How the hegehog promotes Britishness

The hedgehog is one of Britain’s best-loved creatures.

How do I know that? I googled “beloved hedgehogs” until I found enough material to prove what I was already sure of. Lord Google’s happy to confirm any belief we hold if only we ask the right way and leave an offering of data at his shrine. 

Thank you, Lord G., for what you contribute to the world’s wisdom.

But I also, in the real world, listen to people, including a neighbor who told me some years back,  “We have a hedgehog,” making it sound as if her backyard was being visited by angels instead of a small, spiny, snuffly creature.

Irrelevant photo: Snow on a camellia bud in February. We had two or three inches. Half of Cornwall ran off the road. The other half stayed home.

Ah, but I’m serious about my responsibility to inform the world about  Britain, so I asked my friend Helen about the place hedgehogs hold in British culture and she went into a remebering-childhod reverie, telling me about hedgehogs in the books she read: Fuzzypeg, who’s part of Alice Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. If you grow up with these books, apparently, some part of you will forever believe that the hedgehog is a wonderful little creature and an essential part of Britain’s charm.

Or if you want to be snarky about it, which is always more fun than being reverential, part of Britain’s Britishness.

Britain’s Britishness?

Absolutely. Not because it’s clear what Britishness is–it’s not–but because Britain has lots of it and if you eavesdrop on the national conversation you’ll learn that it’s important.

For a while there, defining Britishness was a kind of indoor sport at Westminster. Politicians needed to know what it was so they could impose it on those of us who didn’t fit whatever the definition turned out to be. “Us,” of course, being immigrants. Because that’s the problem with immigrants: They come from places that aren’t Britain, bringing all kinds of -ishnesses that aren’t Britishness.

It turned out, though, that no two politicians agreed about what the ingredients of Britishness were and eventually they stopped talking about them. It was getting embarrassing. 

Or maybe that was because Brexit wasn’t–and isn’t–leaving room in the national conversation for anything else. 

Anyway, I have more than one post about Britishness and I’d love to link you to them, but I never thought to create a category labeled Britishness and I can’t find the damned things. They’re somewhere in this mess. 

None of the politicians mentioned hedgehogs, although you’d think they would have. They should also mention having read the right kids’ books at the right age. Maybe it was all too obvious to think of.

But let’s shut up about that and talk about the hedgehog. It’s native to Europe (which in this case includes Britain; please can we not argue about that right now?), Asia, and Africa. It’s not native to New Zealand but was introduced there to eat slugs and snails. New Zealand conservationists hate them because they compete with native species, but they don’t hate them as much as they hate some of the other beasties that enthusiastic idiots released into the wild, so let’s move on.

The hedgehog’s gone extinct in the Americas but people keep imported types as pets, which is why that cute little British wild animal is making American pet-owners sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has warned people not to kiss and cuddle their hedgehogs because they can spread salmonella. Eight people in the U.S. have gotten salmonella that way since October, and one’s been hospitalized.

That was as of January. It could well be up to nine by the time you read this. As you can see, we’re dealing with an epidemic. Declare an international incident, someone. Send warships.  

The hedgehogs Americans are likely to keep as pets are actually African pygmy hedgehogs, but fact shouldn’t get in the way of a good international incident. American culture is at stake here. Americans only keep African pygmy hedgehogs because the British brainwashed them into thinking they were cute. And (ever so incidentally) because someone on Instagram has one. 

Not to be left out, the RSPCA–the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–issued roughly the same warning to British hedgehog cuddlers. Take that, America. We didn’t make you take them into your homes and we’re suffering just as much as you are, in our understated way.

We now have the horrifying statistics, the warnings, and the international posturing out of the way. 

According to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (of course there’s a British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and it sells books and magnets and all sorts of other things that hedgehogs need), hedgehog spines are actually modified hairs and the average adult hedgehog has 5,000 to 7,000 of them. 

Yes, someone counted them. No, it wasn’t me. 

The spines are a great defense, even though they’re not barbed like porcupine quills. When our dogs found one in the backyard, it rolled into a ball, spines out. The dogs barked insanely and poked their noses at it, then trotted inside, defeated. The hedgehog unrolled itself and waddled off in search of bugs and slugs and a visa to New Zealand.

Somewhere in among all those spines, the hedgehog has a tail. And sex organs. But how do the spiny little things get close enough to each other to create more hedgehogs? Carefully. The female curls her tail upward. The male keeps his relevant body part close to the middle of his belly, so he doesn’t have to climb on top, Humans, who don’t have the same level of interest in the aforesaid body part as hedgehogs do, sometimes mistake it for a belly button. 

Hedgehogs think this is very funny.

Baby hedgehoglets aren’t born prickly, for which their mothers are endlessly grateful. Motherhood’s hard enough without spines. The babies have soft spine stubs that grow and harden within a few weeks.

Hedgehogs eat insects, bugs, slugs, worms, snakes, frogs, toads, eggs, berries, melons, mushrooms, grass, and nice little meaty treats that humans set out for them as long as other creatures don’t get to them first. My best guess is that if they eat melons (which don’t pass the Britishness test, by the way; they’re from Africa and southwest Asia), they also eat berries (some of which do pass the test), but berries aren’t on the list I found, so treat that as guesswork.

That bit about eating slugs? It’s more powerful than children’s books in making gardeners love hedgehogs.

Hegehogs are noctural and they hibernate–or they do if it gets cold enough. With the way climate change has been messing with the seasons lately, some are not going into hibernation and struggle to find enough food over the winter. Even when they’re hibernating, though, they will come out during warm spells and have a snack or two.

They’ve adapted fairly well to city life, but they’re struggling in the countryside, where they’ve been hit hard by the loss of hedgerows and a decline in bug (okay, not just bug: invertebrate) numbers. They also get poisoned by slug pellets and hit by cars.

This is not a fun time to be a hedgehog.

There’s no shortage of campaigns to save them. The Wildlife Trust recommends cutting a small hole in the bottom of your fence (that’s only if you have a fence) so hedgehogs can waddle through. They travel a kilometer or two a night searching for food and mates. That’s mates as in hedgehogs they can breed with, not as in friends. In miles that’s–oh, let’s pretend it’s somewhere betwwen half a mile and a mile. If you were sending a rocket to the moon with calculations like that, you’d miss the whole damn thing, but it’s close enough for a hedgehog. They don’t read, they don’t do math, and they won’t cover any less distance just because I get my numbers wrong.

You can also build it a nice little box for it to hide in and set out some dog or cat food. You can play it patriotic British tunes on your smart phone. If you find a sick or injured hedgehog, you can rehabilitate it. The trust doesn’t tell you not to kiss it–I don’t think it occurred to anyone that you might–but it does tell you to use gardening gloves to pick it up. 

It doesn’t recommend adopting it as a pet.

A group of hedgehogs is called an array. Will you need to know this? Probably not. They’re solitary creatures. Once a female mates, she won’t want the male around. He’d only eat the young. In fact, if the nest is disturbed, the mother might do that herself.

These are the things they don’t put that in the children’s books. 

Hedgehogs used to be called urchins, which came to English from Latin by way of Norman French. By the fifteenth century, an urchin was anyone who looked like a hedgehog, including a hunchback, a goblin, a bad girl (no, don’t ask me–I’ve known and admired plenty of bad girls and none of them struck me as looking like hedgehogs), and a ragged child. By the late eighteenth century, an urchin was in general use to mean a ragged child. 

In the U.S., keeping hedgehogs is illegal in Georgia, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Washington, and New York City–or it was as of January 2018. Calling a kid you’re unhappy with a hedgehog isn’t illegal anywhere but it will earn you some odd looks, as will calling a hedgehog an urchin.

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My thanks to Flo, who first let me know about the threat hedgehogs pose to America’s health, and to Helen and (while we’re on the subject) assorted other friends who treat my odd questions (“So what is it about the British and hedgehogs?”) as if they were almost normal.

Living dangerously: the Cornish cream tea goes nationwide

The U.K. coffee chain Costa is boldly going where no sensible business wanted to go before.

What are they doing? Selling cream tea the Cornish way, not the Devon way.

Background break: What’s a cream tea? Two plain scones, strawberry (or sometimes blackcurrant, but they’re going with the more popular strawberry) jam, and clotted cream, which is cream that’s been beatified. I’ve made that joke before. My apologies if you remember it, but I couldn’t think of a better explanation. Plus tea, of course, except that Costa will substitute coffee, which will piss off the purists in both counties.

What’s the difference between the Cornish and the Devon cream tea? In Cornwall, you put the jam on the scone first. In Devon, you start with the cream.

Nations have gone to war over less.

Nobody asked for my advice, but I’d have suggested giving people the fixings and letting them figure out what to do. That would let Costa smile serenely and claim nothing is their fault. Because there’ll be hell to pay over this in Devon.

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And a quick note: It’s summer, apparently, because the first cygnets—baby swans, to those of you not in the know—have been born at the Abbotsbury Swannery, in Dorset.. The Western Morning News (which I can’t find online, so no link, which is a shame because they had a great photo) reports that this is the traditional signal. Here in Cornwall, it’s gray and I’m wearing two sweatshirts, but who am I to argue with tradition?

A rare relevant photo: Swan with cygnets, from Pixabay.

Caption contest: a post-Easter special

Welcome to the first (and surely the last) ever photo caption contest here at Notes from….

My March 25 post about stolen Easter eggs (sorry, I had to embed the link; it’s a law of the internet) included a screamingly irrelevant photo of our neighbor J. But I’d better let you see the photo yourself:

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. I'll stop with the cat and dog photos soon, but everything else I've shot lately is overexposed.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose.

After it appeared, J. went on Facebook and suggested a caption contest. So this is all her fault.

You should know before you leave your captions in the Comments box that we already have a winner. In fact, I declared it the winner when it was still the only entry. That’s how contests work around here. It’s J. regrets asking the plastic surgeon to “enlarge these puppies.” It comes from J. from New Zealand, who is not to be confused with our neighbor J. from Cornwall. You can tell them apart because only one of them has a dog in her shirt.

But let’s not focus on who gets to win, okay? It’s about the experience, as we were all told when we were eight years old and limped over the finish line last, bleeding, and covered in mud.

Or substitute some equivalent experience. The minute someone says, “as we were all told,” you just know it won’t apply to you, right? In the spirit of complete transparency, I wasn’t told that either. The phrase hadn’t been invented yet when I as eight. We’d barely gotten around to inventing language.

But please, all you strange and lovely people out there, send me a caption anyway. Because it’s that kind of photo. Because we’re that kind of crowd. I’m not sure what kind that is, exactly, but I’m very sure it’s the kind we are.

The British and their pets

Let no one say I hide from the tough topics. I asked what you wanted to hear about and I got questions about budget cuts (destructive), mental health services (needed more than ever given the budget cuts), British television (mixed but I’m not much of a TV watcher these days), and what the British think of Americans (long story). So let’s start with the heavy-duty stuff and talk about the British and their pets. This is justified because Sandy Sue wrote, “I’d love to hear about Brits and their pets. In one post you said they don’t holler for their animals like we do–I loved that. More!”

Okay.

Spoiler alert: The Big Guy's been found.

Spoiler alert: The Big Guy’s been found.

Dogs played an important part in introducing us to the village. Wild Thing has a gift for starting conversations with pretty much anyone, and if she sees someone with a dog she stops to talk if she can. In any country. In Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, I read that dogs are an accepted conversation starter. A bit like the weather. They’re a nice neutral topic that allows shy people to connect, and Fox writes about the English as a publicly shy people. The national assumption is that each person goes into the public sphere surrounded by an invisible privacy bubble and it would be rude to break in. Commuters who see each other morning after morning may, after a year or so, go all out and nod to each other. Which is why they need pre-programmed topics—the weather, the dog, the whatever—in order to break out and enjoy a bit of human companionship.

Lucky us that Wild Thing’s quirks fit so well with the country’s. Our acquaintances and then friendships in the village grew out of Ida’s habit of talking about dogs. When we first came here as visitors, we met a few dogs, and through them a few people, and through them a few more people, and here we are, all these years later, still pestering them.

One of the first things Wild Thing noticed was that if you asked people about their dogs, a certain number of them would tell you entire tales: She’s a rescue dog and she’s settled in wonderfully but she’s still afraid of people with hats. Oh, he’s had a difficult day—he saw the vet this morning. Last week she was stung by a bee and it’s been very traumatic. These weren’t just dogs we were hearing about. Each one was the central character in a novel.

I don’t know if more people adopt abandoned dogs in the U.K. than in the U.S., but I do know we hear about it more often. Stop to admire a dog and if it’s a rescue dog that’s the first thing you’ll learn. Which leads me to wonder not only if more people adopt rescue dogs here but if more people abandon them. Or is it that more of them find a home? Or do we just hear about it more because people need the outlet of talking about their dogs?

Dogs are welcome in more public places here than in—well, it’s hard to generalize about the U.S., but certainly than in Minnesota. Lots of cafes and pubs welcome them. If we’re not sure and don’t see a sign in the window, we’ve learned to poke our heads through the door and ask. A few even offer dog biscuits. Some set water bowls outside the door, whether or not dogs are welcome inside. At singers night in the nearby pub, dogs are a regular part of the mix. Every so often one will add a well-timed howl and be welcomed with general hysteria. One of the organizers has a small repertoire of dog songs that he’ll sing at times like that. Mostly, though, the dogs are content to listen and hope someone will drop a sandwich.

As a result of being taken more places (or I’m guessing it’s a result), dogs are generally more relaxed in public than a small and unscientific survey leads me to believe they are in the U.S. I do hear and read about aggressive dogs, but so far our experience has been good. A bit of growling now and then, the occasional pup who’s too big and enthusiastic its brain, but mostly they get along peaceably and behave well. Even if one or another of them howls at a song. We’ve all wanted to once in a while, haven’t we?

We’ve usually warned away from snappish ones by their owners.

In Minnesota, state law governed where dogs could and couldn’t be taken. A coffee shop near our old house let dogs in because they couldn’t see a reason not to, and it worked well until they got caught by an inspector from the Minnesota Department of Dog Fur and General Bad Behavior and received a couple of stern warnings. They still couldn’t bear to kick dogs out but we took pity on them and stopped bringing ours in. Other dog-owning regulars did the same. Then the state passed a law that made it illegal to tie a dog outside while you went in for coffee. No, it didn’t specify coffee. It could have been shampoo or a bottle of milk. But it limited what people could do with their dogs. We could walk them and take them back home. We could keep them at home, and we could let them out in the yard if we had a way to keep them inside it. But we couldn’t integrate them into our lives the way we can here.

Because I live in the country, people keep other pets and semi-pets. On the other side of the valley, B. keeps peacocks. Come spring we hear them yelling something that sounds like “Help! Help!” The peahens want nothing more out of their lives than to lead their chicks onto the road and wander up and down it, and I’ve learned to slow down near B.’s house. The peacocks like the road as well. One year I saw the local half-size bus herding a peacock down the road toward me at maybe half a mile per hour. As the bird walked, he threw his feet forward—not quite in a goosestep but it was close enough to make me understand why they named the step after a bird. He had his fan spread and was yelling furiously for help, or for reinforcements. When he got to the house and no reinforcements had come, he stepped aside and let the bus through.

I didn’t have a camera.

Any number of people keep chickens and a few keep geese. Some of these are just chickens and geese and some are pets. One year two of M.’s chickens died, leaving her with just one, which was so lonely she’d follow M. from place to place as she worked in the garden and would sit on the windowsill when M. went in. Eventually M. got another hen or two and the chicken went back to acting like a chicken.

M.’s hens are battery hens that aren’t laying as heavily as they used to and would otherwise be slaughtered. They come to her practically featherless and in terrible shape, hardly knowing what to do with the great outdoors. Then before long they feather out and start pecking.

A few years back, someone not far from the village adopted a lamb with a broken leg that she found on the moor. She located the farmer and told him about it and the farmer offered to shoot it, so she loaded the lamb in the car, got its leg set, and raised it until it became a ram and a bit of a handful, when she found someone with a smallholding who was willing to take it. By that time, it didn’t consider itself a sheep anymore and didn’t settle in well with the other sheep. Eventually it made itself a home with the horses.

And then, of course, there are cats.

When the stray we adopted, Big Guy, disappeared a couple of weeks ago, we put a note on the village Facebook page, which is all you have to do to activate the village network. For a while, the comments were all about I hope you find him and next time try putting butter on his feet the first time you let him out. Then last Saturday night we got a phone call: The Big Guy had showed up outside S.’s house, yelling his head off, and they were feeding him. They’d heard he was ours. The kids wanted to adopt him and the parents were being won over. They said he was shy about coming inside but they’d made him a space on the porch, where the boiler is, so it’s warm. Their house is just downhill from where he was first found. Apparently that’s where he wants to live. It’s got a beautiful view and I guess he likes it. Wild Thing told them that he didn’t seem happy here, so if they were willing to keep him that would be great.

I stopped by on Sunday morning to bring them some cat food left when Moggy died. Fast Eddie still eats kitten food. And dog food. He plans to be a dog when he grows up. Anyway, I stopped by and there was the Big Guy, cuddling with one of the kids. He was happy to see me but not as if he’d been lost and I’d found him. He was indeed a bit shy about coming into the house but when he saw a bowl of cat food he decided he’d take the risk. It’s hard to know whether he’ll stay, but he does seem to like the neighborhood, they’re treating him well, and I think he’s found a home. Even if they do call him Marvin—Starvin’ Marvin.

I don't  think the Big Guy's going to sleep here--he's not much of a jumper--but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

I don’t think the Big Guy’s going to sleep here–he’s not much of a jumper–but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

While I was down there, Wild Thing got a call from S.’s neighbors, who reported that the Big Guy had been trying to get into their house. Then A. called. She thought she’d seen the Big Guy at yet another house in the neighborhood and she’d gone to ask if he was their cat but they don’t have a cat.

Oh, and W. thought he’d seen the Big Guy running across a back road nearby.

It takes a village to find a cat. And in Big Guy’s case, to house one. For the moment, though, he’s housed and fed, which is good because it’s been raining a lot and the wind has been so strong that during some of the gusts I couldn’t walk into it.

How is this any different from the U.S.? People in our old neighborhood people also put themselves out to care for cats. One of ours, the much-loved Big Ol’ Red Cat, was a stray who was taken in initially by our neighbor, D. But she couldn’t keep him because the cat she already had was pounding on him, so she brought him to us and he settled in happily. The underlying feeling about cats was the same. But in a city a cat can fall off the radar without wandering far. Just like a person can. Living in the city, you end up with a series of short stories. In a village, you hear the entire novel.