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He may be a rock god, but Queen guitarist Brian May is also an animal campaigner of note. Already famous for fighting against fox hunting and the government’s badger cull, last year Brian set up a hedgehog charity, Amazing Grace, in Windlesham, Surrey.
The reason? Hedgehogs are in catastrophic decline in the UK. Sixty years ago it was estimated that 30 million hedgehogs called the UK home; now only about a million remain. Loss of habitat as a result of overdevelopment, the use of insecticides that kill their food, a penchant for fenced-off lawns that prevent them roaming, and collisions with cars and lawn strimmers are mostly to blame.
Determined to help, last year Brian teamed up with Anne Brummer of Surrey’s Harper Asprey Wildlife Rescue. They’d already launched the Save Me animal rights campaign in 2009 to fight fox hunting and badger culls, and now they’ve set up Amazing Grace.
“All kinds of people in the public eye talk a lot about the extinction of tigers,” muses Brian, 69. “The hedgehog in our own country is declining at roughly the same rate the tiger is, so you have to think we should really be dealing with what’s on our doorstep first.”
Rock god to hedgehog hero is an unlikely trajectory… “I’m not a hero. I just do what I can,” demurs Brian.
“If I hadn’t met Anne, none of this would have happened. I had the will in my life, I always felt for animals, but I didn’t have any skills and I didn’t have any knowledge. Because I’m well-known, I’m able to have an effect out there, and so it’s good to use notoriety to good effect.”
Brian sprinkles stardust on this week’s Channel 5 documentary Meet The Hedgehogs, presented by Steve Backshall, which highlights the charity’s work, reveals what we can do to make our gardens hedgehog friendly, and generally celebrates the UK’s only spiky mammal.
Anne and her team at Harper Asprey rescue about 750 hedgehogs every year and provide round-the-clock care in nursing them back to health. But Steve also meets private individuals who’ve dedicated their lives to helping the little creatures. Since 1980, Elaine Drewery, an OAP from Authorpe, Lincolnshire, has turned her house into a hedgehog sanctuary, funding their care with her pension and donations.
Many of the hedgehogs under Elaine’s care have had excruciating encounters with garden strimmers. “Their spines are no match for strimmers, which can cause fatal injuries,” explains Steve. “To avoid casualties, check for wildlife first.”
Even London’s parks used to be a hedgehog haven. “Hedgehogs used to be a common sight in all London’s parks, but now there’s just one breeding population left, in Regent’s Park,” explains Steve.
“It was also common to spot a hedgehog in your garden years ago, but now it’s thought nearly half of us have never seen one on our lawn. But encouraging them to come is easier than you think.”
Helping them keep hydrated is an important first step, says Brian. “So many of the hedgehogs that come in [to the centre] are dehydrated, so if you’re going to put something out for them, put out a dish of water,” he says. Also, provide food such as cat food, dog food, nuts or raisins, but not milk or cheese – hedgehogs are lactose intolerant.
Steve asks us to remember that hedgehogs are nature’s gardeners, feeding on anything we might regard as pests. “So anything you put into your garden targeting those pests, such as chemicals and pesticides, will end up targeting hedgehogs.”
Other hedgehog-friendly tips include cutting a hedgehog-sized hole in the bottom of your garden fence, providing them freedom to roam, because hedgehogs can cover several kilometres per day in their search for food.
Steve is hopeful that ordinary Brits can help prevent the extinction of a species that, last year, topped a poll by the Royal Society of Biology as Brits’ favourite mammal.
“All hedgehogs are precious,” explains Steve. “They’ve been around longer than the sabre-toothed tiger or woolly mammoths, so they’re tough little creatures that deserve to be here for many years to come.”
MEET THE HEDGEHOGS, Next week, Channel 5