Interview with Pam Ayres: Helping the hedgehog
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Poet Pam Ayres is well known for her deep love of animals. Which is why, in her latest book, she’s turning her attention to a particularly prickly subject: the plight of the British hedgehog
I’m perched on a sofa in Pam Ayres’s rather lovely Georgian home – magnificent pheasant pecking in walled garden; busy birds twittering in cedar - waiting in anticipation for a private, mini-performance all to myself.
“Just getting ready,” Pam calls from somewhere off-stage.
“Now this is it! Your big moment!” she coaches, as she enters with Izzy, the Jack Russell, trotting at her heels.
Could be the pressure of an audience. Could be the marshmallow effect. (Pam is holding a treat.)
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But, hard as it is to admit, Izzy blows it. She executes a perfect barrel roll (yes, OK, agreed); but before the actual command is given.
“Argh! You’ve done it too soon!” cries Pam, whose own performances – including one-woman shows in front of thousands at Sydney Opera House – have never been stymied by premature barrel rolls.
Truth be known, lucky Izzy (who nails it on third attempt) has fallen on all 16 pads. Found wandering sad streets as a homeless puppy, she was scooped up by Cheltenham Animal Shelter, before going straight to the top: adopted by the charity’s very own patron, Pam. Sheer poetry.
If you know anything about Pam Ayres (beyond the fact that she wishes she’d looked after her teeth), you’ll know she’s potty about animals. In her last home, where the family lived for nigh on three decades, she kept Dexter cattle, Cotswold sheep, a couple of Old Spots, numerous rescued battery hens, a hive of bees, and a great gang of gabbling guinea fowl she’d bred herself.
“It was very, very hard to leave,” she admits. “I was born and brought up in a council house in Stanford in the Vale, where we were always being told to ‘Get arrff my land!’ One particular farmer would snarl as if you were vermin. So to find myself in a position where I had that house and 20 acres – four fields and a pond and a little wood - was paradise to me.”
But Pam and Dudley’s two sons are grown, with families of their own; and Dudley kept nudging ‘for sale’ brochures gently under her nose. Then, two years ago, she herself saw this house on the market; in the heart of a village outside Cirencester, with a real pub and the bubbling sound of children playing in the local school.
And she realised she could be happy here.
In the garden outside the French windows of the huge kitchen/sitting room, the pheasant (“He comes here because he doesn’t get shot!”) has been joined by numerous colleagues, including a puff-breasted robin. Yesterday, there was a long-tailed tit – “A lovely bird with a pinky face; they’re just pairing up now; usually go round in great big throngs” – and a rarer brambling.
“I’ve had a goldcrest, which is tiny – weights about the same as a 20p – and a treecreeper going up that cedar, with a long, curved beak for hooking spiders out of crannies.”
But the visitor who really sealed the emotional deal – who helped a house become a home – popped out on the night Pam and Dudley moved in.
Pam had been releasing rescued hedgehogs at her old house for years. Thought those days were gone.
“So this was like a sign from God,” she laughs. “It was amazing. It was in the front garden and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought it was a mirage.
“I said to myself: the only way that hedgehog is going to get in and out of the garden is to come along the road, which was an awful thought. So I went to see my neighbours and said, ‘Please can I put a hole through our wall?’ And they said yes.
“So that’s what I’ve done. By going through the hole, the hedgehogs have got access to a big area of fields. They now come backwards and forwards as they please.”
The starting-point, as far as she can remember, was way back in Stanford in the Vale, home of sticky burred hedgerow and thickly burred accent. Back in pre-Opportunity Knocks days when Pam Ayres still toiled as a secretary at Smiths Industries in Witney.
“I was about 22 and I used to drive to work past a particular wood called Hartford Warren. Every morning, there would be a ‘litter’ of dead hedgehogs along the road that ran alongside. They just looked like litter – great brown lumps of hedgehog that had been run over the previous night.
“I thought it was terribly sad; but I didn’t think it was a serious threat to hedgehogs because there were so many.”
She penned them a verse – In Defence of Hedgehogs – composed with her usual comic bent:
It is statistically proven
In chapter and in verse
That in a car and hedgehog fight
The hedgehog comes off worse.
That was back in the early 70s, when you couldn’t go out at night without tripping over a Mrs Tiggy-Winkle or two. “I don’t use that poem any more now because it’s flippant in tone,” she says.
Instead, she decided last year to have a second go at the subject. The result is The Last Hedgehog, a stunning book of utter poignancy, illustrated by Bath artist Alice Tait.
Farewell, farewell, for what it’s worth
From the final hedgehog left on earth.
It’s not a children’s book, despite its delightful appearance; for the message – though delivered with humour – is a serious, factual one. While Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggy-Winkle takes tea and launders clothes for other animals, Pam’s hedgehogs face unromantic, brutal dangers: burnt on bonfires; stabbed by garden forks on compost heaps; drowned in swimming pools; and strimmed.
“Strimmers are the worst. People just ram strimmers into clumps of grass and undergrowth and realise, afterwards, that there’s a hedgehog in there that’s had its legs cut off.
“And there’s a big problem for them with loss of habitat, because farms are no longer a muddle. There aren’t hayricks and there aren’t old ploughs standing around with undergrowth growing all over them. There aren’t the nooks and crannies in modern farms that there used to be. There’s a lovely movement to increase habitats – one farmer I was talking to has planted strips of wildflower – but, generally, the little cosy fields with tall hedges are no longer around.
“And then there’s the ever-increasing traffic: so many hedgehogs get run over. They eat creatures poisoned by slug pellets; they are attacked by badgers and foxes who have claws long enough to open them up. They fall into ponds.
“Once people know that I’m interested in hedgehogs, they constantly tell me they can’t remember the last time they saw one. And that’s sad because these are very characterful animals. They are benevolent – they don’t do any harm, unless you’re a gamekeeper trying to preserve pheasant eggs; in which case they do come and snaffle them.
“But, for the most part, they are a very benign little animal. They are the gardener’s friend: they eat the slugs - though they do prefer earthworms.”
On Pam’s garden, there’s not a trace of pesticide or weedkiller. Walk out on a warm, damp evening, and the lawn is a lattice of earthworms. One where hedgehogs can do hedgehog things in peace.
Down the road from Pam, in Cricklade, the Oak and Furrows rescue centre is busy nursing all sorts of wildlife back to health. There’s a tiny muntjac – AKA a barking deer – doves, a red kite, wild rabbits, baby leverets… and a whole menagerie of other species needing succour today.
We’re here to take photos with Pam, for this is another organisation of which she patron, as well as being an active hedgehog re’houser’.
Any hedgehogs at Oak and Furrows today?
Serena Stevens, the centre’s founder and dedicated head carer, grins. “Only 166, at the moment,” she says.
“167,” someone calls out.
Serena digs into a comfy box lined with shredded newspaper to introduce us to one of them. Has he got a name?
“Smoothie,” Pam decides on the spot, picking him gently up, his spines swaddled in a protective towel.
“He’s being friendly,” Serena says. “He’s flat, at the moment, but his spikes are very sharp.”
Daytime isn’t really his thing, though he’s showing an interest – pointed nose snuffling; only occasionally looking to curl up into a protective ball. He came in as an autumn baby, weighing a starving, dehydrated 383g. Thanks to a diet of cat food and chicken – among other delicacies – he’s now a whopping 800g.
Smoothie’s hedgehog problem is a common one. “Their clocks are up the spout these days, thanks to the [milder] weather,” Serena explains. “As a result, they’re being born later and later. He was found wandering in the daytime, desperately looking for food. He knew he hadn’t got enough fat reserves to hibernate all through the winter.”
These late babies all struggle for food. “And the last few years, hedgehogs have been having later and later litters.”
That’s far from the only problem, of course. Charles Pope, the charity’s CEO, is particularly worried about rubbish that’s strewn around the countryside. Swans tied up in nets; animals cut on tin cans; iniquitous plastic.
“It delights me that people, at last, are highlighting the dangers of plastic,” he says. He lives opposite a copse in Swindon, “Twice a week, my wife and I go out, as volunteers, to collect the plastic and the tins and the garbage that is everywhere. It causes such harm… Dangerous world.”
When Pam won Celebrity Mastermind last year, she gave her £3,000 winnings to Oak and Furrows; a contribution towards the £20,000 a month they need to nurse hundreds of wild animals each year – and the number is growing.
Smoothie is back in his box, asleep. He’ll be released, when the time is right. Maybe into Pam’s garden; maybe to try cautiously for his own new brood of little hogs.
Back in Pam’s garden, we’re looking at the hellebores she’s just planted – one with its white-on-the-outside, purple spotch-on-the-inside, five-pointed flowers; the other with pink blooms like a ballet dancer’s tutu.
“I’m not planting anything that isn’t good for pollination; that doesn’t produce nectar or pollen or is a good nest site,” she says.
“You’ll have to restrain me – I’m a bit of a bore on this subject – but bees need early pollen, especially big queen bumblebees who have hibernated on their own through the winter.”
Hellebores produce that early feed, as well as the clematis she’s just bought: Jingle Bells, with its big, white fragrant bell-flower; and Freckles, which both bloom through the winter.
“The thing everybody can plant is pyracantha, which has lots of blossom, as well as berries that feed blackbirds in particular. It’s a good nest site and it thrives anywhere. You can get it for three or four quid in the garden centre.”
This is one side to Pam Ayres’s life. There are others. Her four grandchildren under five years old, in whom she delights. And her continued performances – which still bring her great pleasure.
“I love it. I love to write and see what I can come up with. It’s thrilling if you draw out of that vacuum something hilarious that is going to make hundreds of people fall about laughing.”
In fact, at nearly 71 (and genuinely looking nothing like it), she’s busier than ever. She’s got a line-up of performances of her one-woman show; numerous festivals and events she’s doing to help promote the hedgehog book (her £2,000 advance has gone to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society); as well as a host of TV and radio slots.
But while performing to fans old and new gives her enormous pleasure, so does quiet domesticity. Scenes such as seeing the featherless battery hens she rescues blossoming into happy chickens in an orchard she rents over the road.
“And it sounds daft, I know – you probably think I’m nuts,” she says. “But, yesterday, I was looking at those hellebores; the sun was shining and a honeybee came along and took some of the pollen.
“And I was thrilled to bits. I just thought: it’s working!”
• Cotswold appearances that Pam will be doing over the next few months include the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, on National Poetry Day, Thursday, October 4, with a show for another of ‘her’ charities, the Sebakwe Black Rhino Trust, helping to conserve rhino in Zimbabwe. Tickets are already on sale from the Roses on 01684 295074, rosestheatre.org.
• Pam will also be back at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October, date to be announced. Details of all appearances can be found at pamayres.com.
• Pam Ayres’s latest book, The Last Hedgehog, illustrated by Alice Tait, is published by Picador on Thursday, May 3, price £6.99. For more on Hedgehog Awareness Week, visit britishhedgehogs.org.uk.