With its spines moving like splinters of wood curling away from a log as it’s burning, the hedgehog has always elicited feelings of warmth and curiosity in me and it is this reaction I have when, on a particularly cold night, I find myself drawn to the edge of the garden while out gathering firewood. Can I say I’ve definitely seen it? But I know the truth of the quickening scuffle, the push into papery leaf litter, the crumple then pause before continuing deeper into the dense and fibrous circuitry at the base of the lilac tree.
I pause, too, wondering if the hedgehog has found a way through or if it will back out like a Victorian lady manoeuvring her uncomfortable bustle, having entered the wrong carriage, but no such awkwardness follows, and I collect my logs and return inside.
In my study, the fire is smoking. I was slow to stack the woodpile after a double delivery intended to get me a year ahead instead left me lugging gum and pine – even the ‘dry’ – twice their weight in the rain. I had until then been lucky. New Zealand’s summer had drifted on into mid-autumn, seemingly as compensation for a fitful ‘height’ caused in part by smoke pollution from the Australian bushfires. It doesn’t feel right to burn gum now, but my house is old, and change is expensive, and probably impossible in lockdown.
I read in friends’ social media feeds of their lockdown reading. Most are reading the books on their bedside tables, previously used only to elevate teacups or block the acid-glow of the digital alarm clock. But I can find no such energy for novels and anything of greater length than the very shortest short story or poem. It doesn’t help that I have a one-year-old who dislikes sleeping through as much as our resident hedgehog.
This morning, as I sorted apples for eating or stewing, separating the unblemished reds from those pierced by codling-moth larvae on the raised deck outside my kitchen, I heard the hedgehog rustling about beneath me like Beatrix Potter’s creation Lucie accompanying Mrs Tiggy-Winkle as she goes about her chores. I should like to be like Beatrix Potter, making the most of my guests, drawing and painting them, illustrating stories about them to send to young relatives, but I have no relatives of an appreciative age and I fear such non-essentials would languish in a mail box, growing mildew instead of a readership.
My favourite writers will have to make do without me for the foreseeable future as I hunker down to read Mrs Tiggy-Winkle to my infant, yet there is much to be learned even from such simple tales. Devoid of technology, save a little elbow grease and hot iron, and driven only by the desire to see clean laundry returned to the rightful animal by way of plot, these stories are masterclasses in taking things slow.
Only I am taking things slow, of course; nature is busy. The pear tree that two weeks ago resembled me bowed by the weekly grocery shop now has its branches empty, its leaves in the dry climate give a satisfying crunch on the log runs and provide tasty snacks for my pet rabbit. Now that I am not busy, I can sit on the lawn enjoying the sunshine and the view of the harbour while he has free run of the garden. Being dear and docile in demeanour, he is not in danger of running away and needs supervision only to protect him from the baby and cats. Cats are not in quarantine. The birds tell me. I draw none of this, though I have the intention to, one day. I find instead my mind wandering as my eyes settle on the harbour.
The harbour is protected by its wall. Though thin, it is sturdy and only the roughest sea pushes a shock of spray over, like the hair of a suddenly frightened cat. Within, the harbour is a picture of calmness, greenish-blue as the sky in an old photograph and where clouds should be reflected, small white boats. If it were a jigsaw, I would not attempt it. It is another kind of puzzle, altogether, one that every time I look at it transports me not out to sea but over the entire range of the oceans back to the North of England where I grew up.
As a child, I went with my grandparents once to visit the house of Beatrix Potter. I don’t remember a great deal beyond the journey to Hawkshead, passing a sign for Giggleswick – a town surely named for children – and, once at the cottage, what was of interest to my child’s eye: a doll’s house that struck me as the most marvellous thing, surpassed by the mixture of horror and astonishment I felt as I opened drawer upon drawer of butterflies. Sadly, the only hedgehogs I saw were those flattened intermittently along the roadway.
Hedgehogs are endangered in the UK, their numbers thought to have plummeted from approximately 30 million in the 1950s to around one million today. In Aotearoa New Zealand, where I live, they are so abundant they are considered a pest. As many as eight per hectare in some areas pose a risk to the predominant birdlife as well as protected weta and skinks.
Like me, hedgehogs do not belong in New Zealand. They were first brought by the acclimatisation societies to remind human colonisers of their homelands, and later in large numbers to eradicate slugs and snails. Victims of their own success, hedgehog numbers have climbed in New Zealand since the few released in Lyttleton (not Little-town!) in 1869 followed by twelve that were exchanged for weka in 1894 and immediately escaped, from which, the NZ Geographic claims, all New Zealand’s hedgehogs are descended.
Listening to the familiar creak and hiss of the refuse truck as it lifts, empties, returns wheelie bins along my street, I am jolted into acknowledgement of several things: another day in lockdown; working-class people are next highest at risk from medical professionals of succumbing to the virus that has the majority of folks adhering to the advice to #stayhome; hedgehog populations will explode.
In the UK and New Zealand, humans are limited to small radii around their homes and transport is permitted only for groceries or medical needs. There are few cars on the roads. In the UK, as many as 150,000 hedgehog deaths per year are thought to be car related. With most humans inside their homes, the hedgehogs can recover. This may be wishful thinking but April marks the beginning of their breeding season in the UK. Thankfully for New Zealand’s population, April marks mid-autumn and preparations for hibernation. For now, numbers of hedgehogs in New Zealand will remain relatively static and the lockdown does not pose a growing conservation problem for them here.
Hedgehogs are masters of self-isolation, but they are harmful to New Zealand’s native wildlife. The Department of Conservation suggests they are responsible for one in five predator attacks on ground nests and put many of New Zealand’s rare birds and insects at risk of extinction. It is not surprising, then, the DOC advises trapping and killing hedgehogs. It’s probably best I don’t read Graham Jones’ poem Today I Saw a Hedgehog out loud or listen to Paul Muldoon’s Hedgehog on the Poetry Foundation website. Then again, who would hear me?
Can I still read Christine MacLean’s Winter Picnic or Lynley Dodd’s Hedgehog Howdedo to my infant son? Or recycle my eldest son’s favourite, the beautifully illustrated The Winter Hedgehog by Anne and Reg Cartwright? Perhaps, Pam Ayres’ The Last Hedgehog would be more appropriate. Of course, I’m reading for myself as much as my son. I still have my copy of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and the narrative non-fiction book I graduated to in my primary years, about the life-cycle of the hedgehog, including a wonderful old illustration of them stealing apples from an orchard by rolling around and spiking the fruit with their spines.
Hedgehogs do not in fact steal apples from the orchard. Having spent some time in close quarters with my fruit trees, I am confident they are only eaten by codling grubs and blackbirds, though the silvereyes enjoy eating the emerging grubs and may inadvertently take with them a bite of apple, just as I have taken a bit of grub with my apple. My son does not mind and will happily munch any windfall he finds. I have yet to find an antique illustration of toddlers stealing fruit.
Luckily, I have plenty and share some with my neighbours, who are elderly and vulnerable. Though too independent to accept my offers of grocery shopping, they gladly swap fruit: apricots for apples, plums for pears; they are to stones what I am to pips, all exchanged in paper bags left on the boundary fence.
As a last family outing before I moved to New Zealand, I took my mam to Eyam, a mere stone’s throw from our South Yorkshire village. I grew up surrounded by red brick but Eyam is a postcard picture of stone cottages. And there’s that famous stone laid to mark the boundary that could not be crossed. Early Social Distancing. As borders have closed across the world, references to past pandemics have been made, and old divisions have found popularity among followers of divisive politicians.
Unlike the plague, or the Covid-19 virus, racism can only be cured by close contact between people from different cultures. As New Zealand’s Prime Minister urges people to be kind to one another, it makes sense to also extend that kindness to the animals around us. They in turn reward us with their beauty.
I am lucky that I have a garden. Many people do not. But if one looks closely, is patient, is privileged enough to be able to stop and stare, outside the window, in the soil of a house plant, there are tiny lives happening while we are guarding ours. Just now, outside my bedroom, fat kererū, New Zealand’s native wood pigeon, crash-landed in the kowhai tree and are sitting as precariously as the men who built America’s skyscrapers, complete with their white singlets. Around them, tauhou appear astonished, an effect of the silver make-up that lends them the English name of silvereye, and sparrows hop excitedly from branch to branch.
The kererū and tauhou are native. The kererū’s name is onomatopoeic and refers to the call of this Goliath pigeon, whereas tauhou means ‘stranger’ or ‘new arrival’ in Te Reo Māori, Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous language. Sparrows, like hedgehogs, were introduced to New Zealand by the same acclimatisation societies in the 1860s to eradicate the ‘plague’ of insects that destroyed the settler’s crops. A side effect of clearing the forests and eradicating their habitats meant the insects tried to move into settlers’ houses. Just twenty years after their celebrated arrival, the sparrows too were considered pests.
I do not know what will happen to the hedgehog that lives under the deck outside my kitchen. I cannot kill it. Family members made fun of me when I was a youngster for the care and ceremony I gave to dead pets and wildlife alike. All I can do in the days ahead is to think and marvel at the nature in my childhood and my garden. I have time. As does the hedgehog. And as it returns to its nest under my deck in preparation for its long winter sleep, I ask myself, have New Zealand’s hedgehogs entered the wrong carriage altogether?
Rachel J Fenton is from South Yorkshire and now lives in Oamaru in The South Island of Aotearoa. Her writing has appeared in English, The Rialto, Magma, Landfall, Cordite Review, and Overland Journal, and her chapbook Beerstorming with Charlotte Brontë in New York is published by Ethel Press in April 2021. As Rae Joyce, she was awarded a Creative New Zealand Arts Grant to research, write and illustrate a graphic biography of Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s best friend. Follow her on twitter, or facebook.
Photographs by the author, with the exception of the header image, from Pixabay.