It’s been a long time since I wrote anything on Metamorphosis. Not for any particular reason, just a quiet period and one in which my wildlife pursuits have been curtailed by minor but painful musculoskeletal injuries. So not a lot to write about.
Being unable to get out onto the marshes was a little depressing, then in July 2020 the unexpected happened…..
… my wife Ali had been expressing a hankering for a pet pygmy hedgehog. We had had quite a few discussions and I was resisting as we already have a houseful of cats, dogs, rodents, reptiles, fish, shrimps and frogs. In fact the only vertebrate class we don’t host are birds (and, technically, cartilaginous and jawless fish). I felt we had enough to do. Ali looked sad, and underneath my attempts to be “sensible” (why start now?) I felt a little guilty and mean. Little did I know that there was a conspiracy afoot.
The very next day a family of hedgehogs wandered into our driveway, in the middle of the afternoon. In fact to start with, just one hoglet, then two more appeared. A few days later a large and obviously very sick Mum appeared in front of our house. If hogs are about in the day, they are in trouble. Hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep in the day. If they are foraging for food in the day, they’re probably starving as they are not eating, or in the case of the hoglets, being fed by Mum.
There’s been a lot going on since June 2020, and from our initial phone call to our local Hedgehog Rescue about the family that adopted us, we’ve become hedgehog fosterers, with an incubator, an indoor cage and an outdoor run. We’ve had half a dozen or so come through our hands and go on to release in the wild, and currently have two to stay over the winter. There’s a lot to tell and show, so I am restarting my writing with the stories of the gorgeous and smelly beasts who have taken over our lives, given us so much fulfilment, the privilege of being able to add a tiny bit to Conservation, and now the chance to help to save an ancient species recently scheduled as “at risk of extinction” in the UK.
In the middle of the afternoon, as we were leaving the house to drive out, Ali spotted a small hedgehog in a large tussock of grass by a fence. The bottom of the fence is piled with long pine needles from the Corsican pine overhead and it seems that the baby may have emerged from a makeshift nest in the mix of grass and long dry pine needles. It is just as well she saw him, as I couldn’t even see him when she pointed him out.
As people with no knowledge of hedgehogs at all, we assumed that all was well with the hoglet and left him to go on his way, after putting a bowl of cat food and one of water out for him. A natural enough response -we had no reason to think there was a need to do more than that. Little did we realise that a hedgehog out and about in the daytime is a hedgehog in trouble.
We kept our eyes out for him and more hoglets over the next few days but didn’t see more until the evening of….
A delivery driver for a takeaway restaurant pulled into our drive in the early evening.
“Do you know you have three little hedgehogs over there?” he asked, as he handed over our lazy dinner, pointing at a shamefully unkempt bed mostly covered in shrubs and bushes, but in fact being the ideal hedgehog shelter at the entrance of our drive. “I just saw three little ones trotting down your drive and under the bushes”.
Sure enough, three small hoglets were there, hiding under the weeds in the damp scrubby bed in the shade of Buddleia and Magnolia. So, again we put food out for them and let them be – but not until I’d printed “Slow, hedgehogs crossing” signs lifted from the Internet, laminated and attached either side of the entrance. We would have been very upset if we’d found a flat hoglet there.
The next day my daughter visited to go for a walk. As we returned to the house with our dogs, she spotted a brown lump in the road outside our drive. At least that’s what I saw. She saw a hoglet. (Mental note made to visit opticians ASAP). He wasn’t moving much and it dawned on me that he was in trouble and we should do something.
We happened to have a spare hamster cage in the garage (it’s like Steptoe and Son in there -don’t even ask what else there is, but it all fits into the category of “I’ll hang onto this because it’ll come in handy one day”).
Wearing a pair of gardening gloves, we transferred the little hoglet to the cage and got him out of the sun, providing him with bowls of food and water. For no particular reason, and without really knowing his gender, I decided he should be called Cedric.
Now late afternoon, daughter had to leave but not before finding the number of our local hedgehog rescue, Hedgerows Hedgehog Rescue. The amazing Jill Beecher (who runs this non -profit rescue centre from her home on love, tireless energy, and the goodwill of donors), advised us that evening on what to do and promised to visit the next day. It was warm weather and Cedric was eating and drinking well, so we settled him down inside our shed, with some hay to nest in and food and water.
The next day we searched the driveway again and found the other two hoglets. Jill arrived shortly after. They appeared to be female so were immediately christened by Ali as Joyce and Sybil. Jill checked them thoroughly. It seemed that their mother had abandoned them or was two ill to look after them, or possibly worse. All three were extremely flea and tick-ridden and underweight but seemed reasonably well except for Cedric. Jill was unhappy about the skin along his skirt, the border line between spines and fur that runs circumferentially around a hedgehog*. She was suspecting an infection, so after de-fleaing all three, she set us up with clear instructions on how to look after Sybil and Joyce.
We are a bit crazy about animals, and have a menagerie. (A friend once remarked on this, asking “How many hearts beat under your roof?” We made it around 31, not including ourselves). We had a spare heated vivarium that we’d used for Herbie the tortoise, who we rescued from likely euthanasia as a baby and when only 90 grams. Herbie had long outgrown the viv but it was perfect for two tiny hoglets -only 110 grams on the day they adopted us. So in they went, complete with a thermostatically controlled heat mat and an IP camera fitted inside so we could keep an eye on them.
*This is one of the wondrous and unique design details of hedgehogs. Under the skirt runs a circular muscle, the orbicularis, that acts like a purse string to close the spines tight over the feet and underbelly as part of the familiar protective response of a hedgehog to perceived threat (they frown first, then tuck their heads down, before the familiar “curling up”). Humans have three orbicularis muscles, one round the mouth that purses the lips, and one around each eye, that screws them up tight. These two are often used in the human threat response “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me”. Not as effective as the hedgehog’s mechanism but still a favourite amongst children of all ages.
The next day, after all the excitement of being catapulted into hedgehog fostering by the arrival of the hoglets, we found Matilda (again the name just appeared in my mind) looking very flat in the middle of our drive. We presumed she was the Mum of the hoglet trio already rescued.
Matilda was obviously very sick. She had no aversion to being picked up and put into a washing up bowl for transfer to somewhere safer. She was limp and indifferent to any stimuli around her. No defensive reactions at all.
Jill came back immediately after we phoned to explain what had happened and how ill Matilda appeared to be. On first looking at her, her extensive experience and training in Hedgehog rehab told her that Matilda was very dehydrated and underweight and needed immediate resuscitation. She took her home for emergency care.
The most urgent requirement was rehydration -we were in the middle of a very long dry spell, and it’s likely that there was a severe shortage of puddles to drink from. Jill’s professional background is Nursing, so she is very properly skilled to use subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate. Her training from the Vale Wildlife Hospital equips her with the skills to translate this to care of hedgehogs rather than humans. On Matilda she used Hartmann’s solution, an intravenous fluid preparation of electrolytes and bicarbonate, particularly useful to not only rehydrate but also combat the build-up of acid in the body that accompanies severe dehydration.
Matilda in fact shows up on two security camera shots. Here are two clips. They have been enlarged and cropped, as on the original she is just a dot, so a lot of definition is lost. However, you can still see that she is moving extremely slowly and with enormous difficulty. It looks almost as though she is dragging herself along the ground, instead of the usual walk on four legs that is normal for hedgehogs. It’s really a pitiful sight.
Jill contacted us to let us know the sad news that after an initial rally with treatment, Matilda declined and passed away in her arms. RIP poor Matilda, you did well to raise your hoglets and bring them to a safe place.