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Tall tales and little Gráinneog

Outdoor Living

FORAGER Hedgehogs may travel up to 3km a night foraging for the 70g of food they need every night to survive their hibernation from December to March.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The shrill, excited yelping of somebody’s dog took me down to the trees to see what was amiss, where I found a ragged, knot-eared spaniel, muddy and wet and wearing a coat of briars, down on his forelegs to worry at something he’d found. He jumped up when he saw me and came bounding over, his tail a wagging blur, his face filled with marvellous delight.
‘Come and see!’ he seemed to say. ‘Look at this!’. He bounced back to the foot of the tree to scrape at last year’s fallen leaves, shaking with excitement. I went to look and there, at the foot of that old beech, in the fork of its buttressed roots, lay the coiled form of a hedgehog.
I sent the spaniel back and bent down to look more closely at the animal, which bristled its spines in protest. I turned it over and it unrolled just enough to send out a black glare. The dog barked in one ear, bounded around the tree and barked in the other. The hedgehog curled up tightly once more. He could wait it out.
It isn’t often we get the chance to examine a hedgehog. Indeed, we hardly see them at all any more. They were once frequent visitors to the garden, and we even had individuals calling to the back door on a nightly basis, looking for food. In the 1950s a population survey in the United Kingdom found an average of one hedgehog per acre of agricultural land.
Perhaps there were as many here; if there were, I doubt we have the same numbers now. But how would we know? These are nocturnal animals, and who is there among us that would choose to go into the woods after nightfall, armed only with a torch, for the sole purpose of searching for little Gráinneog?
Well, I can think of some….
It would be nice to learn that Gráinneog had acquired road sense and taught her offspring to watch out for traffic, and that is why we see less of her kind squashed on the roads. In truth, we probably see less of them because there are, in fact, less of them to see. If we carry on the way we’re going we might not see them at all.
I bemoaned this to James, who was, I felt, rather uncharitable. “Gráinneog? That little ugly thing that’s what the name means you know, and it’s not just her looks that earned it.”
“What do you mean?” I wanted to know. “Well, for a start, she’s hardly pretty, is she?”
“Well, no, I suppose not.” Neither was he, I wanted to add, even with his hair greased and a line of Guinness clinging to his new moustache.
“There’s more,” he said gravely. “You know the times you went to find an egg for breakfast and there were none? Well, she was there first. She’ll lie in wait in the bushes ’til she hears the cackle of the hen, then she’s in like a dart. She’ll eat the egg on the spot, shell and all, and leave not a spot, or else carry it off somewhere quiet and sup it in peace while she hears you searching for it yourself.”
I know hedgehogs are quite partial to an egg. They aren’t the only ones.
I looked him in the eye. “That sounds like a dodgy defence to me. Wasn’t that an egg you had in your own pocket last Sunday?”
James stared at his pint. “It was, and if it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have had it at all, not with her lying in wait beyond the wall.”
He changed the subject. “And you know they’ll suck the milk of cows? They’ll be out there in the night, wandering the fields to look for any cow that’s lying down, and strip every bit of milk she has.”
“Did you ever see it yourself?” I asked.
“Well, no. But I heard about it often. And where there’s smoke….”
Quite how any living cow could be convinced to allow such a small and spiny, sharp-toothed creature to suckle gallons of milk from her delicate teats was beyond my comprehension, but I didn’t argue.
“I heard they’re good to eat. Did you ever try one?”’
James shuddered. “There was a time people ate everything. That doesn’t mean everything’s edible – speaking of which…’ He looked at his watch.
“Come on,” I said, “I’ll make you an omelette … if there’s an egg.” He gave a shifty look. “If Gráinneog wasn’t there already.”