Tess Stenson is the author of Gatekeepers of the Docks, "a comedy fantasy about music, apathy, conspiracy and death" as well as her blog Dances with Squirrels. A twenty something residing in London, she studied Palaeobiology and Evolution at Portsmouth University before deciding it was time to stop chasing a career in IT and follow her dream of writing. Below you will find her article, which she contributed to British Hedgehogs Awareness Week and I know you'll be touched and relate as we all have that special animal, which touches our hearts. For me, it's the platypus as he seems as messed up as I am.
So, sit back with your coffee and enjoy Tess's unique voice and style and be sure to visit her blog. Oh, and leave her some encouraging comments below. I'm sure she'll respond.
Thank you, Tess, for being the first of our Saturday guests.
When I was little I wanted to be a hedgehog
It is with great regret that I say that I didn’t grow up to be a hedgehog. This is a fact that has taken a lot of effort to come to terms with. I am not currently the queen of the hedgehogs nor do I hold any influence in their internal politics. Perhaps this is endemic to our western way of life, where children make grand plans for themselves as they try to picture the path their adult life will take; only for the realities of the world to step in and say “No! You shall not be that which you wish.” I am happy with whom I turned out to be, for better or worse, and I’m currently doing something that I truly enjoy. There is however that little part of me that regrets that I am not, in fact, a hedgehog.
I’m honestly not sure just why I came to like hedgehogs so much. Perhaps it was a mixture of things. I started to collect cuddly toy hedgehogs. I’d try to find one whenever I went on holiday with my family. My first one was a small bobble nosed blob of a thing from a campsite in Cornwall that I called Harold. Original, I know. I picked them up from all over the place. Spikes, from Stadtkyll in Germany. Henrietta, from Castellane in France. Horatio from up North somewhere... Horatio actually moved to London with me when I left home. He is currently sat on my table and is the glamorous model for the picture to this piece.
The 90’s also happened to be a hog-friendly decade, with the emergence of a certain blue speedy dude with an attitude, named Sonic. I never had a games console, but I remember vividly playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game at a friend’s house. It was a revelation; both in terms of my gaming education and my developing hedgehog fascination.
At primary school, the friends I played with all had a favourite animal that they would talk about and play as in grand adventures. Mostly in space. We were space animals. Naturally. Maybe there was peer pressure to pick an animal to be myself; such a terrible stress on a young mind just wanting to fit in after coming late to the school because of only recently returning to the UK after living in Germany for a while. I like cats too, but they were already taken. So what else was a cool animal? It had to be a mammal, because they were relatable and cool and hip in that way that only the early 90’s could manage. Likewise, it had to be an EXTREME animal with totally WICKED special abilities. Hey I know, hedgehogs are covered in spikes and can roll up into a tight ball. If you squint and ignore the colourings (and morphology for that matter) they look just like The Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (it would be years until I found out that they were ninjas in the rest of the world). Wow, that is so cool! At least, that’s how I imagine now that the Space Hedgehogs were born.
Oh the adventures those space faring critters had! I even managed to get myself a reputation as “that hedgehog kid”. I would hear hushed words full of reverence as I passed by. I was a somebody. I was a hedgehog.
During that time at primary school, hedgehogs became an obsession and they became my identity. At play time I’d pretend to be one. For school projects I’d write about them. I’d write stories about them. I’d try to find them in our garden. Every Bonfire Night I’d pester people to remind them to double check for hibernating hedgehogs under their home bonfires stacks. Then one day, the dream came true. I got to meet living, breathing hedgehogs. On the way back from a family outing, we stopped at a nature sanctuary near our home in Gloucestershire so that I could see the hedgehogs they had there.
It sounds silly to me now just how much of a thrill it was to see some hedgehogs up close. It was during the day and so most of the sanctuary’s hogs were asleep all snuggled up in their hutches. There was one that was still awake (what’s the opposite of a night owl? A day... pigeon?) that we were allowed to see. It came out of its hutch and I was allowed to stroke it. I had no idea that you could stroke a hedgehog. How could something so spinney be stroke-able? It’s said that the English are a nation of animal lovers; I think it was that moment, along with keeping pet cats, which cemented my love of animals.
Towards the end of primary school, my friends and I decided that it was time to stop our pretending and grow up a bit. So the Space Hedgehogs retired from their galactic exploits. For years afterwards, I got the odd bit of teasing for my Space Hedgehogs and my general hog-obsession. The obsession itself began to fade as I moved through the school years, and other kids found new ways to tease me. I still had the British Hedgehog Preservation Society subscription that a kind auntie had taken out for me, but I found myself less inclined to read the newsletters that came in the post.
I still retained my love of nature, but its focus shifted onto dead stuff as I went to study palaeontology at the University of Portsmouth. I almost completely forgot my old hog-obsession as I once again found myself trying to fit in with a new crowd. For a while it was all dinosaurs, sabre-toothed cats (THEY’RE NOT TIGERS!), ammonites and drawing fake graptolites with a pencil on blank chunks of slate to try and con our tutors that we’d found something interesting. Then one night I was walking alone back to my dingy house share after being out at the pub (which makes that I remember the encounter even more special) when I came across an old friend scampering under a bush. I watched that urban hedgehog for a while. It seemed happy to let this silly human gawp at it whilst it rummaged around before taking its leave and going off on its very important hedgehog business. It was a very sweet creature and I was reminded just how adorable they are, and why I liked them in the first place. A loner creature that dosses around in the undergrowth at night with little else concerning it. It’s a very aspirational lifestyle.
I started to get interested in (living) wildlife and nature again, and began to read up on the literature and articles I saw about it. I started to read the BHPS newsletters again (that my parents kindly forwarded on to me in Portsmouth). With the resurgent interest came a greater appreciation for the natural world. The British natural world could seem dull in comparison to the more exotic parts of the planet, but I began to appreciate it more and more too. Reading up on the state of some of the country’s neglected environments did become rather depressing at times however.
I used to see hedgehogs relatively frequently as I walked at night (either home from pubs or work, or just as a boredom fighting walk around town). It was always a pleasant sight to see a hog, or indeed a fox or a badger. As the years went by, seeing a wild hedgehog went from a quite common thing to an infrequent event. The statistics on hedgehog population decline can sound rather bleak. From numbering in the tens of millions in the 1950’s, to a population of barely one million today, the hedgehog has seen a big decline. One million may sound quite a lot, but spread out over the whole country, that makes for a shallow genetic reservoir. Expanding towns, busier roads, increased pesticide usage and loss of woodland habitation is taking its toll on the creatures. The BHPS (together with their partners) estimates a decline of 37% over the last decade; which makes for a worrying drop for any population.
I can actually remember the last time I saw a hedgehog. I was walking back to Boston Manor Underground Station in West London after visiting a friend; I saw a little hedgehog run across the road. A car was speeding along toward it and I couldn’t help but grit my teeth and freeze in anticipation of what I feared was going to happen. Happily, Mr Hedgehog made it to the other side of the road in time and hurried under a bush in someone’s garden. I chided Mr Hedgehog on his recklessness, but I’m not entirely convinced he listened. A few weeks later I visited that friend again; walking down that same street there was, lying by the side of the road, the desiccated body of a hedgehog that had been hit.
That was three years ago. I’ve not seen a living hedgehog since. It’s not for want of trying either. I’ve been in plenty of area at times where, if it had been some years prior, I could’ve reasonably expected to see a friendly hog. I’ve not seen any though. Urban hedgehogs or country hedgehogs. Not for a good three years. That’s rather upsetting given just how important a part of my childhood hedgehogs played. Hedgehogs will survive, but their numbers are declining and I fear that seeing one in the wild may become a rare sight indeed.
I have come to terms with the fact that I never did grow up to be a hedgehog; I’m just not sure I’ve come to terms with how much trouble the hedgehog population is in.
- Tess Stenson
This piece was written as a contribution to Hedgehog Awareness week. Find out more about the British Hedgehog Preservation Society at http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/
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For Further Reading ~ It All Started With Squirrels
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