Country diary: I listen for the rapid snort-wheeze of the hedgehogs

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I went outside to watch for bats and ended up looking at the stars. With the sky lacking the deep black of winter, midsummer isn’t usually the best time for astronomy. Regardless, the distraction didn’t last long.

It’s unnerving at first, embarrassingly so. A rapid snort-wheeze, like something struggling for breath, from my left. Loud, and getting louder, in that disquieting signature of approach. I’m not looking at the sky any more, but wide-eyed at the ground, searching for sight of the sound. It feels like it should be upon me before I even see it in the gloom.

Then a black orb zigzags across the grass – unaware, or uncaring, of my presence. This thing, the size of a shoe, stops a few feet from my own. Then I remember – with relief on more than one level – that hedgehogs have been with us for four years. Last year, with quarantine encouraging more moments spent outside, we saw them almost constantly. We watched the way they moved on those bandy little legs, brisk and elastic, like little accordions on conveyors. We enjoyed the life in something so often seen as a balled brush-end on a roadside, and just as dead.

Last August, the next generation emerged: little shiny-eyed, scurrying apostrophes, with no caution of us bemused humans. One ran so close I had to lift a leg to make way for it.

They keep coming back, clearly thriving on the bugs, slugs and berries, so we see no reason to interfere – though during hot spells, like this week, we make sure there is water around. And they have become a winter consideration too. “Don’t move that – the hedgehogs.”

Their numbers are plummeting around the country, with less than a million left, it is said. How blessed we are to have a few on our tiny patch. The grunting shadow is soon joined by another, and I watch them, not very successfully, in the dark. If anything, this is a lesson in sensory observing. I look for the stars, the bats, the kites, the robin. For the hedgehogs, I listen.

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