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Section:Guest Wildlife Bloggers
The Story of the Hedgehog Book
By Pat Morris
9th September 2014
I began studying hedgehogs over 50 years ago, having discovered where they nested during the winter. Later I expanded my research as the basis for a PhD. Looking at it now, my thesis appears extremely elementary stuff, but in those days there was little support or background knowledge to build upon and everything had to be done from scratch.
I began one of the first radio tracking studies in Britain, but had to build the transmitters myself. I had to develop new methods as I tried to establish the age of dead animals to calculate survival rates and longevity. How do you tell how old an animal is when it has no birth certificate, and how do you know your estimate is anything like correct when there are no known-age animals with which to check? My winter study continued for 6 years and has still never been repeated because winter nests are so hard to find in any number. It was all a bit of a struggle. Meanwhile, as I became known as ‘the hedgehog man’, people would write to me or phone up asking questions or pleading for information about what to do with a sick or injured hedgehog. There wasn’t a network of hedgehog carers in the 1960s and nobody else seemed to be doing any research either.
Once I had a full time job teaching students, writing endless letters and answering long phone calls became a serious drain on my time. So I set about writing my book, focussing on all the things people asked most often – how long do they live, are they territorial, how far do they travel, are they intelligent or a bit dim, what about fleas, ticks and sick animals? The idea was to publish a small book and then I could simply refer people to it and not have to keep writing letters.
Since hedgehogs are fun, I wanted it to be a fun book, good to read and suitable for all ages, not just academic zoologists. So, I asked my student Guy Troughton to illustrate it for me in exchange for half the royalties. Guy wanted a career as a wildlife illustrator and he readily agreed. He was very successful and created a delightful array of drawings and amusing cartoons that led on to his illustrating many other books later. I often watch as people skim through my book, enjoying Guy’s images without reading about my painstaking research. But I do the same and especially enjoy his hibernating hedgehog, asleep with its skin hung over the back of a chair!
I offered the book to a couple of publishers who rejected it saying I needed to decide if I wanted a fact book or a joke book. But hedgehogs are FUN, not just facts! The two should be blended together, but this seemed like a novel idea and nobody would support the concept of a hybrid book. In the end a friend’s daughter, Annabel Whittet, offered to take a chance on it. She had begun a small publishing venture that sold a few cookery and car maintenance books, but without much fanfare. Soon ‘Hedgehogs’ became synonymous with Whittet Books. Its combination of readable facts and jolly illustrations proved very popular and other similar books soon followed on urban foxes, otters, bats, frogs and toads and many more. I wanted my book to be sold as widely as possible, so Annabel agreed to price it at £3.95. But then the booksellers were reluctant to stock it as they made too little money on each one sold! It’s still a problem to get shops to stock the book, even though it sells well. Yet dull and unoriginal products by minor TV personalities are abundant everywhere.
The first edition was 124 pages, but as the years went by and more information became available I needed to keep the book updated. Each time it was revised, more was added and something had to be done to explain the extra value and justify a higher price. So we had the ‘New Edition’, actually the same as the old one, but with all the blank areas filled in with new stuff. Then we had ‘The New Hedgehog Book’ at 208 pages, then another version with one of my own photos on the cover for the first time. Now we have a completely different version, with illustrations redrawn by Guy and with his fine painting as the front cover. This really new edition looks nice and has colour photos for the first time, some informative, some rather cute. ‘Hedgehogs’ has now become part of the Whittet British Natural History Collection, having helped create a whole new genre of wildlife books that form a fitting memorial to the late Annabel Whittet’s gamble long ago.
I’m proud of my book. I am pleased to have seen it being read by young children less than 10 years old and by folk over 90. It has reached out to the many supporters of hedgehogs that we now have in this country and across Europe, helping them to understand and enjoy their animals all the more. In its various incarnations, ‘Hedgehogs’ has been continuously in print for over thirty years, probably longer than any other British mammal book, a clear sign of its success and suitability. I hope you enjoy reading it too. I also hope you will be stimulated to do what you can to help these fascinating and ancient animals in their struggle with the many challenges our modern world imposes upon them. Feed your hedgehogs, get involved, sign up to ‘Hedgehog Street’, support the BHPS. Then recommend my book to others as a Christmas present!
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