H2O and Hedgehogs…

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It was a morning much as any other, a couple of years ago. I’d spent a largely sleepless night, and after my first cup of tea, I went outside for the first cigarette of the day. I stuck the cigarette in my mouth and applied the lighter to the tip and as it burst into devilish light, I drew the smoke into my lungs, feeling instantly better and enlivened enough to have a look round the garden.

I meandered past the sweet peas, pondered upon the honeysuckle and stopped to look at a rose bush that seemed a little off-colour. I glanced to my right and saw a hedgehog in the pond. I rewound my mental tape and thought: “Yes, there is a hedgehog in the pond. I wonder what it’s doing in there. Perhaps it was thirsty…” I finished my assessment of the rosebush and looked towards the pond again. Yep, it was still there. I should have been a little quicker on the uptake really…

“OH MY GOD! THE HEDGEHOG!” My early morning brain sharpened instantly as I realised of course a hedgehog had no business being in the pond and I needed to rescue it at once. Not stopping to think about the practicalities, I rushed towards the pond, intent upon saving the poor little creature.

Arriving at the side of the pond, I looked down at the hedgehog. It was huddled miserably on a rock near the water feature my partner had lovingly installed to create some interest for his precious fish. It looked up at me. I was enchanted by the little dog-like snout and wet black nose, its little beady brown eyes that were glaring up at me in a positively threatening manner.

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“You wait. Just you wait. Gonna have the authorities on you. Just you wait and see.”

I reached out to pick it up and at once, in as far as it was able, given it was a rather large hedgehog on a rock about the size of a paperback book, rolled itself up in a distinctly unapproachable way.

“Ohh…I’d forgotten that they could do that…”

I’m not at my best in the mornings until I’ve had at least two cups of tea. I couldn’t help but admire the colouring of this mini porcupine, quills banded with dark yellow, brown and black; but I retreated to the house for gloves and a thick tea towel, and a receptacle to place the angry animal in once I’d hopefully rescued it.

Armed with these items, I returned to the pond, where the hedgehog had unrolled itself and was glowering resentfully around its surroundings. Obviously it had been drawn by the sound of running water and had fancied a drink.. not a bath…I folded my tea towel in half and carefully draped it over the hedgehog. It was a large creature, about the size of a hedgehog shaped rugby ball and I was completely unprepared for how heavy it was…or how strong.

It gripped the sides of the rock with the ferocity of a bear, dextrous fingers and toes curled under the edges with grim determination. It hissed, then grunted angrily at me. I was surprised, then somewhat affronted…I was trying to help it, there was absolutely no need to be quite so uncooperative and rude! I wrapped the tea towel more firmly around the hedgehog, increased my grip on its sides, braced myself and heaved… It let go of the rock and as I swung it over to the container, I caught a glimpse of a grey, furry tummy, crossly waving paws equipped with long dark claws and a little tail.

I placed it carefully in the box. It looked up at me. I looked back. If I’d been expecting some acknowledgement, perhaps a few words of thanks, I was sadly mistaken. It sneered at me and set to stomping and scuffling around the box. I offered it some ham and a small dish of water-both of these were met with complete and utter disdain:

“Woman, really! Don’t you think I’ve had enough of water and I don’t like honey roast ham…”

I desperately wanted my son to see the hedgehog. Having ascertained it was uninjured if somewhat bad tempered, I rushed upstairs to wake him:

“Quick! Quick, come and see the hedgehog! It was in the pond but I got it out!”

Obviously, my early morning enthusiasm was a little too much for my son, but he is used to being awoken for strange reasons. (“There’s a beetle on the toilet roll! I want to blow my nose!”) He looked up at me from his cosy bed, a little resignedly, and said:

“Are you sure? Have you had your painkillers yet?”

Brushing his disbelief aside, I made him come downstairs to look at the hedgehog.

By now, feeling that the box was preferable to the pond, it had made itself comfortable. There was a large turd in one corner, and obviously feeling better, it had curled up and gone to sleep on the towel. I just knew my son, with his keen interest in Nature, would be enthralled to see this wonderful little creature from the Beatrix Potter tales…

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“Look! Look!”

I pointed enthusiastically at the hedgehog. Disturbed by my voice, it opened an eye, and seeing it had gained another visitor, grunted bad temperedly and re-rolled itself even tighter, spines sticking out at threatening angles… like a natural version of a sputnik.

However, having had my son see it and photograph it, I decided I really ought to liberate it from the box and send it on its way. We carried it carefully to the bottom of the garden, where there’s a little overgrown patch. Tipping it gently onto the floor, we gathered round expectantly. A little eye appeared, just visible amongst the spines, shortly followed by the rest of its face. We held our breath…would it perhaps snuffle in gratitude, whip a lace cap out of its pocket and put it on its head…No. It shot off with undignified haste, actually, elbowing its way past overgrown brambles and dock leaves to disappear in the dank shadows under a tree.

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I often see it at twilight now, shuffling along in search of worms and slugs. Funnily enough, there was an item on the local news about how hedgehogs are becoming increasingly rarer… perhaps that was why it was so bad tempered!

For Victoria and Gillyflower !

Siamese And Slugs…

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I don’t know if all Siamese cats are like Ting, having only had personal experience of her, but she’s just so funny. For example, I have never known any other cat that likes “Botty Smacks”… Indeed, if I even attempted such an outrage on Charlie I have absolutely no doubt I would be hearing from her solicitor in a very short space of time. Lily and Tooty would probably just bite me…

With Ting, however, she adores the physical contact, delivered to the side of her legs, hand slightly cupped, so the air makes the loud smacking noise. When she’s had enough, she will collapse on her side, purring wildly…She quite enjoys being chased too, so I am often to be seen running after her, arms outstretched in the manner of an over-enthusiastic toddler.

Ting has such zest and joy in Life, a summer soul, like myself, and she adores the freedom of our garden, never wandering very far from home at all. On her travels, though, she does seem to pick up a few select companions… your friendly local gastropod… or slug by any other name.

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Now. We have a large (and grouchy) hedgehog that lives at the bottom of our garden, various sorts of bird visitors and a fishpond with newts, frogs and toads, as well as our fish. Consequently, we don’t use slug pellets or any other chemicals in our garden to protect and preserve our little wildlife family and their food sources. Consequently…I’m not quite sure how or why… Ting attracts slugs.

She doesn’t eat them – they seem to serve a multitude of purposes for her – accidental cushion (I found the remnants of one glued to her backside) fetching headgear (one was clinging grimly to the centre of her forehead) avant-garde makeup (smooshed decoratively across one cheek and up the side of her face) or as slimy jockeys, attached to various parts of her body for later discovery and removal, usually by me.

A couple of truly gross instances – leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to indulge in my late night hobby of catching mice and treading on a large slug which had disembarked from Ting and plopped onto my bedside rug.

The other? Ting, lying beside me in bed, with her back feet propped up against me….me, engaged in watching a television programme and absently massaging one of her back paws.

Ooh Ting! What’s the matter with your toe?!”

Gasping in horror as one of her toe pads felt like it had become detached, I lifted my hand towards my face and peered short-sightedly at it to find that I had been gently rubbing a small… brown… slug.

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Thank you Alex for the use of your lovely photos xx

Murder Mittens Inc.

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Sometimes a phrase stays with me, whether it is a stanza of haunting beauty, a vivid description or something so unbearably funny it makes me laugh out loud on the bus or snort tea through my nose… My dear friend GarfieldHug – please go and visit, she is as wise as she is witty, and as warm as she is funny – posted a picture of various animals with alternative descriptions. For example, snake = danger noodle, manta ray = majestic sea flap flap, otter = sea cat snake… you get the idea… even now I’m laughing!

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It reminded me of a picture I’d seen previously, of a tiger cub with its paws resting on a wall, captioned “Murder Mittens”. Also funny – I love this sort of word play; but I turned to look at Lily as I was reading this on my phone – she was curled up, sleeping, next to me – but as I looked, she stretched, luxuriously.

Her tiny, delicate, blackberry toes spread apart involuntarily and gleaming obsidian scythes appeared, seemingly out of all proportion to her toes. Every cat paw is a Mother Nature miracle of engineering and tendons, designed to pull these knives back when not needed, or release them…

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Lily is the smallest cat, but she uses her murder mittens to great effect. Sparrows and blackbirds have all fallen prey to her (I cry for each feathered soul and send it on its way with love) as have two different types of mouse. Oddly enough, she seems to kill the birds outright in preference to the mice… oh no, she likes to bring them home to share. I have had mice in the airing cupboard and the sofa – none of the others bother, although Charlie once caught a very small mouse…

Perhaps this is why Lily does bring them home for us… she pities us for our lack of ability. I remember one occasion – I was in the back bedroom upstairs, that overlooks the back garden, and I could see Lily, Ting and Tooty, all gathered in a circle around something…

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Suspicion aroused, I rushed downstairs and was less than impressed to find them slapping a poor little mouse between them with their murder mittens, for all the world like a gang of mean girls picking on the goody-two shoes. I rescued the poor little creature and sent him on his way with a stiff warning:

You should know by now to stay away from here…”

Thanks Missus, but that black one… she’s a terror… lost Bill and Ted the other week…”

Having been the recipient of a few swipes from murder mittens, I could only sympathise – and be thankful that I am the size I am in proportion to my murder mitten wielding dainty demon…

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Hedgerows and Hares

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I grew up in the county of Lincolnshire, which even today, in the 21st century, is still mainly agricultural. Its flat fields lend themselves well to the mass production of crops with little natural land remaining as 90% of it is used for farmland. Compared now to my current city life the county seems very reminiscent of times gone by…

As a little girl, I remember witnessing what was almost a second agricultural revolution as the flat open fields made for easy industrialisation methods, large machinery such as harvesters, being gradually introduced. The patchwork system of fields gave way to rolling fields of uniform yellow, oil seed rape, and green, sprouts and cabbages.

As I am sure you’ll know, Britain joined the European Union in 1973. For farmers, this was supposed to guarantee the stability of food production and reduce price fluctuations in farming production, ensuring that farmers received a minimum return for their labour and produce.

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This didn’t really happen. I remember seeing gallons of milk being flushed away, some years ago, and everybody must remember the more recent “cows in the supermarket” news item.

With the farming revolution we lost what came to be an important part of the British countryside, the hedgerow.

Hedgerows… similar to the garden hedge but a country variety and integral part of our British countryside, providing both habitat and border…

The Acts of Enclosure, roughly between 1720 and 1840 (must learn to Google rather than relying on memory…) meant that open land, that had previously been available for all to use, for grazing livestock or foraging for food, since mediaeval times and before, was gradually removed from use. Landowners wanted to build bigger and better, more harmonious to the eye and pleasing to the soul and the last thing any designer wanted were flocks of scruffy sheep or inconvenient villages…

To this end, round about 200,000 miles of hedge, mainly blackthorn and hawthorn were planted and mediaeval methods of farming, the strip and patchwork appearance of the country gone. These little smallholdings and former fields are only really visible from the air, ghost traces of footsteps left upon our land.

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These hedgerows became home to a whole host of creatures that are now in decline as the cycle of Life turns again. We may think the sparrow population is plentiful enough when we look at our bird tables, but in actual fact, the tree sparrow, distinguishable by its chestnut coloured head, has steadily dropped in number since the 1970’s.

This is due to the habit of now ploughing in Autumn rather than Spring. There is no over-Winter stubble to provide food and shelter, also putting one of our most magical native animals at risk: the hare.

The EU recognised the devastating effect these changes were having on our wildlife and introduced a system of subsidies that meant the farmer could afford to leave some of his hedges in place rather than ripping them up to utilise every square inch of space just to make ends meet.

As the countryside became commercialised, ‘social knowledge’ became lost. I must thank Gary of Fiction is Food for this wonderfully descriptive phrase. It was no longer necessary to wait for the first frost before ploughing as the mechanised drills would tear up the Earth with ease. The simple rule of crop-rotation, one field fallow, one with peas or beans and one with potatoes was no longer heeded as the Earth was battered with chemical fertilisers.

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During the 1940’s, the excessive use of herbicides eradicated some of our native wildflowers that had been with us since the Stone Age and which would have been recognised and used by Neolithic farmers. A gentler system of social knowledge, how people could work hand-in-hand with Mother Earth with the seasons, rather than against them, was swept away during the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

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Hedge laying and coppicing, basic blacksmithing and make-do and mend. The use of Nature’s bounty to heal and care – time was when every housewife could whip up a cough remedy from elderberries and thyme… Again, nowadays, chemicals rule and these little bits of knowledge past are preserved only by the few, like the lovely Gillyflower of Wood So Wild. Please go and have a look at her blog… wonderful things…

However, as we move further into the 21st Century, people are becoming more aware of what is going on with the Earth. Lost social knowledge is being retrieved in the 21st Century guise of ‘re-cycling’ and set forth again.

We must look to the animals though, as our native British wildlife no longer thrives. Hedgehogs are in difficulties – although the one at the bottom of our garden is fine! Bird populations are altering – witness the parakeet colonies in London.

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Perhaps the most potent symbol of change for me is the hare, a creature of myth and magic, fable and witchcraft… I have been lucky enough to see a hare, both in the wild and in my father’s surgery.

Different somehow and wilder than cuddly bunnies, magical and fierce, hares were thought to have been first introduced in England by the Romans… truly magical creatures, long eared and long legged, graceful symbols traditionally associated with the moon, femininity and by extension, witches. I remember my first sight of a hare was when I was younger, about ten or so, when we were out with the horses. It was lolloping, loose limbed and effortless across the field and although I’d never seen one before it was instantly recognisably different from a rabbit.

Then, not long after this, my father had one brought into the surgery (he was a veterinary surgeon). It had been hit by a car, and was, surprisingly, unhurt, just stunned.

It hunched, fiercely, in the kennel, rolling its great round eyes imperiously and scuffling its long, powerful hind legs. My father soon pronounced it free from concussion or any other injury and delegated its release to one of the nurses.

Hares are not so common now, another victim of the changing face of our countryside; but they live on in myth and folklore, their essence captured in jewellery and ornaments and sketches of memory.

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