Friday, July 31, 2009

A vanishing world

A dead hedgehog in the lane in front of the house, Erinaceus europaeus. A bit of a surprise. Haven't seen a hedgehog hereabouts for twenty years. Thirty years ago they were common. Readers of Honey From Stone may recall my midnight encounter with a hedgehog on the high road from Dingle:
It comes scuttling out of the ditch, a small, tottering shadow, and stops dead just at my feet...I snap on my flashlight and get down upon my knees. The hedgehog, sensing my attention, curls up into a ball. It is the size of my closed fist, more like a sea urchin than a mammal. I examine it it in my light...using my flashlight as a prod. It rolls onto its spines, as ridge as a cradle, the moist snout snugly pressed against the fleshy belly. The soft pads of the paws are as bright as opals. The hedgehogs eyes are closed...I know that if the eyes open they well be overbrimming with terror, spilling over with an inarticulate prayer...The hedgehog lives all its life in a crown of thorns.
So where did they go? The hedgehog's natural predators are the badger and the fox. We still see a very occasional fox, but the badgers are gone. I suspect the automobile is now the hedgehog's chief enemy; the number of cars in West Kerry has increased by a hundredfold in the past twenty years. A more likely cause of the hedgehog's decline is the scarity of its own prey -- insects, slugs, earthworms, snails. The hedgehogs began disappearing at about the time local farmers turned to monoculture, grubbing out hedgerows, leaving no fields fallow, soaking the ground with nitrates. The wild food chain collapsed from the bottom up.

We caught the former way of life just at the end. Thirty years ago, our lane was a dirt track, with a rare automobile. Farmers rotated crops and animals from field to field, and harvested hay with a scythe and pike, fueled with a flask of hot tea in the shade of a hedgerow. We listened for the sound of the corncrake and the cuckoo. Stoats darted from ditch to ditch and badgers scared us out of our wits when they suddenly appeared in the dark bothareen as we trudged up the hill from the pub at night. The road and the garden teemed with slugs and snails. Foxes were sometimes bold enough to stare in the window. And hedgehogs, shuffling and snuffing in the midnight lanes. Gone now, mostly gone. Which is why that poor smushed creature in the road gave a sort of melancholy joy.

(The hedgehog linocut is by my friend Bob O'Cathail.)