Our allotment is exuding an air of untidy and slightly weary fecundity, as though all the effort to produce its varyingly successful harvests in the face of the summer’s topsy-turvy weather has been just a bit too much of an effort, and it is looking forward to a good long hibernation. The bean wigwams, still fully clad and leaning drunkenly towards the East under the influence of this year’s often very strong prevailing winds, are passively drying any bean-pods we were too late to pick when green. The slowly withering stand of sweet-corn stalks is making a better job of standing, with half the cobs, their outer garments shredded and stripped bare, providing glaring evidence that the rats that infest the 180 odd Low Moor allotments got to the cobs before we did. But only half the cobs. It is a fine judgement as to when to pick them before the rats get there, with one night being all it takes for all the ones that didn’t seem quite ready to pick to be gnawed clean. The rats clearly don’t draw such fine distinctions.
The main crop, potatoes, particularly good this year, have been lifted; the gem squashes, vines withered, are lying hoping for a last bit of sun; the asparagus, grown tall, is grateful to have been staked against the wind; the leaves on the trees and the berry bushes are starting to turn. Our agonising about what we did so wrong that the tomatoes started blackening and rotting just as they began to ripen – too much shade? too much watering? not enough watering? too much fertiliser? etc. – has been stilled by the BBC’s Gardner’s World assuring us last week that the weather has been ripe for tomato blight and that it wasn’t anything we did wrong. So the plants have been stripped and significant quantities of green tomato chutney made.
The main reason for the allotment’s overall look of dishevelment probably lies with the fact that it hasn’t been strimmed for several weeks. There are two and a half good reasons for that. The half reason being that strimming with a heavy-duty petrol-driven, but theoretically self-starting strimmer, is not entirely compatible with degenerative spondylolisthesis – but it can be done, and was done earlier in the season, so it is only half a good reason – or perhaps one half-good reason. A better one is that the strimmer itself has a degenerative fault – not caught from me, I hasten to add – and is going to have to be replaced. A small plate designed to restrain the medium-duty strimmer line from unwinding itself and disappearing in a dangerous flash into the undergrowth, or, more worryingly, into the face of someone walking along the public path a few yards away, has fallen out and disappeared into the undergrowth itself. Having been obliged over the past few weeks to focus intensively on the Health and Safety for those in the population who have attained the often dizzy heights of the Third Age, it wouldn’t do to decapitate a slow walker with a couple of feet of lethally rocketing strimmer cord. But much the best reason is that we are, it turns out, proud landlords to a hedgehog family. The family bit we have to take on trust from Harry who cultivates the next door allotment and tells us he has seen mother and baby – we have only seen the mother.
The mother is an eccentric – which probably suits the allotment, and may well be her reason for choosing us as her landlords. I first met her walking towards my shed along the path down the middle of my allotment several weeks ago in the middle of the afternoon on one of the few seriously hot days we had this summer. I told her that I presumed she knew that she was supposed to be nocturnal, and that I had to assume that she was very unwell. She paused for a few seconds to eye me, rather more frostily than the weather dictated, and proceeded to divert from the path and lie down for a siesta next to one of my thus far unpatented rhubarb-forcers, an old metal dustbin which must have been radiating an unseemly amount of heat. I assumed she had chosen that as her final resting place and that she might be trying to get on with the cremation part of things as well as the dying bit, but decided that putting an accessible container with some water near her was probably the best I could do.
I went back early the next day half-anticipating that I might have to be a one-person burial party, but I was delighted to find that the water container was empty, and there was no sign of her. Susan and a friend spotted her a couple of days later heading up the path at a surprising rate of knots, and both Harry and I have seen her separately since. As excuses for not strimming the allotment go, two facts are salient. The first is that July 30th saw British hedgehogs being included for the first time in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List for British Mammals, i.e. it is now regarded as seriously vulnerable to extinction.
“Goodbye Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” is not a phrase anyone wants to hear. From an estimated total of over 30 million in the 1950s, the number of hedgehogs in UK is now down to fewer than one million. Our allotment’s one is the first live hedgehog I have seen in 15 years. The second salient point is that I have it on good authority that, in 1066 and All That terms, hedgehogs regard strimmers as very definitely falling into the category of “not a good thing”. What better reason could there be for a somewhat dishevelled allotment?