Isabelle Aron heads down to meet the crack team operating in pitch darkness to save the spiky critters
It’s 8pm on a drizzly Friday night. I’m crouched on the wet grass in Regent’s Park wearing a hi-vis jacket and poking a torch around in the foliage. It’s so dark I can’t see past my spotlight and the only sound is the occasional rustling of leaves.
I’m here to search – as quietly as I can – for some of London’s most elusive animals. These mysterious creatures are nocturnal, lactose-intolerant and liable to froth at the mouth when they experience new smells. Though you’ll know them better for their 5,000 defensive spines.
Hedgehogs once lived in nearly twice as many places in London as they do now. As buildings have gone up, their habitat has shrunk. Even where there is green space, it’s not enough to keep them safe: pets, pesticides and hazardous roads have made city life hard for these mammals. They’ve vanished from the capital’s central parks, except here in Regent’s Park, where a population of no more than 40 are hanging on by a thread.
That’s why, since 2014, The Royal Parks has run a biannual survey to keep tabs on the prickly pals living here; and this time, I’m joining them.
Base camp for the evening is a spot called Hedgehog HQ. It sounds like a secret bunker, and it might as well be. Using a treasure hunt-like map, it takes me 40 minutes to find the meeting point, which turns out to be a shed tucked away down a leafy path. It’s bustling with volunteers.
One of them is Dr Nigel Reeve, an ecologist with a real Nigel Thornberry vibe – and not just because of his name. He spent years calling for funding for a study of Regent’s Park’s hedgehog population while working as head of ecology for The Royal Parks. The money took so long to raise that he’s now retired, but he is still involved as a volunteer. It’s clear he knows his stuff. While I’m foolishly wearing a bomber jacket and Nikes tonight, he’s fully kitted out with an anorak, walking boots and headlamp.
His expertise is demonstrated during the briefing at Hedgehog HQ, where we watch a video in which Nigel shows us how to ‘unroll’ one of the spiky fellows. That’s the technical term for coaxing a hedgehog to come out of the prickly ball they roll into when they’re scared. It’s an essential move if you want to measure them. After the video, Nigel hands out thermal imaging cameras and torches. He explains that if we find a hedgehog, we should shine a light on them, which encourages them to stay still.
Nigel says it’s unclear why the Regent’s Park hedgehogs have managed to hang on, while other critters around the city have disappeared. ‘It could be that the park happened to have a robust population that’s managed to survive,’ he explains. ‘It could also just be chance.’
We’re split into groups and head into the park on four-hour shifts trying to locate the wee beasties. Nigel unlocks the park’s gates as we move around in the darkness. It’s so quiet that it feels like we’re breaking in. A thunderstorm is looming and it’s already started spitting, which is bad news. ‘Hedgehogs don’t like the rain,’ says Nigel, ‘plus, the paperwork gets wet.’ I’m not the only one hoping the storm holds off, then.
After a few minutes, as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I think I’ve seen something, but it’s just a deceptive-looking leaf. (Look, it’s dark, okay?) A while later there’s a flurry of excitement when a small creature appears in red on the thermal imaging camera. We gather around a hedge, peering in excitedly… it turns out to be a mouse.
It’s only when we’ve been out searching for an hour, and I’m beginning to give up, that it finally happens. I’m focusing on not falling into a nearby ditch, when I spot it. Curled up into a ball, it’s unmistakable. I direct my torch at the hedgehog to encourage it to stay put, but I’ve got no idea what to do. One of the other volunteers spots me and goes to get Nigel. I’m left waiting alone in the dark, worried the hedgehog will scuttle off.
After what feels like ages, the rest of the group join me. Nigel gently picks up the hedgehog. We record the animal’s sex, measure it and weigh it by popping it in a tote bag and hanging it off one of those portable luggage scales. This one is a baby.
As if this wasn’t already an unusual way to spend a Friday night, just at this moment ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ starts blaring out of the park’s Open Air Theatre. It’s a ridiculous setup. But this is serious business. Once we’ve filled in the paperwork, we have to phone Hedgehog HQ to report our findings. It’s like a military operation, except with cute woodland animals.
My hedgehog education continues when we come across an adult one. Nigel announces it’s ‘very obviously a male’, noting that his ‘large testes’ mean he’s very sexually active. That’s good news for the dwindling population, I guess. I decide to have a go at picking it up. ‘Will I need gloves?’ I ask. It’s a silly question. Those spikes are no joke. I don a pair and tentatively reach for the balled-up animal, just as Nigel tells the group that it’s riddled with fleas. It’s too late to back out, but when I overhear him tell a volunteer that a shower should get rid of them, I make a mental note.
We wrap up our search at midnight and head back to HQ with 33 hedgehogs logged. To me, things are looking positive, but Nigel isn’t getting excited. The Regent’s Park population will be considered vulnerable until it gets to more than 100 hedgehogs, so there’s a way to go. ‘We’re hopeful that this signals a recovery,’ he says,
‘but we can’t be sure that it’s going to be the saving of the population.’
Moreover, the path ahead looks even tougher for the hedgehogs. Their habitat is under threat from high-speed rail development HS2, which plans to use neighbouring ZSL London Zoo’s car park as a lorry-holding area. The zoo’s petition to protect the area was overruled. ZSL is hoping to work with HS2 to minimise risks to the hedgehogs, but it’s sadly another example of how the vulnerable population is being put at risk in the capital.
I head home happy to have done my bit for the critters. I’m ready to flop into bed – but not before a quick shower. While hedgehogs are totally adorable, there’s nothing cute about fleas.
Photos: Penny Dixie