The hedgehog heroines: Schoolgirls rescue 400 prickles in a pickle (including ‘Amy Spinehouse’) after turning their homes into a sanctuary… so no wonder David Attenborough is their biggest fan!
When I ask Phil questions he huffs, pointedly, and I can’t convince him to look me sharply in the eye.
He is so adept at clawing his way out of tricky situations that I have to treat him — literally — with kid gloves, and is, without a doubt, the prickliest interview subject I have encountered.
Then again, he is a hedgehog — and one who’s had a rotten time of it recently at that.
Kyra and Sophie — who live ten minutes apart in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire — have persuaded their parents to convert garden sheds into clinics. I visit Hedgehog Friendly Town — as their rescue centre is called — to find out
Five days ago, Phil was discovered by a member of the public, dehydrated and suffering from a parasite that had given him a terrible tummy upset.
Since then, he has received exemplary medical care and started to recuperate with the help of daily antibiotic injections and specialist stomach drops.
Now eating enthusiastically, he has gained 100g — and is looking sharp. Within three weeks, the spiky little patient is expected to be well enough to be returned to the wild.
But his extraordinary recovery has not come courtesy of a professional with a veterinary degree — it is entirely thanks to the hard graft of two 13-year-old girls.
Kyra Barboutis and Sophie Smith set up a foster service for the animals when they were nine years old.
In the four years since, it has morphed into a rescue clinic that can treat up to 28 vulnerable creatures at a time and has so far saved nearly 400 hedgehogs.
With confidence and skill that belies their years, the girls are trained to treat all but the most severe injuries. They give talks and pester companies to halt damaging practices.
Yet given their success corralling big businesses into providing better hedgehog care, you get the feeling the girls are just getting started. They are unflinchingly well-mannered, disarming critics with charm, persistence and passion rather than abuse
Their astonishing work has won praise from Sir David Attenborough and, since their story made the news last week, they have been elevated to national hero status.
So how are they handling the enormous responsibility they have taken upon themselves?
I visit Hedgehog Friendly Town — as their rescue centre is called — to find out.
Both Kyra and Sophie — who live ten minutes apart in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire — have persuaded their parents to convert garden sheds into clinics.
We meet at Kyra’s, set in the 600ft-long lawn behind her family home.
On the surface the girls, whose mothers are cousins, seem an unlikely match. Kyra is outspoken and pragmatic, a drama student and vegan who is more often the mouthpiece for the pair.
Sophie, whose favourite subject is maths, seems more introspective.
But their contrasting personalities make for a formidable team and both have a sense of fun that comes across in their imaginative naming of their hedgehogs, from Amy Spinehouse to Quilliam Shakespeare. (‘Phil’ is more conservatively named because that’s what his finder called him).
Kyra’s clinic, with everything needed to nurse a sickly prickly back to health, contains a state-of-the-art incubator for hoglets (baby hedgehogs), a suction machine to get rid of maggots and a microscope for the girls to examine stool samples for parasites.
Drawers of syringes and needles stand beside a medicine fridge and scales that the girls use to monitor their animals’ weight.
Impressed local vets have taught them how to carry out procedures so they can inject anti-parasite treatments, anti-inflammatory drugs, painkillers and rehydrating fluids themselves
There is a nebuliser for hedgehogs with chest infections and cotton buds to massage orphan hoglets’ stomachs, stimulating bowel movements. Almost an entire wall is taken up with nine large cages where most hedgehogs begin their recuperation.
In the garden, there are five larger cages for recovering hedgehogs to readjust to the wild. A feeding station — an upturned plastic container with a brick at the entrance to keep out cats — sits on the grass, and there is a ramp at the side of the garden pond to allow hedgehogs (which are competent swimmers) access.
The girls have been brought up by animal lovers. Kyra’s mother Helen, 42, an early years family worker, and father Victor, 47, a waiter, keep chickens and rescue cats.
Sophie’s mother, Gemma, 44, a home care assistant, and father, Lee, 53, who owns a graphic design company, keep chickens, fish and tortoises.
The girls were still at junior school when they realised they hadn’t seen a hedgehog for ‘a really long time’. Kyra says: ‘We found out they were in decline and wanted to help. Hedgehogs are declining at the same rate as tigers.’
Habitat changes are thought to be behind the fall in numbers, from around 30 million hedgehogs in the Fifties to just 750,000 last year.
Around 100,000 are killed every year, with high speed limits on rural roads posing a particular risk. Hedgehogs are losing the hedges they need to live in and their main sources of food — insect larvae, worms and slugs — can be scarce.
Climate change could be a factor, too. ‘Last summer was so hot the ground was dry, mothers were travelling miles to get water and many drowned in ponds so we got lots of abandoned babies,’ says Kyra. Garden strimmers can cause serious injuries, as well as modern fences that don’t allow hedgehogs to move freely away from roads.
The girls started their hedgehog saving mission by writing to neighbours, asking them to put holes in their fences for the creatures to pass under. ‘When we explained how simple it was, most said, ‘Of course’,’ recalls Kyra.
Then, just before the summer holidays in 2015, they visited local charity Warwickshire Hedgehog Rescue to do more research. After ‘falling in love’ with hedgehogs, they decided to foster their own.
Their parents were supportive, if naive as to the extent of their ambition. ‘Mum thought it was going to be a summer project,’ Kyra admits with a smile.
Hedgehogs are brought in by locals who have found them abandoned, or vets who are presented with the animals. The longest stay — a hoglet named Dobby, who weighed just 100g when she was found on a doorstep — was with Sophie for nine months [File photo]
Instead, the family’s garden shed was slowly taken over by paraphernalia. And when Sophie’s dad Lee realised he wasn’t going to get his utility room back, he bought a shed for her hedgehogs, too.
The girls set up a Facebook page and that autumn rescued their first hedgehog: ‘Piglet’, a hoglet a neighbour found in their garden. ‘We went straight after Brownies to pick him up,’ says Kyra.
Piglet, small enough to fit in Sophie’s palm, weighed too little to be able to hibernate (hedgehogs normally have to weigh at least 800g to survive hibernation). Sophie kept him awake with a heated mat and fed him until he was big enough to be released.
‘It felt like a huge accomplishment,’ says Sophie, who takes charge of most of the hoglet feeding while Kyra focuses on administering medicine.
For the first year, each only had a handful of hedgehogs to care for, but demand grew. They now spend up to six hours a day looking after animals — sterilising equipment, dispensing medicine and feeding before and after school. They even stagger their holidays so one of them is always on call. Yet neither regrets their commitment.
‘We’d do anything to help,’ says Kyra, who admits that she is ‘pretty much late to everything’.
She concedes, too, that she takes a somewhat scattergun approach to schoolwork. ‘We’ll do a project, check on the hedgehogs, do some more homework,’ she says.
‘Our teachers are supportive.’ Impressed local vets have taught them how to carry out procedures so they can inject anti-parasite treatments, anti-inflammatory drugs, painkillers and rehydrating fluids themselves.
Recovered hedgehogs are usually released in the place they were found, from a box which the animals leave when they feel ready. Is it sad to say goodbye? ‘No,’ replies Kyra, with certainty. ‘We never get attached. We have to remember they’re not our pets’
‘There has to be an adult present and we go to vet for big operations such as broken legs,’ says Kyra, who rather wishes she didn’t have to. ‘We get frustrated when there’s stuff we can’t do.’
Medicine, equipment and food don’t come cheap — a small bottle of anti-parasite treatment costs a quill-raising £100, a bumper bag of the hedgehogs’ favoured food £40. The girls rely on donations, crowd-funding and local businesses to meet their hefty expenses.
Hedgehogs are brought in by locals who have found them abandoned, or vets who are presented with the animals. The longest stay — a hoglet named Dobby, who weighed just 100g when she was found on a doorstep — was with Sophie for nine months.
‘She was shockingly poorly, with parasites, fleas and ticks,’ says Sophie. ‘We thought she was going to have to be put to sleep.’
Sadly, their weakest hedgehogs do have to be put down by vets, a procedure for which the girls — who both aspire to be vets themselves — are present.
‘It is upsetting. We do as much as we can to make their death as pain-free as possible,’ says Kyra.
Recovered hedgehogs are usually released in the place they were found, from a box which the animals leave when they feel ready.
Is it sad to say goodbye? ‘No,’ replies Kyra, with certainty. ‘We never get attached. We have to remember they’re not our pets.’
With mating season under way, the girls are bracing themselves for an influx of abandoned hoglets who will need to be hand-fed every two to four hours.
‘We stay up until 11pm and get up at 5am to feed,’ says Kyra, who admits their mums are ‘very, very nice and tend to do the 1am and 3am feeds’. Helen and Gemma also come home in their lunch hours to do a midday feed.
With the exhaustion of new motherhood behind them, the mums could be forgiven for balking at the responsibility, but seem genuinely happy to help — albeit adamant that the bulk of the work belongs to their daughters.
On the surface the girls, whose mothers are cousins, seem an unlikely match. Kyra is outspoken and pragmatic, a drama student and vegan who is more often the mouthpiece for the pair. Sophie, whose favourite subject is maths, seems more introspective. But their contrasting personalities make for a formidable team
‘It’s their project,’ says Helen. ‘We say, ‘As soon as you want to stop this, let us know’.’
Yet given their success corralling big businesses into providing better hedgehog care, you get the feeling the girls are just getting started. They are unflinchingly well-mannered, disarming critics with charm, persistence and passion rather than abuse.
When they realised the number of hedgehogs they were treating with strimmer injuries, they visited their local B&Q, asked to speak to the manager and persuaded him to let them put warning stickers next to the store’s strimmers.
Confronting businessmen could have been intimidating, but despite — or because of — their youth, they weren’t fazed. ‘We thought they couldn’t be that harsh to us because we were just young girls,’ laughs Sophie.
In January, Kyra noticed a hedgerow covered in netting on a nearby property development.
‘Any hedgehogs hibernating there would wake to be trapped,’ she recalls. After finding out the netting had been put on by Taylor Wimpey to stop birds nesting, she posted a video on Facebook describing the ‘devastating impact’ of the netting on wildlife.
The ensuing furore led to a meeting with executives, who agreed to put tunnels in the netting to allow animals to escape.
Three weeks later, after finding Taylor Wimpey hadn’t fulfilled their promise, Kyra released another pointed video asking: ‘Did they think just because we’re two 13-year-old girls we wouldn’t come back to chase this up?’ The tunnels were fitted the following day.
Strangers do have a tendency to underestimate them. But Kyra says: ‘I’m very persuasive. If I’m passionate about something, I tend to get my way.’
Little wonder Sir David Attenborough was impressed to receive a letter outlining their work last year. He wrote back to say: ‘I’m so glad you are doing so much to help hedgehogs. They need all the help they can get.’
Kyra recalls: ‘We weren’t expecting a reply. I was shocked and speechless, for once.’
The recognition is justified — their hard work is heart-warming at a time when the damage wreaked by humans on the animal kingdom has never been clearer.
‘Our world is falling apart,’ says Kyra. ‘If our generation doesn’t help, there won’t be a future for us. If everyone did something like this, I think our wildlife would stand more of a chance.’
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