There are hedgehogs at the bottom of my garden. More than a dozen of them judging by the noise they make on warm evenings. Not that I am complaining. It seems I am fortunate to have them.
Hedgehogs are in. The demand for them as pets has more than doubled their price in a year and suppliers are finding it difficult to meet orders.
To get the inside information on the hedgehog hunting business I went to the best possible source - Captain Richard Drew-Smythe. He is acknowledged as Britain's leading hedgehog hunter and supplies Harrods, the top people's store, with them.
Not unexpectedly, he was out on a hunt when I visited his home near Cilycwm, Carmarthenshire. I found the Captain, formerly of the Gurkhas and the jungles of Burma, in a nearby country lane. His [wife's] faithful hedgehog hunting dachshund, Toby, was at his heels.
"One reason for their shortage," he told me "is that vast numbers of them are killed on the roads. They roll up in a ball, of course, instead of running away when a car approaches. It is ironic really because a hedgehog can run very fast when it wants to. All this has led to the price of a hedgehog going up to £1.50."
What is the attraction of these rather fascinating prickly, little creatures?
According to the Captain, people are discovering they are the ideal garden pet. For a start they eat large numbers of slugs and snails. "They are also the sort of pet you can leave to forage for themselves when you go away," he maintained. "I am very much against them being kept in cages. The ideal place for them is a walled garden. They grow remarkably tame and can even recognise their owner's footsteps and will come for a dish of bread and milk when called. They've almost become a status symbol. Some people love to be able to say,'Come out into the garden to see out hedgehogs.' when they feed them in the evening."
The Captain was interrupted by a frantic barking from Toby. The dachshund had sniffed out a hedgehog asleep in a hedgerow. The hedgehog hunter was quickly on the spot and had soon scooped up the ball of prickles with an expert hand. "A nice specimen," he said approvingly as he inspected it. "About 18 months old."
Could he tell what sex it was? I would have thought that, like penguins, male and female hedgehogs were difficult to tell apart - except by other hedgehogs. It is simple though when you know the secret. "You simply put the animal on a sheet of glass so that you can inspect it from below," said Captain Drew-Smythe.
Back at his cottage as his wife, Mary, brought in coffee - liberally laced with a drop of the hard stuff - he recalled how his hedgehog hunting began. He also breeds ponies and a variety of dogs, from miniature dachshunds to great danes. About five years ago, while delivering some of these to Harrods, he was asked if he could lay his hands on any hedgehogs.
Living in the country, he soon caught a few and it snowballed from there. "The demand nowadays is greater than ever before," said 52 year old Captain Drew-Smythe. "A lot go to America where the hedgehog is not a native and is therefore much of a novelty." To demonstrate how tame hedgehogs can be, the Captain's wife put down a dish of milk for their two cats and then introduced a hedgehog to them. Soon all three animals were drinking together. Before I left I thought that I would pick up a hedgehog to have a closer look at it. Then I remembered that they have a reputation for harbouring fleas. "Quite true," said Captain Drew-Smythe. "But, of course, all Harrods hedgehogs are de-flead before being sold."