3. Urchin Detection

It became pretty obvious that a video camera that would work at night was going to be essential. What follows may assist the absolute novice in such matters but bore the pants off everyone else. The generic term for such cameras seems to be ‘trail cameras’. There are innumerable different makes. I have tried 5 so far and returned all of them and for much the same reason; they are at best incredibly unreliable and at worst fail to work at all.

My budget [then] was £50-60. Much of the advertised technical abilities of these cameras, such as trigger speeds and effective operating distance, is all my eye and Betty Martin. Animals will seemingly materialise out of thin air in centre shot. How they get there is not recorded – that’s always assuming anything is recorded at all. Very often, and for no apparent reason, nothing is recorded. For example, there was so much activity going on one night that I got up to investigate and took this image.


The camera, shown in the image plugged into the mains, recorded nothing whereas I witnessed the two urchins romping up and down the path, and going in and out of the popina. At other times, with exactly the same set-up, the camera would record more-or-less as expected.

There are endless makes of these cameras but most have weirdly artificial sounding names. While they have superficial differences they all work in much the same way, have almost identical manuals, run seemingly on the same software and have very similar or identical operating menus all of which suggests they are basically all either made by the same outfit or are assembled using the same or very similar components. Either way they are all basically not worth bothering with. I might add that each camera included a ‘free gift’ offer only obtainable on giving the product a 5 star rating! so product ratings obviously need to be taken with a bucket of salt. I have now upped the budged to £120-150 but have not taken the plunge yet, partly because I have yet to find anything remotely resembling impartial, honest advice from any UK retailer.

The things I look out for when choosing a camera are how many mega-pixels the camera can record. Balancing clarity of picture with overall cost I favour 16MP. Having had both 14MP and 16MP cameras I can say that there is a difference and it is worth going the extra quarter mile for 16MPs rather than 14MPs. However, there is smoke and then there are mirrors.

Most megapixel ratings on trail cameras are ‘interpolated’ as the techy jargon has it. A better word would be inflated. Interpolation is the addition of extra pixels generated by software to increase the resolution of the basic optically achieved image. Theoretically, the more pixels in an image, the greater the detail and the clearer and sharper the image. Most basic trail cameras start with a 4-5MP optical image which is then inflated or ‘interpolated’ digitally to whatever headline resolution is claimed for the camera.

Interpolating images can be as crude a process as simply adding extra pixels identical to each optical pixel, splitting the original pixels into 4, 8, or 16 extra identical pixels. Naturally this neither increases the quality of the picture nor allows greater detail to be seen but does create higher resolution images i.e. images containing more megapixels than the original, but without adding any detail and, in the process, increasing the file size thus requiring greater storage capacity.

At the business end are the number of LCDs that illuminate the scene. The more the merrier as far as I am concerned. Most have around the 40 mark but some have fewer than 30 which at a guess would be less good. There are 3 flavours; no glow, low glow, and red glow. As I am not interested in using the camera for ‘security’, the red glow, which tend to be cheaper but also give better lit, clearer images, are fine as far as I am concerned. In my experience the trigger speeds and operating distances are largely make-believe.

It is worth taking note of the case ratings. They are usually quoted in IP [International Protection] numbers. Some are only dust-proof – totally useless for outdoor use in G.B. The first digit indicates the level of protection that the case provides against access to sensitive parts by the ingress of solid foreign objects e.g. dust. Aim for at least 5; better is 6. The second digit indicates the level of protection that the case provides against harmful ingress of water. Again, go 5 or a 6. 7 and over refer to immersion. Refer to Wikipedia for the full details; certainly don’t rely on the sales blurb!

Most claim video resolution of 1920 x 1080. Less is less. What follows concerns batteries and memory cards. None of the cameras I have tried included batteries or memory cards.

BATTERIES. All the cameras I have looked at need 8 x AA batteries. What they don’t tell you in the blurb is that they won’t work with rechargeable batteries which for some reason are only 1.2v whereas non-rechargeable batteries are 1.5v These cameras all seem to require the full 1.5v and will either not work at all or be even less reliable than they are generally if you use rechargeable batteries – as I tried to! As I only intend using a trail camera on my own property I generally use it connected to mains electricity. This does little to improve reliability but does mean I waste less money on batteries. If you are going to rely on batteries, they should be lithium, not alkaline. The former cost more but last longer and their voltage does not drop with each successive use as is the case with alkaline batteries. The latter are also susceptible to voltage drop in cold weather. Using lithium batteries, were the camera to take 15-day and 15-night videos of 10″ each every 24 hours, the batteries should last 1½ to 2½ months depending on make of camera.

MEMORY. Some cameras are wireless and can transmit their data. I was not interested in these but wanted one with a memory card. Most can operate using up to 32GB cards. What they very often do not spell out – and even if they do it is far from obvious and sometimes downright misleading – is what sort of memory card is required. There are principally 3 sorts; SD, miniSD and microSD. Their capacities are similar but their physical sizes are not. All the cameras I have seen use either SD [at left] or microSD [at right].

Although the card on the right is only 16GB they are available in 32GB or over.

To give you some idea how much space you might need, 2 minutes at max size, resolution etc is less ¼GB. Put another way, I noted that 14 scenes of 2′ each used less than 3 GB of memory. You can get an adaptor to use a microSD in a camera requiring an SD card but not vice versa.

There are other, slightly less high-tech but far more reliable ways of detecting the presence or otherwise of hedgehogs.

These are typical hurcheon turds; inch-long, dark-coloured, solid offerings about the thickness of a pencil. Nomenclature is somewhat problematic. I think they are not spraints which my Shorter O.E.D. define as “sb. pl. late ME … The excrement of the otter.” Droppings, dung or fæces would do; stool sounds a bit medical. What they are certainly not is ‘poo’, used extensively on the likes of BBC’s Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter Watch, programmes whose egregious infantilism must be resisted. Shit is shit and, as pointed out by my Shorter O.E.D., while “not now in decent use” is nevertheless Old English. ‘Poo’ is not in my Shorter O.E.D. and strictly for the nursery and the B.B.C. Less typical, probably as a result of over-feeding, is this.

hefty stoool

Until we started regular feeding earlier this year I had never noticed hedgehog fæces, although they must have been around. Even now, with at least four different hurcheons visiting every night, we are not knee deep in their offerings but once you get your eye in, you should be able to spot a hurcheon turd at a hundred paces with the same facility as fossil hunters in the Olduvai Gorge can distinguish fragments of hominid skull amongst the general mineral bruck.

2. Popina

There are a number of animals that compete for the food I intend for hedgehogs. These include neighbourhood dogs, a proliferation of uncontrolled domestic cats, the scourge of British wildlife, rats, mice and other small rodents, squirrels and the occasional fox. Some are eliminated by diurnal habits, but not all. Animals smaller than hedgehogs will inevitably be able to access whatever food I make available for the humble urchins. Excluding animals bigger than hedgehogs is comparatively simple although it has taken a while to exclude all the cats as will become apparent.

I have established a fixed place at which to feed hurcheons. In the past, at least one has come right up to the back door of the house, so I decided to habituate them to a spot some 10 feet west of our back door and built a ‘dining’ area which is over-looked by windows. In fact I have built several such ‘diners’ in an attempt to outwit the cats. But first, the naming of parts.

Any self-respecting hurcheon overwinters in a hibernaculum. With a name like Erinaceus europaeus it should come as no surprise that your average urchin is a classicist (and a better one than I Gunga Din). Hence their winter quarters are hibernacula and not, as many tv presenters would have it, ‘hedgehog hotels’ or any such infantilism. Your average hurcheon is not very grand; they have fleas after all. Their arrangements for dining, rather than running to the sumptuous triclinium and ruining their digestions lolling about on couches indulging in finger-food, tend rather to fast food on the hoof. A quick bite here, a slurp of something there and “sorry! must dash; got a worm to catch.” What a human might call a ‘snack-bar’, Erinaceus europaeus would call a popina – a serendipitous word happily conveying the casual nature of the business in hand and the need for speed and a word which, without further ado, I anglicize as popin. I constructed mine from concrete components – the popin that is, rather than the word.

A number of people on the internet advocate using a plastic storage box in which they “cut a hole of about 4 or 5 inches.” In my experience, of which more anon, those dimensions are far too lax. Some adult cats will easily get through a hole 4″ x 5″. Also use of plastic is a no-no. Apart from environmental objections, such boxes are too light-weight and easily blown over unless weighted down. They would fall easy prey to vigorous investigation by dogs, foxes and some cats, let alone badgers – but fortunately for the current population of hurcheons, badgers locally resemble hens’ teeth.

I opted to use 4″ pre-cast concrete lintels and bricks to give a ‘ceiling’ height of about 4″ under a roof of 16″ x 12″ interlocking cement roof tiles all of which I had ‘in stock’. I began as in the image below with a structure 2 tiles wide (i.e. 32″) built against a wall at the back, closed at the front with an entrance at both ends measuring about 9″ wide by 4″ high.

The sludge on the ground is ‘Hedgehog Food.’ They disagreed.

One disadvantage of using only two tiles was that placing the food in the centre – to get it as far beyond a cat’s reach from either end as possible – inevitably meant there was a crack above the food through which water could penetrate and spoil whatever food was there. More seriously, leaving the two ends ‘open’ presented at least one local cat with no challenge at all as can be seen in this first clip.

The cat above is known as Quasimodo on account of its somewhat hunchbacked appearance. At least two other cats are regular visitors but neither of them has gone to the lengths to which Quasimodo is prepared to go to deprive the hedgehogs of their dinner. Even an adult hurcheon has to duck to enter as can be seen in this second clip.

In view of Quasimodo’s athleticism I enlarged the overall length to 3 tiles (about 48″ in all) to put food placed in the centre of the popin beyond easy reach of a cat on the outside, and choked both ends with brick to reduce the entrances to about 5” wide in an attempt to ensure that that was where cats remained; outside. In the image below, I had removed the middle tile to serve up the main course. The customer is an adult male known to his admirers as Mac (as in macula) because of a dark spot on his right flank. He seems unperturbed by such unmannerly intrusions.

Mac tucking in to proper food; dried cat biscuits – because he has not yet cottoned on to the pet mince that has just arrived. It disappeared in short order.

Having already cracked the 5″ entry, Quasimodo, after several inspections and having given the matter considerable thought, was recorded as still able to creep through the entrance which had been reduced to about 4″ high by 4¼” wide. The things some moggies get up to when their owners are tucked up safe in bed. But you have to admire the reversing.

The gap at each end is now currently about 4” x 4”. The hurcheons continue to zip in and out. Quasimodo has inspected the new arrangement with a mournful air but has as yet been unable or unwilling to have another go at the holy of holies. Cats and hurcheons occasionally appear on camera together but seem content to ignore one another. If anything, the cats seem more wary of the urchins than the urchins are of them. I have a clip of Quasimodo looking in disgust at Mac as he approaches the popin before beating a hasty retreat from the approaching schiltron.

There are at least 4 different urchins that visit regularly. Occasionally they meet on camera. They seem quite sensitive to the presence of fellow hurcheons and appear more cautious of them, as shown below, than of the close presence of cats. How often the camera fails to record such meetings will be the subject of the next post.

First to enter above is a young male, The Loon, who is rightly alert. It is Mac who then charges in, his trademark to the fore, and puts the boot in before retiring for a stiff drink. The Loon remained schtum for about a quarter of an hour. You can’t be too careful if you’re an urchin. I can reassure those of a sensitive disposition that The Loon was, and remains, apparently unharmed and undeterred by that and subsequent kickings administered by Mac.

P.S. Apologies for the extraneous youtube stuff at the end of each clip but as a novice I don’t know how to suppress it. I’ve tried adding &rel=0 to the URL but that seems to do nothing. Any advice much appreciated.

1. The World of the Hurcheon

This concerns wild hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in our garden in rural Somerset. We have lived here for over 20 years. Until last autumn (2018) I had never seen either a live or remains of a dead hedgehog in the area. Badgers used to be quite plentiful but since their wholesale slaughter was licensed by our idiotic politicians, their presence locally is currently vanishingly small. (I wish the same could be said of politicians.) The slaughter of the badgers may account for the resurgence of hedgehogs. I have no idea whether any hedgehogs have been released by humans in this area.

In early autumn 2018 we had a dog staying in the house. When I get up for a pee the dog joins me watering the garden and curses and swears at the neighbourhood cats in a shocking fashion. On the 30th Sept 2018, when the image at left was taken, as we stepped out of the back door around 2 a.m., right by the door was a hedgehog. The dog gave it a thorough sniffing but was discouraged (by me) from being any more attentive. The hurcheon crouched down a bit but did not roll into a ball. Soon after, it wandered off on urchin business, while the dog and I returned to our respective sleeping quarters.

The dog went home to her owners shortly thereafter, putting an end to nocturnal gardening for a while. I noticed no further signs of hedgehogs (but am not very observant), nor did it occur to me to look for them. However, come spring it did occur to me that hedgehogs emerging from hibernation might be grateful for a little something, which I set about supplying. Needless to say, whatever I put out in the evening was gone by next morning, but I had no idea who was the beneficiary. Establishing that will be he basis of the following posts.

urchin dinner
While the ‘hedgehog food’ was bought as a joke, we served it but it was spurned by hurcheons and cats. Placed on a bird table it went, pyots (Pica pica) the prime suspects.

* A word about hurcheon. The Shorter O.E.D. explains it is Scots for hedgehog. It occurs also in northern middle English. Variant spellings in the D.S.L. include hurch(e)oun, hurch(e)on(e), hurchun, hurtchoun, hyrcheoun, hyrcheoune, hurtcheon, hurchin, hurchint, hutchon and a few other exotics. Urchin in the Shorter O.E.D. is defined as a variant of hurcheon, again signifying a hedgehog, plus meaning a sea-urchin, a hunchback, “a pert, mischievous, or roguish youngster” or a brat. Take your pick, but here hurcheon refers exclusively to Erinaceus europaeus.