I like to think there is a reciprocal relationship between my conservation work and my paintings – I do a creature a good turn and it helps me out by posing for its portrait. Never was this truer than when I painted this hedgehog - the limited edition print will be on show alongside a new collection of paintings of endangered species at my gallery between November 7th-29th.
Up until then, I had never painted this prickly creature since it’s was subject that I considered a bit ‘twee.’ In fact I have to confess to habitually letting out a great groan when I saw it topping the surveys of Britain’s favourite mammal or when someone asks me to paint one. But then I found to my horror that I had trapped a young hedgehog in a rat trap in my garden. My subsequent efforts to rescue this helpless animal made me see the species in a whole different light.
Fortunately, the hoglet was not injured but I was worried about letting it go since it was so small and I didn’t think it would make it through the fast-approaching winter. I scooped up the bristly handful and took it inside to weigh it on the kitchen scales - it weighed a mere 280g. Thankfully my wife said nothing when she saw it in her clean stainless steel weighing bowls.
Ideally a hedgehog needs to weigh closer to 600g before it is ‘safe’ to go into hibernation as it relies on fat reserves to stay alive during the long winter. This little one would need some special attention to help it through the coldest part of the year so I put it in the porch in a pen designed for a puppy and fed it a can of cat food until I had time to think of a longer term solution.
The next day I began converting an overgrown, fenced section of my vegetable patch for it and made a wooden hedgehog house in one corner which I filled with hay. That evening I found a second young hedgehog in the garden. This one was slightly bulkier, weighing 300g, but again it was only at half its target hibernation weight. I suspected they were siblings, the first being a female and the second its brother.
The hedgehogs seemed to relish the warmth of my farmhouse and regular food. They were so cute I couldn’t resist taking a couple of photographs of them and posting a snap of them on my Facebook page. The photographs caused quite a stir – hedgehogs really seem to capture the public’s imagination – and before the day was out a friend rang to say she had also found a very small hedgehog in her neighbour’s garden. It had been wandering around disorientated and squeaking and, at just 120 grams, was even lighter than my two charges. She brought it across to the gallery straightaway. I was taken aback by how tiny it was - it fitted into the palm of my hand.
And it was cold: a bad sign. To keep it warm, my friend had put a hot water bottle in the box she had brought it to me in. I noticed that even the fleas and lice, which are so common in hedgehogs, had given it up for dead and were lurking on the hot water bottle instead. Unlike my two protégés, I knew it would be touch and go for this little character. I warmed it up gradually in my cupped hands and then put the box in the freezer to kill off the fleas, hoping that my wife wouldn’t notice. Hedgehogs on the kitchen scales were one thing but fleas in the freezer might just be a step too far.
After some invaluable advice from an animal rescue care centre in Malton, run by my very knowledgeable and trusted friend Jean Thorpe, I syringed some warm water with critical care formula into the corner of the hoglet’s mouth followed by a paste of Spikes hedgehog food and crushed mealworms. It swallowed this down feebly.
I kept up the tiny feeds for the rest of the day, little and often. As night advanced, I began to worry about how I was going to keep the tiny creature warm. It was a fine balance: too cold and it would die, too hot and it would become dehydrated and overheat. After trying to come up with all sorts of ideas to try to regulate various artificial sources of heat, it suddenly occurred to me that I could leave this part up to nature. I put all three hedgehogs together into a small cardboard box filled with hay and let the two siblings to share their warmth with the weaker one.
The following day, I woke early and rushed downstairs to see how they had fared. I plunged my hand enthusiastically into the hay – only to withdraw it instantly as the sharp spines stabbed my fingertips. Feeling a little foolish I went off to find some gardening gloves and then carefully parted the hay. There was the little hedgehog: alive, well and warm; snuggled in between the other two.
After three nights of sleeping huddled together like this the larger two were ready to go outside, but I decided to keep them until the littlest hoglet was stronger. They ended up staying inside for just over a week.But I noticed that during feeding time, the smallest hedgehog was starting to get pushed around by the others, so I began to take him out to eat on his own. At this time I had my mum and dad over to stay and one evening, as I sat in an armchair absently stroking the littlest hoglet as it lay asleep in the crook of my arm, my dad looked at my mum and said ‘I’m getting a bit worried about our Bob – I think he’s fallen for a hedgehog.”
It was true, there I was – a 6ft 2 inch beef farmer’s son - grown fond of a tiny little bundle of spikes. It was time to make this relationship formal. A great deal of my paintings are actually portraits of wild animals or birds that I know well and I decided it was time to get this little creature posing for me in a professional capacity. He was soon large enough to fend for himself so I put all three out in the pen in the vegetable patch and got busy with my camera.
I habituated them to the outside world on a series of short ‘photo shoots.’ I selected my backdrops carefully, letting them wander through a woodland set, over a series of branches, traverse a particularly attractive leafy glade and curl up in some fetching autumn leaves until I was happy with a few composition ideas and ready to start work at the easel.
Soon the weather turned really cold, so I put them inside my log store behind the gallery and fed them on dry cat food. They only came out sporadically now and other food could go off. As soon as the worst of the winter weather passed I put them back in the outside pen – but with such a cold spring I kept them longer than I expected releasing them back into the countryside in the beginning of May. By that time I had been busy in my studio working on their portraits.
Hedgehogs are endangered. Don't miss my exhibition of paintings of animals that need your help. Saving Nature opens on Saturday November 7th and is open daily at my gallery in Thixendale until Nov 29th. See my latest paintings, limited edition prints, photographs, video and pick up tips on what you can do to help your favourite species survive. There are a number of nature walks and kids wildlife events to book on to too. Click here to see my website for times and prices.