from the road. Hedgehogs can only mate successfully when the female has been persuaded to stop frowning! We barricaded the side gate so that the hog could only exit from the garden via the back hedge to a quiet side road. He ate his supper as usual.

The next day I went to look at him when he was feeding; the ridge in his prickles had gone but I was horrified to see he had extremely long claws on his front feet, the nails curling right round in spirals, one standing up like a corkscrew. No wonder he was walking so slowly! As a wild animal and not a pet, we had never got close enough to him before to see this. What should we do? It seemed better to try to cut the claws ourselves rather than traumatise him by taking him to strangers. This was not a good idea. Pet stores normally sold clippers for small animal claws, but were out of stock owing to COVID  and lockdowns. I assembled a collection of implements I had to hand. Geoff went to pick the boy up, wearing a pair of leather gardening gloves, but he immediately curled up into a ball. We had never seen him do this before; he did not do this if we took him a bowl of food. We had thought that perhaps he had been orphaned at a young age before being taught to do so. How wrong we were! We made two more attempts, but although we got him as far as the towel on the conservatory table unfurled, the result was the same, only on the third occasion he expressed his feelings by pooing on the towel. At that point I asked Geoff to find the number for the Hedgehog Preservation Society.

The following morning  I phoned the Society headquarters. The phone was answered promptly by a pleasant and efficient lady, who asked where I lived. When I told her Doncaster, she said that she thought there were two people who could help me and gave me the telephone numbers for the Hedgehog Hostel and a vets practice in Balby. There was a recorded message on the first number and so I tried the second. The vet answered the call immediately; I told her the problem and she said we could take the hedgehog down straightaway if we liked and she would cut his claws and give him a good check over. I found a box, put a small towel in it and covered the boy with another small piece of towelling. Geoff had found him just getting up – it was 2 pm! We travelled with him on my lap in the front of the car and it was only then I realised how smelly a small wild animal could be! We joined a queue outside the vets, where an efficient receptionist kept running in and out. We were all wearing masks. Various animals and owners were ushered into the building, while others had packets of medication brought out to them. After about twenty minutes, it was our turn. I told the receptionist we had brought a hedgehog to see the vet. She asked if she could have a quick look at him. “Oh!” she said, “We don’t often see them looking as perky as this!” He had been moving round the box constantly on the journey, exploring every corner and even trying to climb out, but the box had been deep enough to prevent this. She said that the vet would not be long and about five minutes later she appeared and took the hedgehog in, asking if we were all right waiting outside. We were as it had stopped raining.

About forty minutes later, the vet came out without the box. HOG IN HOSPITAL! She took me into the building while she explained the situation. The hog was a very old man, not a young boy at all. She could tell that by the loss of pigment from his nose and inside his ears, which were pink. He was probably at least eight years old. He was small because he was an old man and had health problems: fleas, a skin condition affecting his foot pads and tummy, and an ear infection resulting from a wound. When she had cleaned the ear, it had bled quite a lot. They had started him on antibiotics and would deal with the fleas and treat the skin. She had cut his claws and he would stay at the vets for a few days. Did we want him back or re-homed at the Hedgehog Hostel? The vet and I thought he would be better back with Geoff and me, three geriatrics together!

I had to fill in a form stating the hedgehog was a wild animal and not my property. When I offered to pay towards his treatment and care, the vet said there was special funding for this so she could not accept any money. I could donate to the Hedgehog Hostel or keep my money to spend on the old gentleman when he returned home. She warned me that he might not survive the treatment as he was so very old. Hedgehogs can live to ten years old or even into their teens; the oldest known hedgehog in the wild in Britain lived to sixteen years. The average lifespan is two to three years, thanks to road accidents, pesticides, being the prey of badgers and foxes and other natural and manmade causes.

At the end of the week I phoned the vet for a progress report. She said the hedgehog  had been given worm treatment, as well as treatment for the fleas, the day before. He proved to be suffering from lung worms. She said it was a good thing we had taken him to her as lung worms can kill hedgehogs. The boy was responding well to treatment and eating and drinking, but he would stay with them until he had finished his antibiotic course, which would be the following Wednesday. I was told to expect a phone call on the Thursday or Friday to collect him.

The lung worms explain why the hedgehog was waking in the daylight; he would have been feeling hungry. Lung worms have a complicated life history; the eggs are swallowed with food, such as slugs and worms, and develop in the intestine. After a while they pass through the gut wall into the blood stream and travel to the heart and from there to the lungs. Once in the lungs, they develop further until they travel up the trachea to the mouth where they are once more swallowed. The worms then live in the intestine and lay eggs, which are excreted, so completing the cycle.

The following Thursday, we looked to see if there was a message on the answer phone when we returned from shopping, but heard nothing that day. On Friday, levels of expectation had risen, and I eagerly seized the phone when it rang about 11:30 in the morning. He was ready to be collected, a convenient time for us to collect him from the practice being 3:30 in the afternoon. After a short wait outside, the vet came out carrying a small but deep cardboard box. She said the boy had put on weight, he was eating well and sleeping through the day. I told her he had always eaten well! His skin was smooth and healed now and he was clear of fleas and lung worms. The wound and infection in his ear had gone. He should have no more trouble with his claws as he would be able to walk properly and dig again. But, if there were any problems at all, we could get in touch at any time. We could not thank the vet and the other staff enough for what they had done for our little old man; they were so kind, considerate and professional.

The journey home was a much more enjoyable experience than when we had taken him to Balby; only a light, pleasant aroma emanated from the box. I carried it through the house to the back garden and Geoff folded back the flaps of the lid and gently tipped it on one side. The hog promptly scrambled out looking so clean and smart, he was a joy to behold: beautifully manicured, clean claws, his fur clean and trim, his eyes bright and his ears so pink inside. He peered and sniffed at his surroundings as we stepped back a few feet. He inspected the immediate lawn, the paving and the food and water bowls we had provided, but first he came and sniffed carefully round both our feet. Satisfied, he had a long drink of water and then headed straight to the iris leaves, nosing along them until he found exactly the right place to conceal himself and went soundly asleep.

At about 8 pm, I saw the hog making his way out of the irises and on to the lawn in search of supper. We took it out to him, and I decided to stay to watch from a distance. The kitten pâté still seemed to be popular, with a helping of calci worms to finish off the meal and then a long drink. It was now time to relieve himself on the lawn, an expression of intense concentration on his face. An inspection of the property followed – all around the lawn, the vegetable garden and the paving. He did not attempt to go down the path to the side gate; it was almost as if he remembered it was blocked off. On the third or fourth circuit of the lawn, he suddenly stopped, turned round and headed for the far right hand corner of the garden, clambering over the garden fleece covering ridged up, emergent potatoes –  the uneven and gauzy surface seemed no problem. He climbed up the low retaining wall by the rhubarb and sniffed intently round the area where the hedgehog house had originally been situated. He then set off along the bed beneath the hedge towards the oak tree in the left hand corner. This route had been a favourite in the past as we had let it become ‘wild’ and rather overgrown to help wildlife. Ah! Second thoughts! An abrupt halt, a sudden turn, a rush of determined speed and the rejuvenated geriatric shot back along the hedgeline, disappearing into the small opening that runs from our garden between the wall of the house behind us and the garden wall of our next door neighbour. This narrow passageway is less than a foot wide and leads into the front garden of the house behind us and so to freedom in the street beyond. I said a silent “goodbye” as I saw him go. I knew he had gone to do what male hedgehogs do at this time of year and wished him well. He had brought us much pleasure and interest, as well as angst; he was a focus during a long cold autumn, winter and spring of Covid.

We unblocked the side gate and put out his food and water for a week or so at the back. I have stopped looking for him coming now, but other hogs have visited, and we have reverted to putting out the bowls and water in the front garden. There have been droppings once or twice in the back so maybe he has called in at dead of night. A very large hedgehog with a very black nose was in the front garden a few nights ago; maybe it was Bruiser? We look back with gratitude and forward with anticipation of what this new cycle of hedgehog watching may bring. It is good to know there are people like the vet and the Hedgehog Preservation Society to turn to if help is needed. If ever you see a hedgehog out in daylight or basking in the sun, do not hesitate to take decisive action:  place the hedgehog in a box with food and water and call for help!

We shall not forget our visitor, but I would love to know what goes on in a hedgehog’s mind, if he has any recollection of his experiences over the past months or if they are truly “perdu”, lost and forgotten? I wish I had taken a photograph of him the day he returned, but failed to do so. The photograph here is an enlargement of one taken from a distance, before the claws were cut, and, if you look closely, you can see them curling round on the edge of the bowl.

Jo Carreck, end of May 2021