News / City Life

Meet the man saving London’s hedgehogs one hole at a time

Michel Birkenwald Hedgehog man
Andy Parsons

After discovering the plight of urban hedgehogs, Michel Birkenwald swore to protect the spiny creatures of Barnes – with the help of a drill called The Beast...

A few years ago, my wife heard our border terrier, Louis, barking in the garden behind our home in south-west London. Louis had a hedgehog toy – and out in the garden, he’d found a real one.

I didn’t know much about hedgehogs. I don’t have any background in zoology or ecology: I’m 62, and I’ve spent my career in the jewellery trade. All I knew was that I’d sometimes seen them squashed on the road after being hit by cars. But I started reading about them and learned that millions of them had died. They need to travel at night to forage for food and find mates, but our alleyways and green spaces are so disconnected that they have a hard time getting around.

I asked my next-door neighbour if I could make a hole through the fence. Then I made one through to the back alley. I approached the next neighbour, and produced some leaflets. Eventually I got a little more professional and started Barnes Hedgehogs.

A lot of the walls around London are Victorian, from about 1880 or 1890, and made of brick. Some even have two layers of brick, with a lot of mortar in between. Drilling through it can take up to an hour, depending on how damp it is. I asked Robin Glass, who does electrical work and general maintenance on my house, if he had any tools I could use. He had a drill with a diamond-and-carbon bit. It can cut through anything. We call it The Beast.

Now we offer free drilling days – on Sundays, because I work during the week – and I take bookings, like restaurant reservations. We must have drilled more than 100 holes last year. It gets very dirty. Releasing dust from the 1890s feels a bit like going into a time warp.

Hedgehogs are goofy; they’re like puppy dogs. When they’re really little, they run around the garden like maniacs. A lot of people are sentimental about them: they feed them wet cat food or hedgehog crunchies, which look a bit like muesli, and give them shelter or water. But I also meet some resistance.

People will often talk about hedgehogs in a very Disneyland way: “Let’s dig some tunnels; they’re so cute.” But the reason why they’re in trouble is that people can be very selfish. Many people use rat poison, slug pellets or plastic grass in their yards or gardens. Sometimes there’s just a lack of understanding. We once thought milk and bread were good for hedgehogs, but now we know they’re lactose-sensitive.

I don’t want any money – what I want is to spread the word and to drill. I spend about £5,000 or £6,000 a year paying Robin for labour, and printing leaflets, coffee mugs and T-shirts. Our MP, Zac Goldsmith, donated some money and I drilled holes in his wall. Eventually I might move away, so it’s slowly getting to the point where this has to be a community thing. Maybe the council could offer free drilling sessions, or it could become a charity.

Indirectly, these hedgehogs are contributing to my mental health. Drilling the holes is such a nice contrast to my other work. If I can give a hedgehog a good summer, that’s wonderful.

Interview by Jessica Leigh Hester

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