“D’ye want to see what I have in me bag here?” asked the tinker.

Frightened, I shook my head. “Of course you do,” he grinned, opening the sack.

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I shall never forget my first experience of hedgehog husbandry. Nine years old, a solitary child out foraging in the woods, I met a tall, thin man in a leather cap and an ex-Army greatcoat, a hessian sack gripped tight in his left hand while he carefully combed the undergrowth with his right. He had wild, reddish brown hair and even wilder whiskers, so I knew him right away for one of those folk my parents referred to as “tinkers” – and, like me, he was clearly searching for something. It was a weekday, the woods were deserted, the nearby farm road quiet – and he was probably glad of that, for nobody of his tribe ever had much to be grateful for in their dealings with housebound folk. Still, seeing me coming, and sensing an opportunity for some fun, he immediately bade me good morning.

I didn’t want to speak, but I knew I had to be polite – and of course, I was dying to know what was in the sack. He studied my face, his expression good-humoured, his eyes bright. “D’ye want to see what I have in me bag here?” he asked, his smile as much a challenge as a show of innocence.

I shook my head. He laughed. “Of course you do,” he said, hoisting the sack and opening it slightly. “Come on. They won’t bite you.” I wanted to hurry away, but I couldn’t. Part of me was afraid to look because I was certain, now, that something was alive in there. But my curiosity was larger than my fear. Besides, I was reluctant to offend the man – so I walked slowly over to where he stood, and looked into the sack.

The “bag” contained four hedgehogs, the plump sand-and-silver bodies newly unfurled and treading air in the hoisted sack like novice acrobats. I was confused, because I did not understand what use a grown man might have for such a thing. Until I met that tinker, I had imagined that hedgehogs were invincible to all but the cleverest and most persistent foxes (and badgers, because badgers, I knew, could eat anything). So at that moment, when I realised what was happening, I felt my eyes brim with tears and I wanted to punch the tinker, hard, then grab his sack and run for it, scattering the newly liberated hedgehogs in my trail. Instead, I just stared. Afterwards, I learned from a neighbour how hedgehogs were cooked, the live balls of spine and flesh encased in clay and baked so that, when the casing was cracked open, the spines came away cleanly, leaving the cooked meat intact.

I don’t know if hungry people still comb the woods and headlands for such wild fodder, but if they do, the pickings are probably slim, for nowadays the common hedgehog is frighteningly scarce. In a report for the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, David Wembridge estimates that, while “hedgehogs were once abundant throughout Britain, with an estimated population of perhaps 30 million in the 1950s”, that number has now fallen to around one million, and the decline is set to continue for all the usual reasons: irresponsible pesticide use, destruction of hedgerows and permanent pasture and, perhaps most significantly, loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by new roads, housing and other developments.

Now, looking back, I feel ashamed of how I judged that man in the hungry Sixties. He didn’t eat all the hedgehogs, just took a few, when he had no other recourse. The men who do the real damage, the respected agribusiness and development entrepreneurs, probably dine on truffles and Beluga caviar.

This article appears in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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