Photo by Sergej Resetnikov/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant. This was the first lesson from my village safari around Kirtlington in Oxfordshire, home to the UK’s longest volunteer-run hedgehog highway. “Leaving out bread and milk is the worst thing you can do,” says resident Chris Powles, who created the highway. It passes through 60 properties in the village, all linked by CD-sized holes cut into fences and walls, some of which have been around since the 18th century.
Hedgehogs need space to create territories, forage and find mates. The compartmentalisation of land into private gardens is one of the causes of their disappearance from our landscape – they have declined by 90% since the second world war. More than 12,000 hedgehog holes have been created as part of the UK’s hedgehog highway network, and Kirtlington has one of the most creative routes on the map. Miniature ramps and staircases thread between gardens in this higgledy-piggledy place, with its 13th-century church and notices about cake sales and “cricketers wanted”.
Powles’s eureka moment came in 2016 when he saw hedgehog faeces in his garden. He started putting down food and then realised his hedgehogs needed somewhere to go other than on to the road, so he knocked a hole in the wall (and made miniature stairs) so they could get into his neighbour’s garden.
Four years later, his hedgehog map indicates where these nocturnal mammals – which can walk for a mile each night – can safely travel. Coloured green are gardens already connected by holes, and in white are future territories to conquer (there are around 75 in total). “We hardly need a strategy – the hedgehogs have generated so much enthusiasm. Very few people say no to being involved in the highway,” he says.
Powles has probably been in more gardens than anyone else in the village. “I’ve learned lots of non-hedgehog things about people … I’m very interested in people’s gardens but I try not to intrude,” he says. We wander through the church, the pub and along public footpaths, enjoying roses and dahlias clinging on to the last of summer’s warmth.
Powles asks each person when their last sighting was (numbers have sharply declined recently and it is not clear why) and by the end of the walk we’ve spoken to a dozen people. Talk of hedgehogs comes as easily to residents as comparing notes on the weather. “With neighbours who have fallen out – myself included and I won’t say who with – hedgehogs have brought us back together again. The power of hedgehogs is right there,” he says.
The highway is an eccentric delight – stone steps, hedgehog cutouts and little signs like “Church” for any hedgehog that can read. The ramp at Peter Kyte and Zoe Johnson’s house is 85cm tall and believed to be one of the biggest in the country. Last year the couple put out their night camera and captured visits most nights. “One or two of them are quite tubby and got stuck at the bottom,” says Peter. One video of a hedgehog using their ramp has been viewed 33,000 times.
Monitoring is an important part of the project. Sticks in front of holes show if hedgehogs have passed (the stick falls down as they walk through). Looking at hedgehog faeces is another useful way to learn about their whereabouts. Eleven camera traps have been distributed around the village by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) to help track their movements, and at least half a dozen more have been bought by residents. Isabel Houselander, 10, tells me she thought hedgehogs were imaginary until she saw one outside her front door on the camera trap. She and her two friends now have their own hedgehog holes after being inspired by Powles’s hedgehog presentation at their school.
Coordinating the highway has made Powles realise how much people love wildlife and want to help (“here’s another person who’s completely potty about hedgehogs,” he says on a number of occasions). In each garden we stop and have a chat. At one house talk turns to reproduction. “In terms of the ratio of penis to body weight they’re huge … if you’re making love to a prickly ball you need something pretty long to get the job done,” says Powles, with dry enthusiasm.
The initiative is run by the Kirtlington Wildlife and Conservation Society (KWACS), which Powles chairs. The village fete and newsletter (which features hedgehog news) also help fund the holes, which can cost more than £300 for a thick wall. Powles sells greeting cards with images of Kirlington’s hedgehogs and chops firewood to fund KWACS’ work. “We basically beg, borrow and steal left, right and centre,” he says.
PTES and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society started the national Hedgehog Street initiative to encourage people to build holes in their fences. There are up to 100 communities working with Hedgehog Street, testament to the popularity of the mammal which is now vulnerable to extinction in the UK, with an estimated one million left. “Gardens are a stronghold for hedgehogs,” says Grace Johnson, a hedgehog officer at PTES, “but if they can’t get into your garden there’s not much point in having a good garden.” Anecdotal evidence suggests holes have a significant impact on populations, although this is not currently backed up by science.
Author and ecologist Hugh Warwick is leading a national campaign to make hedgehog highways a legal requirement on new housing developments. His Change.org campaign has almost a million signatures. Like barn owls – whose population comeback is thanks to the construction of barn owl boxes – hedgehogs are a species that local communities and new housing developers can really help.
Kirtlington’s hedgehog highway is an added eccentricity in the village. But it needn’t be unusual – along with cricket pitches and pubs, hedgehog highways could become part of the furniture of village life all over the country. “You feel you can positively do something, and there is satisfaction in that,” says Powles.
Phoebe Weston is a science and environment journalist based in London, England. She has published work in The Telegraph, The Independent, and the Evening Standard.