THESE days, flat hedgehogs are all too often seen on west Cork roads and, no doubt, on roads all over Ireland.
Young hedgehogs, at the behest of their genes, abandon home comforts and maternal milk when they are about six weeks old.
They and their siblings, which may number as many as five or six, set off into the world and whatever adventures may befall them. While a flat young hedgehog is a sorry sight, some comfort may be found in the fact that females generally produce two litters annually, averaging about 10 newcomers in all.
Spiny creatures that they are, one might ask how do they emerge into life without damaging the internal organs of their dam? Nature has, of course, engineered a solution: the spines are covered with a skin which begin to bristle forth, as white hairs, only some minutes after birth.
Within two weeks, the white hairs are swamped by brown spines, which grow, wave after wave, and harden to engulf them. Equipped with this body armour, the hoglets, after a month, are taken out for walks by their mother and, I am told, the sight of a female leading her spiny, big-eyed brood (like all young creatures, the eyes are disproportionately — and endearingly — large for the size of the head) is positively charming.
I have not had the good fortune to witness a hedgehog family outing ( which it is certain the father hedgehog will not attend; he, having done his procreative duty, absents himself for ever and within an hour) but my wife and I did come upon a hedgehog in the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia which, because it obdurately refused to move out of our path but was spread widely across it, we concluded was hiding a bevy of youngsters under its belly.
I would certainly like to attract hedgehogs to my garden. They are consummate consumers of slugs and pests such as the cabbage moth caterpillar which did for our brassicas in short order the year before last. I wish there was a hedgehog spray-can attractant or a CD of hedgehog “It’s a wonderful world” calls to entice a few of those dispersing youngsters, and save them from becoming magpies’ free lunches on the roads.
It is no wonder magpies savour them, as do badgers. They are called ‘hogs’ because, apparently, they taste not unlike ham. I once saw gypsies stoking up the embers around a badger encased in mud in a fire pit in Ibiza in the Balearic Islands, but that was more than half a century ago, and gypsies probably eat convenience foods now.
For young magpies, road kill hedgehogs are easy meat. We have the gawkiest-looking young magpies around the house at the moment. They are so hungry, but so inexperienced at feeding themselves, that they even try to assail the peanut feeder which resides within two semi-spherical metal flower baskets which, one atop the other, form a sphere impenetrable to raiding jackdaws, magpies or sparrowhawks, but allowing small birds access and a secure venue at which to dine.
While hedgehogs are spiny and relative Johnny-come-latelys to Ireland (the earliest archaeological evidence is 13th century) hares are silky and ancient endemics, for the Irish hare, Lepus timidus Hibernicus, is a creature found nowhere else but on this island. And, like the hedgehog, what a pretty creature it is!
A west Cork author and friend, Marion Reynolds, who recently published a novel about the life of a soldier’s wife in the first decades of the last century — an Irishman who had joined the Connaught Rangers — and the conflict of loyalties they and so many Irish people faced during the War of Independence and its aftermath, tells me that a hare regularly visits her cabbage patch and lettuce patch, and doesn’t do a blind bit of damage to either, simply basking amongst the vegetables, its long, white-rimmed ears relaxed to semi-alert position.
It bounces across her lawn on its long legs with divil a care, comfortable with its proximity to house and humans. This is, surely, unusually relaxed behaviour for a hare. But I recall an 18th century poem by William Cowper in which he celebrates nursing a hare from leveret-hood and domesticating it — but, even after eight years, although “A Turkey carpet was his lawn . . . [He] Was still a wild jack-hare.”
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