SUE and Ken Lewis spotted a stray baby hedgehog – the size of a tennis ball – in the middle of the road on a brisk December day.
The couple sought help and were advised to take in the vulnerable hoglet for it to have any chance of survival during a tricky winter period, before returning it to the wild when the temperature became mild once again.
That was in 1991.
What started out as a rescue mission for a hedgehog in danger has now become a way of life for the pair.
In a residential area of Rochdale stands ‘Hog House’ – Rochdale’s hedgehog sanctuary which has never turned a hedgehog away from its doors.
As hedgehog figurines lined the steep driveway visitors are presented with two doors; the front door and a second door labelled specifically for hedgehog enquires.
“I never really answer the main door anymore,” 64-year-old Sue admitted.
“I’m always in here tending to the animals.”
“This year the autumn has been exceptionally mild and the hedgehogs have bred for a second time and ultimately they’ve been caught out. It’s now exceptionally cold and the mothers have abandoned the babies to hibernate”
Hedgehog rescue centers like Hog House have had a significant amount of strain placed upon them as of late– the mild autumn season has led to an increase in winter hoglets.
Having almost doubled their intake from last year’s winter, Sue went on to explain what she believes is behind the ‘chaotic’ few weeks and months of new arrivals.
“We no longer have four defined seasons of what to expect,” she said.
“We get the same thing all year round and we should be relatively quiet at this time of year but we are overrun with babies at the moment.
“In a year like this there are two things happening: there are a lot of late juveniles and the mothers that have raised those juveniles aren’t ready for hibernation.”
According to the RSPCA, 30 per cent of the hedgehog population has been lost between 2002 to 2013 through loss of habitat and poor levels of care – citing those who see the animal as a suitable pet.
Voted 2016s ‘Mammal of the Year’, the animal has become fabled for its prevalence in the novel series Beatrix Potter and is seen as a particularly well-known member of the British wildlife family.
But Sue was quick to warn those who may consider taking in, and caring for, a vulnerable hedgehog they come across.
“I think you should certainly talk to a carer,” she added.
“Each individual case is different but you need to confine the hedgehog and then speak to someone before a decision can be made.
“If it’s got an injury or a parasite it can change very quickly and a lot of people make them very tame treating them as pets and you just can’t do that, you’ve got to get them back to the wild.
Sue noted: “You see them on all these adverts but they aren’t all that cute trust me!”
What was glaringly obvious was the frequency and care given to new arrivals as “the phone never stops ringing”. Midway through the interview, the landline began to chime again.
It was a baby male hoglet that had been found by a local resident and they came to Sue without hesitation, knowing the much-needed care and attention he would receive.
To an untrained eye the latest arrival seemed similar to many others being housed, but to Sue this was an arrival that would simply not have survived if it wasn’t in care.
He weighs 340 grams and right now he should be around the 600 mark so he’s well off and I can actually feel his rib-cage which I shouldn’t be able to do really.
But with a major dearth in wildlife education, the key question surrounded how a regular citizen should approach a situation whereby a hedgehog is in danger or distress.
To demonstrate, I was encouraged to put Sue’s instructions into practice with one of the many hoglets which provided an even greater degree of realism to proceedings.
Unsurprisingly prickly to the touch, retreating into a ball – a manoeuvre that can occur quicker than a human blink – the hoglet’s behaviour was natural, rather than defensive.
Sue cited as a wider issue with hedgehogs; children, she said, are far more receptive than the adults around them when it comes to animals in danger.
“People find what they think is a distressed hedgehog or an injured hedgehog and come away from it to make the phone call,” she explained.
“The chances are if someone comes in and says they’ve seen a hedgehog in the park dragging its back leg they’ll go back and the hedgehog will be gone.
“We can always put it back but if you miss the opportunity we can’t do anything about that.”
Wildlife is a focus area that often renders little political attention, and would be very much worse off were it not for the passion and persistence of Conservative backbencher Oliver Colvile, a keen campaigner on hedgehog conservation.
His campaign to see the hedgehog usurp the lion as the national symbol for the United Kingdom is something that was welcomed by Sue as she opened up about meeting the passionate Mr Colvile recently.
But while the work of Colvile will make national publications, it is the sheer effort daily from people like Sue that are the bedrock of any well-functioning community.
The impromptu call from a local resident indicated quite clearly the high-regard in which Hog House is held after 25 years of conservation commitment.
The old adage that everything happens for a reason could well be the answer as to why it was the Lewis’s that came across that vulnerable hedgehog back in 1991.
Without their open door policy, it is unimaginable just how many hedgehogs may not have lived until the next litter.
If you have concern for a hedgehog you come across then you can contact Hog House on 01706860904.