The Beauty in the Beast

Last week we were very pleased to invite Hugh Warwick, wildlife expert and hedgehog enthusiast, to talk to us about his latest book The Beauty in the Beast. Hugh spent most of his time travelling around the UK, meeting weird and wonderful creatures – both the animals and the people who love them. We meet the water vole-woman from Shropshire, the owl-man from Somerset and Gordon, the dancing toad-fancier. These and many other fabulously engaging characters carry a deep knowledge of their chosen species within a distinctly quirky shell, turning the book itself into a series of affectionate and lively homages to the animals of the British Isles, composed of fieldwork and interviews with the people who love and conserve them.

We had a great evening with Hugh, but for anyone who missed out and would like to know more about badger-fancying or hedgehog fanaticism, we asked Hugh to come back for another little chat:

Did you enjoy your event at Blackwell’s last night?

I had such a wonderful night at Blackwell’s – a good crowd of people helped to dispel nerves and the staff could not have been kinder. It is always such fun to do a talk and really get a reaction. Though this time the biggest reaction came from me, when I unexpectedly started crying … I had altered my talk at the last minute as I had just heard my friend, the badger-man from the book, Gareth Morgan had died.

We’re very sorry to hear that, particularly when it sounds as though he had so much wisdom to share – he’s sure to inspire future badger-lovers through the pages of Beauty and the Beast. You also met, among others, Gordon the toad-fancier and The Owl-Man… is there a particular person, or animal, who sticks in your memory?

How am I supposed to choose between my children? Well, I guess I had to, to some extent, otherwise I would have ended up with 15 tattoos, not just the one! Every encounter with an enthusiast and their animal was memorable – but clearly joining a Shamanic dancing retreat in search of a spiritual toad was a little different … as was bouncing around the Moray Firth looking for dolphins, or sleeping in a castle after a night out with the beavers … so, to answer your question, is there a particular person, or animal? No!

Fair enough! We hear a lot about endangered species in other parts of the world, but did you encounter any British species that are under threat whilst writing The Beauty in the Beast?

Every species is under threat – that is not being hyperbolic. Human activity is locked into a system that requires growth – which is another way of saying consumption. And as we consume and pollute we are having an impact on every other species on the planet. But there are some more sensitive than others. So it was fascinating to learn how sensitive bats are to light pollution, for example. Or how adder hibernacula are so easily destroyed, even by conservationists. Or how maritime industries blast the senses of dolphins with noise. Or how sparrows suddenly suffered a catastrophic decline. And always I keep coming back to hedgehogs – who have suffered a 25% decline in the last ten years.

The biggest problems for most species are loss of habitat and the fragmentation of the remaining habitat. Take, for example, bats. Loss of habitat is a big problem, but so is the loss of habitat of their food – if there is no where for the insects they rely upon to live and breed, then there will be no bats. The problems are compounded, though, by our desire to light up the night sky. Some species of bat are affected by the light of a full moon, refusing to fly out into the open when it is bright. So imagine the impact of street lights, or pubs with bright lights – or even our own security lights.

What exactly is being done for them at the moment? Are there ways that the public can help?

We need to shift our perspective a little, think what it would be like to be an animal and then change what needs to be changed. For hedgehogs and toads a lot can be done by just ensuring gardens, for example, are connected with each other. There is a project I am involved in called Hedgehog Street that gives many top tips on helping hedgehogs, and when you help hedgehogs, well, you help so many other species too.

I hear that you’re interested in taxidermy (Hugh has a taxidermy hedgehog), an art form which many people don’t respond to particularly well. Is there anything in particular that attracts you to it? How would you respond to the people who find it strange, or even think it cruel?

My interest in taxidermy is purely educational. I have a stuffed hedgehog because I want people to see and feel a real hedgehog but I do not want to keep a live hedgehog. I have given talks with a real live hedgehog and the audience loves it, but there are far more issues regarding potential cruelty from keeping an animal in captivity. And I do not have the resources of skill to repair injured animals – luckily there hundreds of hedgehog carers around the country who do an amazing job.

I have been surprised to find people revolted by my stuffed hedgehog who are quite happy to eat meat from an industrial farming process that is so staggeringly cruel. No one needs to go out and hunt a hedgehog to procure a corpse for stuffing, there are, unfortunately, plenty of dead ones around. So there is no cruelty there.

You’ve been described as a ‘hedgehog fanatic’ – can you tell us an interesting fact or something we might not know about hedgehogs?

I can, and have, written a book all about hedgehogs – A Prickly Affair. Which fact to share? And adult hedgehog has around 6000 spines; their fleas are species specific – so you, your cat and your dog cannot catch fleas from a hedgehog (and the whole flea story is rather over-played … they have no more than any other small mammal, it is just that the fleas they have are more visible thanks to the more sparse spines and also because the hedgehog you are most likely to see will be out in the day – and a hedgehog out in the day is a poorly hedgehog – and poorly hedgehogs are more likely to have an infestation); hedgehog legs are longer than you might think; hedgehogs are the most wonderful creature on the planet …. and if you don’t believe me, read the book and then complain!

I doubt we’d want to complain about that – any book with recommendations from both Jeanette Winterson and Ann Widdecombe must be worth reading! Are you working on any other projects, book related or otherwise?

I have just got back from another festival and I have another three lined up in the next four weeks – each time promoting The Beauty in the Beast. This is interfering with my attempts to write up the two new ideas that are racing around my brain, trying to get out! I have just finished the text to a short book about the iconography of the hedgehog – coming out in the new year, published by Reaktion. I just need to finish the picture research on that one. And it is summer and the sun is out and the children are playing in the garden. So one of my most immediate projects will be ensuring they have a fantastic time! For which I will take them up into the wilds of Shotover as often as possible, and we will go looking for solitary bees (see the first chapter of The Beauty in the Beast!)

If you’ve been inspired to find out more about Britain’s wonderful wildlife,  or if you want to find out how to help species in danger, you can find The Beauty in the Beast here at Blackwell’s in the Natural History section of the Norrington Room, or you can (and should!) visit Hugh’s interesting and lively blog.





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