Gary Snyder has holes in his garden fence.
That's not normally the kind of oversight you'd find in a well-kept British garden in a market town like Chipping Norton, 75 miles northwest of London. But the holes are there for a reason: hedgehogs.
Snyder's backyard is now one small rest stop on what conservationists hope will be a network of hedgehog superhighways crisscrossing Britain.
Snyder says at first he didn't even know he had hedgehogs coming through — they're nocturnal, hibernating during the winter months. But one night he was in bed with his wife.
"We heard this funny grunting noise," Snyder says. "And we looked out our bedroom window and we saw — there were two hedgehogs actually in the back yard, and it was a courting process."
When he went outside, Snyder realized the wonderful thing about hedgehogs: they aren't scared of humans. The noisy little things just rolled up into a ball, spikes out, and Snyder could pick them up. If you tickle the spines, he says, they open right up.
Snyder did some research and found out that hedgehogs are long-distance commuters, wandering as much as a couple of kilometers a night. That can lead them right into Snyder's housing development, where his sturdy British fence was trapping them.
So he made a small hole, and another. And convinced his neighbors to do it. And so on through the neighborhood.
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has been encouraging people throughout Britain to do the same thing, calling it the Hedgehog Street project. A couple of inches of clearance means that hedgehogs can truck right through suburbia as if it didn't exist.
Of course, this does lead to other problems.
Hedgehogs are perfectly designed to fend off predators, but those spikes are terrible when it comes to human trash. Rubber bands dropped by British mail carriers get stuck around hedgehogs and can create infections, and hedgehogs can get their little spiny heads stuck in cups thrown by the side of the road. The Hedgehog Preservation Society has been working on more awareness around product design to help keep the creatures safe.
Hugh Warwick, an ecologist who works with the society, estimates that the number of hedgehogs in Britain has dropped by 30 percent in the past ten years.
All the little things like hedgehog highways and beverage cup redesign can help, but he says there is a bigger issue: Britain's small farms are disappearing, becoming industrial agriculture plots and housing developments, which is forcing hedgehogs into the human world more often.
A hedgehog superhighway is great, Warwick says — but saving their homes would be even better.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now a short story about a tiny animal, the hedgehog. These spiky little guys are not shy of humans, which is why in England, they are threatened and why some people are trying to save them. NPR's Robert Smith visited this construction of a hedgehog highway outside of London.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Even in this beautiful, well-kept English backyard, there are hedgehogs - you just rarely see them.
GARY SNYDER: Oh, many people don't realize they have hedgehogs coming through their garden.
SMITH: Because it's all happening while they're asleep.
SNYDER: Yeah, yeah, so they may come at 2 o'clock in the morning.
SMITH: And Gary Snyder (ph) might have missed his big hedgehog epiphany if he had just been a better sleeper.
SNYDER: We were in bed and we heard this funny grunting noise (imitating hedgehog). And we looked out our bedroom window and we saw - there were two hedgehogs, actually, in the backyard. And it was a courting process (imitating hedgehog) kind of noise.
SMITH: And when he went outside, Snyder realized the wonderful thing about hedgehogs - they aren't scared of humans. The noisy little things just rolled up into a ball, spikes out, and Snyder just picked them up.
SNYDER: And if you start stroking their spines gently, they'll actually open up in your hand.
SMITH: This lack of fear is part of the hedgehog problem. Home construction and industrial farms have driven the hedgehogs out of the countryside and into suburbia. They snuffle along roads where they get hit by cars and face other dangers created by humans. It goes back to those spines.
HUGH WARWICK: The hedgehog is an amazingly designed animal.
SMITH: This is ecologist Hugh Warwick. He says the spikes are great for protection against predators. But in suburbia, those spines pick up things like rubber bands that can cause infections. And they make it difficult when hedgehogs encounter trash like those McDonald's McFlurry cups - you know, the ones with the hedgehog-sized hole on top.
WARWICK: Because the spines on the hedgehog all point backwards and a hedgehog can push its way into the cup. It then tries to reverse out of the cup, and it can't because it's head's stuck inside it. So people have then found dead hedgehogs that have starved to death because they've been trapped inside these things.
SMITH: The British Hedgehog Preservation Society started a campaign against the cups, and McDonald's changed them. And now the society is focusing on an even bigger suburban obstacle - fences. When Gary Snyder found those amorous hedgehogs in his backyard, he realized that he was now on their regular commuting path and that his fence was trapping the poor things.
You want to show me your hedgehog superhighway?
SNYDER: Yeah, well, I'll show you. We've got - it doesn't look like anything to you, but to a hedgehog, it's fine. You can see it right there - you see the gap underneath the fence.
SMITH: No, I can't see it. Where is it?
SNYDER: If you look at the bottom of the fence, you see there's a gap there.
SMITH: Yeah, it's, like, two, three inches at the bottom of the fence.
SNYDER: Yeah, that's all we need to do, yes.
SMITH: So now a huffing, puffing hedgehog can trundle right through his yard into his neighbor's yard. And Snyder convinced those neighbors to continue the pathway. And so at night, it's like I-95 out there. Snyder set up a night vision camera to watch.
SNYDER: There's one there.
SMITH: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Look at him. Look at him. Look at him.
SNYDER: OK, there we go. There we go.
SMITH: Oh, he's just sort of scurrying along...
SMITH: ...Through the backyard.
Conservationists are encouraging all British homeowners to do the same thing - to leave a few-inch gap in their fences and garden walls - hedgehog streets and highways - and to do it quickly. Hedgehog numbers in Britain have gone down by a third in the last decade. Robert Smith, NPR News, Chipping Norton, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.