I zip up my coat and open the back door. I close the door quietly behind me so as not to wake the rest of the household. The full moon shines brightly out of the clear sky, washing the garden with silver light. There’s a wonderful hush over everything. Even the occasional car driving along the main road at the bottom of the hill seems muted. With the brilliance of the moon and the orange glow of the streetlamps, only a handful of the brightest stars are visible. I know that there are many more that I cannot see, scattered across the vast sky.
I sit down on the doorstep, lean my head back and close my eyes. I have no concern that I’ll fall asleep out here. If only I could sleep then I wouldn’t be out here observing these secret hours of early morning that few witness, only the insomniacs, the night workers, a few midweek partiers.
A snuffling noise breaks the peace of the moment and I force my eyes open. I am briefly gripped by an ancient panic of being alone in the dark with unseen creatures but my limbs are too heavy for me to push to my feet. It sounds as if a herd of boar are rummaging through the bushes. I hold my breath.
A creature no longer than my forearm trots out of the hedge on short legs and crosses the moon-washed lawn. Its pointed snout snuffles through the grass. The pale tips of the spines which cover its body wave boldly with its movement.
The hedgehog pauses, lifts its nose and looks directly at me.
This creature of the night recognises another nocturnal being. We watch each other for a long moment, the small black eyes and twitching whiskers regarding me with curiosity.
The screaming bark of a fox shatters the moment and the hedgehog trots off, moving remarkably fast for so small a creature.
Lying awake in bed at 3am the following morning, I think about the hedgehog, about what I learned browsing the internet during my lunchbreak. I slip out from under the duvet, careful not to disturb the bed’s other occupant. I step out of the back door, carrying the cat’s bowl. We have one of those fussy cats which often does not eat all of their food. I place the bowl down at the edge of the lawn and sit on the doorstep. Although I wait until dawn’s light floods the sky with rosy peaches, I do not see the hedgehog.
Lying awake at 4am the following morning, I think about the conversation I had with my neighbours, about the holes I’ve cut in the bottom of our fences. I think about the messy corner of the garden that I’ve always felt guilty about being too tired to tidy up, with its overgrown grass and pile of rotting wood, exactly the sort of place that hedgehogs like.
It’s past bedtime the following evening when I sit down on the back doorstep next to my eldest. The youngest is in bed but the eldest insisted on staying up until dark for the chance to see the hedgehog that I haven’t been able to stop talking about for the past few days.
There’s a saucer of fresh cat food on the edge of the lawn. The night sky is overcast, the clouds creating a strange orange reflection of the streetlamps. We sit in comfortable silence, listening to the traffic on the main road, the barking of a dog, the scream of a fox, the soft hoot of an owl.
Then we hear a rustling and we hold our breath in anticipation.
The hedgehog steps boldly out of the bushes, on to the lawn, nose twitching. It’s wary of the cat’s food, approaching hesitantly, sidling closer then turning away. We sit patiently, watching the hedgehog roam around the lawn.
On the far side, the first is joined by another. The hedgehogs sniff each other, spines bristling. For a long moment, they are stationary, eyeing each other. Then they turn and trot across the lawn to the cat food. They lower their heads in unison and start to eat. My eldest grins, delighted that our offering has been accepted. The first hedgehog looks up at us, regarding us with gratitude, or so I like to imagine.
As soon as they finish eating, the hedgehogs walk off and disappear through the gap in the fence. We stand up and go into the house to sleep.
Appropriately enough, I wrote this story at 3am when I couldn’t sleep, with the light of the full moon shining across my desk, with that wonderful early-hours-of-the-morning hush blanketing the mundane, distracting, daylight thoughts and tasks.
Hedgehog numbers are in decline in the UK. You can help by leaving overgrown areas in your garden, as well as log and leaf piles, or you can build them a hedgehog house for hibernation and for raising their hoglets. You could consider providing fresh water and wet cat food or specialist hedgehog food. They eat slugs and snails so can be useful to gardeners, just don’t use pesticides. You can also cut holes in your fence to help hedgehogs roam freely.
Links to further information
https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/animals/mammals/hedgehog/ The Woodland Trust info on hedgehogs.
https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/mammals/european-hedgehog The Wildlife Trusts info on hedgehogs.