My earliest memories of hedgehogs are of dead hedgehogs- like most people’s, I guess: flattened brown shapes, fleshy pink at the edges, decorating the dusty tarmac of suburban roads. Yet despite these tragi-comic deaths, the creatures maintained their air of wonder and mystery, and each of my few encounters with a living hedgehog has been memorable in its way.
There were those vague shapes in our garden at night shuffling their way to the bread and milk we had left out for them (apparently we shouldn’t have, for it plays havoc with their digestion, though back then we thought it nutritious hedgehog fare). There was the one I saw on a bank in Jesmond Dene and picked up only to find it crawling with ticks and fleas. And, one sunny spring, the whole family of hedgehogs that colonised the space underneath our ramshackle garden shed, wandering around our garden freely, unconcerned by our cats, who could never quite work out what to do about them. The following spring they were gone.
It was recently reported that hedgehog numbers in the UK have dropped, precipitously, I think the word was. It is certainly noticeable that there are fewer flattened hedgehogs to be spotted these days, never mind living ones. Conservationists think there are a number of factors, the ever- increasing road traffic being just one. Another major factor is the increased efficiency of land use in both farms and gardens: hedgehogs like hedgerows, piles of wood, ramshackle sheds and dead trees; they can crawl under wooden fences, but not through mesh wire; they live at the edges of human environments, but only given that those edges are benignly neglected.
Back in John Clare’s day, hedgehogs faced a rather different set of problems, though still problems rooted in their relationship with the humans they shared their land with:
The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree
And many often stops and say they see
Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs
And creep away and where the magpie dabs
His wing at muddy dyke in aged root
He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit
On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
And whistles like a cricket as he goes
It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog
When gipseys hunt it with their noisey dogs
I’ve seen it in their camps they call it sweet
Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat
But they who hunt the field for rotten meat
And wash in muddy dyke and call it sweet
And eat what dogs refuse wheree’er they dwell
Care little either for the taste or smell
They say they milk the cows and when they lye
Nibble their fleshy teats and make them dry
But they who’ve seen the small head like a hog
Rolled up to meet the savage of a dog
With mouth scarce big enough to hold a straw
Will ne’er believe what no none ever saw
But still they hunt the hedges all about
And shepherd dogs are trained to hunt them out
They hurl with savage force the stick and stone
And no one cares and still the strife goes on
Clare is a great observer of nature, but this poem is as much a record of the fictions surrounding the hedgehog as of its real life. ‘Many say they see’ the hedgehog roll on the ground to pick up sloe-berries and crab apples on its prickles – a totally imaginary function of the hedgehog’s prickles, and one that owes more to the practical-minded thoughts of rural folk than the actual habits of the earth-worm and beetle munching hedgehog. Then there is the rather grotesque fiction that hedgehogs would suck the teats of sleeping cows thus robbing us of our milk. This mistaken association between hedgehogs and milk perhaps explains why, up to the 80s (when we found out it played havoc with their digestive systems), we would leave it in dishes for them in our gardens. But in Clare’s time, this had more perilous consequences, with ‘they who hunt the field’ (this refers to the gypsies mentioned in the previous stanza) sending their dogs after them.
Clare counters this fiction with the observation that the hedgehog’s mouth is ‘scarce big enough to hold a straw’, and yet the gypsies – and shepherds too, it seems- are determined to keep on persecuting the creatures: ‘and still’ he ends his poem ‘the strife goes on’. This is one of the danker and dirtier of Clare’s nature poems, and more savage too, full of mud and dirt and conflict. But there is always, in Clare’s poetry, a sympathy with his subjects, and a particular identification with the persecuted.
It should be noted that, although they are the villains of this piece, Clare also held a great affinity with the gypsies who camped in the woods in his native Northamptonshire. The poem shows how intimate he is with their ways of life and their beliefs, though he shares neither. It was to their camp that he fled upon escaping from his confinement in an insane asylum in the latter, unhappier part of his life. This poem, though from an earlier part of his life, foreshadows this unhappiness. The closing line may lament the fate of the hedgehog, but it seems to strike a more general lament too – at the intransigence of belief, the cruelty of custom and the harshness and violence that seems to be innate in the world.