I’ve just tripped over the damned hedgehog for the second time in as many days. He has retreated into the greenhouse and is glaring out at me from under the workbench, rigid with indignation. I suspect he has learnt this expression from my cats.
Truth be told, after 14 months’ acquaintance, with time out for hibernation, we’ve got each other’s measure by now. My two elderly rescue moggies barely spare the drama king a second glance.
I’ve worked hard to acquire a hedgehog. And a great spotted woodpecker, goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, grey squirrels, dunnocks, tits of every persuasion — you get the picture. But Mr Hog is my triumph to date, proof of a project that is nearing fruition. In short, in under two years, my garden is well on its way to becoming a wildlife sanctuary.
When I moved to the south coast, the first thing I did was sneak down my 125 x 85ft garden at dusk and excavate a 5in square corridor under the fences on either side. That’s the minimum size for a hedgehog to squeeze through (the other option would have been to cut a hole in the panels). Hedgehogs travel up to a mile and a half a night, particularly when looking for a mate, and they need to pass through an unimpeded run of gardens if they are not to be forced out — and squashed — on the road.
So that was hedgehog sex and exercise sorted. Next up was shelter. That expensive bespoke hedgehog house with its lovely nest of dried grasses? A waste of money, though it did nicely for a field mouse. A much better idea was to fell a couple of dull, light-blocking conifers and use the wood to create a sizeable log pile in an undisturbed corner of the garden. I’ve no idea if that’s where Mr Hog is living, but it’s paradise for woodlice. And now that I’ve bulked out the pile with scrounged native tree logs, which rot down faster than the conifers, I might even end up with another masterpiece of evolution — stag beetles.
I am not by nature tidy, which makes me a great hit with all creatures great and small. My hedgehog turned up at dusk on an ad hoc basis last year but I was never sure whether it was him eating the food I put out or the fox. I was on tenterhooks all through winter wondering whether he had survived; I felt something akin to joy when I saw my first hedgehog poo this spring.
We’ve settled down into a routine now. Mr Hog knows there will be a bowl of food for him in the lee of the house wall every night, come rain or shine. Besotted friends feed him. His fanbase is solid. I’d set up a Twitter account for him if I knew how.
And, Lord knows, he needs all the fans he can get. Across Britain, gardeners kill his kind — without realising it — by using cheap, lethal slug pellets to nuke anything that has a pop at their nectar-free begonias. Control-freakery is death to garden ecosystems. Live and let live a little: bees, hoverflies, lacewings, ladybirds, wasps, beetles, butterflies — all manner of buzzy pollinating insects are more important than the black spot on your roses.
Wildlife gardens thrive through benign neglect. I’ve got a lot of lawn and it takes ages to cut, so I don’t bother. I just mow a path through it and plant plugs of homegrown yellow rattle to parasitise the grass, followed by wild flowers. When I walk along my grass path, clouds of soporific insects take flight: speckled wood butterflies lazily settle back down in front of my feet; lady’s bedstraw fights for dominance with fox-and-cubs; fledglings take fright and scramble back into hedges.
Over in my borders, Verbena bonariensis and hebe are hosting showy small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral butterflies, and all manner of bugs are making free with the homegrown cosmos. The birds are in heaven — so many insects to choose from on top of sunflower seeds and fat balls — while my hedgehog supplements his human handouts with plump slugs and snails. In truth, it is paradise.
Not that I would dream of introducing a snake, but I do crave a pond. My next urgent task is to plan where to put one without distressing those inhabitants who have already claimed my garden for their own.
Still — let’s be honest here — nothing is actually going to happen until my hedgehog deigns to retire for the winter. To anywhere in the garden that takes his fancy. Except, possibly, the greenhouse.