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Category Archives: Creatures

What about the horses?

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The last few weeks saw news headlines in the UK dominated by revelations of horse meat in our frozen burgers, bolognese and lasagne. The meat – falsely marketed as beef – was sold in the nation’s supermarkets and served in restaurants, hospitals and schools.

For the most part, the story has now been replaced with other news, except for the odd line about a few more withdrawn products, and the supermarkets’ attempts to woo back shoppers who’ve moved their custom to local butcheries.

But to me, far more shocking than the prospect of horse meat in our ready-meals, was the deafening silence about the welfare of the animals involved. In all of the newspaper reports, radio debates and online forums I did not hear or see commentators mention this.

Shocking treatment of abattoir horses

Only four weeks previously there had been a report in the press about the appalling treatment of horses at a British horse abattoir.

According to Sky News, animal welfare group Hillside Animal Sanctuary had secretly filmed horses at this abattoir being “beaten with an iron rod, crammed into the slaughter pens”, stunned together and shot on top of one another. Sick or injured horses had been “left untended overnight rather than put down immediately,” and footage showed a horse appearing to come round from the stun while being hung upside down before being bled.

Hillside staff observed that it was not just the ill and old being slaughtered. There were also fit and healthy horses, horses with foals, pregnant mares and thoroughbreds, all being badly treated. “It blows away the myth of humane slaughter. There is a misery in that place that’s palpable,” described one. “All the horses in there had their heads hung down,” added another.

The report also indicated that the number of UK horses slaughtered every year (former pets, show jumpers and race horses) had more than doubled between 2007 and 2012.

The result of the exposé? Two slaughter-men employed by the abattoir had their licences revoked.

And what of the horses destined for food markets?

The owners of the abattoir said their horses were destined for Europe, not for British supermarkets. But if this occurred in a UK slaughterhouse, there can be no doubt similar conditions exist in parts of Europe, the origin of the horse meat found here.

After putting together this post earlier in the week, it was a relief to finally read on Friday of someone else who seemed to share my concerns about the welfare of the horses involved.

A reader of The Good Life Letter commented: “[These horses] would be the cast-offs from all over Europe…. The stud farms of Poland, Germany and other countries breed vast amounts of horses every year but only a few are good enough to be of any use… the rest are sold off for meat. That’s OK. Except that they are not cared for as animals used for meat should be. They are poorly fed, crammed into large lorries without proper food or water and transported many hundreds of miles across Europe to countries… where they are badly slaughtered and then… [enter] the food chain.

This is the real stomach-churning scenario. Let’s pray the British and European authorities investigating those responsible for the fraud will tighten (and strictly enforce) the regulations needed to protect the welfare of those animals giving their lives to fill our bellies.


Close encounters of the hedgehog kind – Part II

Last week I blogged about the little hedgehog I found in serious trouble in our cul-de-sac. Two days later a neighbour’s children announced they had a little hedgehog on their front lawn. “He was alive yesterday. But now he’s dead,” they said matter-of-factly. I felt a stab of pain in my heart.

The hoglets were probably siblings, and possibly the babies of the adult hedgehog we found killed by a car in a nearby street a week or two previously. Was this normal, I wondered, that so many were dying? And why had the mother hedgehog had her young only eight weeks previously – the end of August, just as the weather was turning cold? Googling on the web, I discovered a few sobering facts.

What’s happening to our hedgehogs?

In the last 10 years hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by 25%. In a report titled The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2011, experts say there seems to be several reasons they are in such drastic decline:

  • more intensive agriculture, meaning hedgerows and permanent grassland have been lost
  • use of pesticides, which reduces the amount of prey available to hedgehogs
  • smaller, tidier gardens with fencing that prevents hedgehogs from moving between gardens
  • new buildings and roads carving up suitable habitat (so small populations become isolated and more vulnerable to local extinction)
  • road traffic which kills tens of thousands of hedgehogs each year
  • badgers, which are a natural predator of hedgehogs and compete with hedgehogs for scarce prey.

The website of the Ark Wildlife Hospital says that Britain’s changing climate has resulted in hedgehogs giving birth to two sets of babies a year. Naturally those born in autumn cannot survive unless they are rescued and over-wintered at a centre. The European hedgehog appears to be facing a bleak future.

What can we do to help?

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species offer some tips. For more detail, see and sign up for their information pack.

Leave a mess: hedgehogs need a safe, warm place to nest, to hide from predators, and to feed on slugs and snails. Create a leaf pile behind your shed or greenhouse and leave a wild or scrubby corner of your garden un-mown or not formally planted.

Link your garden: in the suburbs hedgehogs need to travel about a mile each night to find food and to mate, and barriers such as solid fences and walls often prevent their movement (hedges and natural boundaries are better). If you have a wall
 or fence, try creating a small hole (about 15cm in height and width) to enable hedgehogs to move between yours and neighbours’ gardens.

Food: putting out dog food or special hedgehog food provides energy for hedgehogs. Ensuring your garden is a good habitat with natural foods such as slugs, snails, earthworms, caterpillars and beetles is equally important. Plant flowers and shrubs that will encourage insects. Provide several sources of water at different points around your garden.

Don’t use slug pellets: hedgehogs may unwittingly eat slug pellets or poisoned slugs. Try alternatives such as beer-baited slug traps.

Garden chemicals: use chemicals sparingly in your garden, or not at all. Insecticides kill insects which hedgehogs feed on and this may harm them. Also use environmentally-safe wood preservatives on sheds and fences as hedgehogs often lick new smells or substances.

Make a log pile: log piles may be used for hibernation and nesting and they will also attract insects, snails and caterpillars for the hedgehogs to eat. Pile the dead wood up in a quiet, undisturbed corner of your garden.

Make ponds safe: if you have a pond or pool, ensure there are escape routes should a hedgehog fall in. You could position a plank of wood at the pond edge or pile some rocks at one end so that it can climb out.

Check before mowing: look for hedgehogs in long patches of grass, along rough edges and under hedges. If you do discover a hedgehog, postpone your mowing or carefully move the hedgehog (using thick gloves) to a safer place in the garden or place in a cardboard box temporarily until you have finished cutting.

Babies: it is unusual to see baby hedgehogs moving about without their mothers, unless they are in trouble. This could be because their mother has not returned home or they are ill. If you see any hoglets make sure there are no adult hedgehogs anywhere close by before you potentially separate them from their mother. Once you are sure they have been abandoned contact the British Hedgehog Preservation Society as the hoglets may be too small to survive the winter hibernation alone. It is important not to disturb them too much as they can be very easily stressed.

Hibernation: if you accidentally disturb a nest with an adult hedgehog in it, replace the nesting material. The hedgehog can then either repair the nest or build another elsewhere. If the disturbed hedgehog is hibernating and wakes up, put out a dish of dog food and some water each night until it starts hibernating again.

Bonfire night: before burning any piles of wood or garden refuse, check for hibernating hedgehogs (usually November to April). Where possible re-site the pile on the day it is to be lit.

Here’s to increased numbers of hedgehogs in your garden! (Thanks to for the tips and advice.)


Do you have any hedgehog stories to share? We’d love to hear them.

Close encounters of the hedgehog kind – Part I

Ever since Beatrix Potter immortalised a hedgehog in The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle in 1905, these beautiful little creatures have captured our hearts and imaginations and become one of the best-loved characters of the British countryside.

A thrilling wild encounter

My first close encounter with one was several weeks ago when I came home to find a young hedgehog standing motionless beside my front door. I was immensely excited! Just as Potter had described, I saw his (or her) little black nose go sniffle, sniffle, snuffle and his eyes go twinkle, twinkle. What a perfect creation he was.

Not realising his ‘freeze’ mode was a defence mechanism, I also worried something might be wrong. But after I had put out some hedgehog pellets and water for him and taken a couple photos, he scampered off under the gate and into my back garden. I was glad he seemed to be OK and, having learnt in Africa never to take a wild animal (especially a little one) out of its natural environment unless absolutely necessary, I let him be.

We saw him again at the weekend… midday, in fact. He spent hours at the foot of the dry-stone wall in our back garden, searching for slugs and other grubs. Little did I know that this, coupled with the fact I had seen him in the daylight previously, was a bad sign. He was asking for help.

A hoglet in need

Fast-forward a week or so later to my next encounter when I found possibly the same hoglet (or one of similar age) in a desperate condition in the middle of our street. He was lying on his side, partly curled up in defensive mode, barely breathing.

A friend and I immediately scooped him up (using a bag so we didn’t get our smell on him), took him home, wrapped him in a towel and put him in a box with a hot-water bottle. We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to contact any animal rescue centre that could help, but they are scarce in Northamptonshire.

At 8:30pm the amazing Margaret from The Ark Wildlife Hospital in Milton Keynes called and spent half an hour giving me advice to try and help hedgie survive the night so I could deliver him to the Ark the following day.

I followed Margaret’s instructions, mixing up some warm water with honey and a tiny amount of salt to drip-feed him; preparing a more substantial box (and fresh hot-water bottle) for him in the warm airing cupboard; and searching for some homeopathic arnica to which they apparently respond incredibly well.

I was so pleased I at last knew what to do to help. But the situation wasn’t good. His breathing was rapid, his little eyes had been tightly shut since I’d found him, and he wouldn’t open his mouth for any drips of water. Margaret suspected he had been knocked by a car, despite any obvious signs of collision trauma. “Also weigh him,” she said. “They need to be at least 600g to survive the winter on their own.”

“Let’s put you in your new box,” I said gently as I lifted his 200g form off the kitchen scales. Then I saw his little mouth had drooped open, his soft, padded feet were limp and his tiny body was still. He was only seven or eight weeks old.

Sadness stole its way into my heart, just as this little hedgehog had done.

[For more information about the decline of hedgehogs in Britain, and some helpful advice, watch out for my next Blog]