An Irishman’s Diary: Help the hedgehog, victim of imperialism

 

There was a rather magnificent speech given in the House of Commons recently, on a subject all too rarely discussed there, hedgehogs.

The man responsible was the environment secretary, Rory Stewart, who was responding to a suggestion from another Tory MP that, to help fight its decline, the humble erinaceus europaeus should be designated Britain’s official animal.

Although Stewart questioned the suitability as a state symbol of a creature that curls up into a ball when threatened, and hibernates for half the year, he was in all other respects sympathetic to the hedgehog’s cause.

His eulogy to the animal quoted John Clare, Shakespeare and Aristotle, among others and he noted that its ancestors had only narrowly avoided being flattened by Tyrannosaurus Rex. As Stewart also pointed out, this was the first time hedgehogs had been debated in parliament since 1566, when the future Bard of Avon was still in nappies.

On that occasion, the context had been a bounty for the eradication of the animal, which was blamed at the time for sucking milk at night “from the teats of recumbent cows”.

Yes, that’s what the Elizabethans (the big eejits) thought, although as we now know, a hedgehog is physically incapable of such a crime. But then again, during the same period, the species was far from alone in its persecution.

On the contrary, the Tudors were very hard on wildlife generally, or at least what they called “vermin”, hunting several species to near extinction on various trumped-up charges. As for the suspected teat-suckers, according to Stewart, between half a million and two million were bounty-hunted from then until the end of the 18th century.

Despite this obvious need for atonement, disappointingly, the environment secretary opposed the hedgehog’s adoption as Britain’s official animal. He still preferred the non-native lion, one of few immigrants from the former colonies that remain universally popular with Conservatives.

Of course, being from this former colony, and hearing about the treatment of British hedgehogs between the mid-1500s and the 18th century, I naturally recalled the plight of another species of misunderstood wildlife from that era, the Gaelic chieftains.

They were more-or-less hunted to extinction by the Tudors, although bounties of one kind or another continued on their ancestors until 1798 and beyond. So it struck me that, never mind Britain, the heroically enduring hedgehog would make a good national animal of Ireland.

After all, it could do with the encouragement here too, being under the same threat from garden fences, pesticides and that modern-day T Rex, the car, as it is in Britain.

This in turn set me wondering when, if ever, the hedgehog had been debated in the Dáil. And I was pleasantly surprised to find (via the Oireachtas database) that it has featured fairly often, albeit usually in passing and sometimes in disparaging ways.

During a 1968 strike of artificial inseminators, for example, a TD asked the minister for agriculture sarcastically if the part-time AI men were supposed to “roll up like hedgehogs for three or four months” of every year.

In fact, that was an underestimate of the hedgehog’s sleeping powers, because it hibernates for six months (October to March), in the process lowering its heart rate from 240 beats a minute to a barely-alive two. Surely, in considering its suitability as a symbol, such mastery of hibernation should not disqualify it in a country called Hibernia?

Unfortunately, the hedgehog’s reputation as “vermin” lingers here too, although the great Myles na gCopaleen once leapt to its defence over exactly that slander.

Small and prickly himself, he probably felt an affinity with the animal. He also admired it for being “a tireless scavenger and, like newspapermen, a night worker”. So he listed its many virtues, marred only by a weakness for eating eggs and suggested that of any sensible person should keep one (“or preferably two”) in the garden.

But I suppose we already have the Irish elk as a national symbol (despite the drawbacks of its extinction and, before that, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, of its being neither Irish nor an elk). And next in line, probably, is the Irish mountain hare, also now a threat.

As for the poor hedgehog, maybe we’d help it more by just cutting down on our pesticides and cutting holes in our fences to let the critter pass unhindered. It’s the least we can do for a fellow former victim of imperialism.