When Rohan woke that morning she told me how her night had been broken by bursts of unusual and worrying sounds. Volleys of coughs, snorts and whimpers came in through the window from the garden below. Both of us hear less well these days but our losses are complementary. So whereas she is good on the hoots of an owl, my forte is more the higher-pitched blackbird. However, if I sleep with my good ear on the pillow, and that was the case on the night of the volleys, noises pass me by.
Next morning, as she was describing her nighttime noises over breakfast, she stopped mid-sentence. Suddenly their cause was obvious – the noises must have been produced by a hedgehog; the sounds exactly matched a recording of hedgehogs she had once heard on the web. We were both very excited. We had often dreamt of having a resident hedgehog and it now seemed a real possibility. But we needed the proof.
We soon realised that the noises always came from a flower bed by the fence between our garden and the one next door. We also realised that we had actually been hearing hedgehog noises for weeks. Initially, however, they were wrongly interpreted. The neighbour’s house was rented by a couple in their sixties and as soon as they arrived the husband caused us concern. He had, at least to our ears, the intermittent dry cough of COVID-19. Clearly, when our hedgehog was discovered there was an alternative explanation.
We found no trace of the hedgehog when we searched the suspect flower bed and so our investigation changed tack. If we could lure him or her out with food and see food being eaten it would be proof positive.
Each night at dusk (hedgehogs are nocturnal), I would put out a plate with a tiny portion of mince meat, leaving it just in front of what I took to be the hedgehog’s front door. I would then watch from a bench opposite with a torch at the ready. For good reason my vigil never lasted long; after twenty minutes or so I would have to go back inside to warm my fingers and toes.
Although for those first few days I saw nothing, by the following morning each day the plate was always empty. Unless another animal was eating the meals – candidate animals being dogs, cats or foxes – the evidence for our hedgehog was strengthening.
After about a week I was almost ready to give up but as I bent down to put out that next evening meal, I saw on the ground what I thought was a garden brush with its bristles facing upwards. The brush then moved, and a face with beady black eyes looked up at me – here was our dream.
I called Rohan and, as we stood watching, it slowly turned round and soon all we could see was a rounded rump. Male hedgehogs are often larger than their female counterparts and because our ‘brush’ was enormous we named it ‘Mr H’.
I continued the dusk feeds but when mince supplies ran out, Mr H revealed that he was very picky. The morning after I offered him a plate of left-over Bolognese sauce, everything was gone save the onions which he carefully set aside. He also showed a distaste for slugs. In the wild, hedgehogs eat these beastly molluscs, but when I presented him with a plateful he left them all. We had a hedgehog who was choosy!
On the last night of our stay in Brittany I decided to give Mr H a treat. I went to a classy butcher and asked for 25g – around one ounce – of best beef mince meat. The assistant looked quizzical and asked me to repeat the amount; serving a customer with a pinch-full would be a first. I explained that we had a holiday home in a village nearby and as we were leaving next day we wanted to give our garden hedgehog – Monsieur H – something special by which to remember us. Seeing her slightly worried face I apologised, saying that she might see my behaviour as odd. As she gave me the carefully wrapped morsel she politely asked where I was from. I told I was from London and, with a smile and a sympathetic shrug of her shoulders she said “Sir, you are not odd, just English”. With that, I took the mince, smiled and left.
Next morning, before we set off, I picked up the plate I had left for Mr H the night before and it had been licked clean – I could not have wished for more. I said my goodbyes saying that I hoped that his hibernation would go well and that we would see him again when he awoke in March. If that were the case, this Englishman guaranteed that he would provide Mr H with a month of delicious suppers every evening.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration, which is very special, shows a picture of Mr H painted by my sister Sarah after she had heard our hedgehog saga.