By Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

WELL into April and sunset already past 8.00pm, and yet it’s difficult to tell whether it’s Spring or still winter. I’ve decided it’s Spring: blossom on our damson tree, lots of new green leaf on the fruit bushes and reports of summer migrant birds arriving. Already chiffchaff, that early and very vocal visitor, is here in Ilkley, and a friend reported seeing sand martins and, surprisingly, swallows up at Gouthwaite. He has also heard a blackcap singing nearer to home. There was even a report of a cuckoo heard in Herefordshire –probably rather regretting its early arrival. Our Ilkley Moor birds usually arrive around 23rd April.

All this is very delightful but, for me, the best moment was when, on March 15th, I looked out of our kitchen door and saw a hedgehog trundling around the lawn. Yes – they’re back! And in numbers too – I’ve twice seen four together since then – and the trail camera has picked up a stream of visitors through the hours of darkness. Of course, I now put food out for them, peanut butter sandwich cut small, peanuts and a sprinkling of commercially bought hedgehog food, and this causes a problem which is interesting to study.

Apart from courtship or when a female has small young, hedgehogs are solitary, you could almost say, surly creatures. In the wild they generally tactfully avoid each other although several hogs may share the same range. My feeding station lures them into a proximity which is not comfortable for them. Individuals differ in their tolerance levels, for reasons of sex, age, genetic relationship or perhaps, like us, just basic character! Often two or three animals feed at the same time quite peaceably, though practicing social distancing in a way we well might emulate. At others, an animal will either get agitated and scuttle off or get belligerent and charge, barging its neighbour as far away as possible. More investigation needed here!

On one memorable evening four animals were present – one keeping distance and just interested in food, a couple beginning the early stages of courtship and a rival male hanging about hoping for a slice of the action. Hedgehog courtship is a protracted business. Between two such antisocial and prickly characters, cooperation is essential. The male slowly circles the female making what I take to be soothing noises while she rotates on the spot keeping her head towards him. This can go on for hours and at any point the pair may lose interest and scuttle off, as, indeed, happened on this occasion. So, no hoglets from that encounter.