16th July 2018
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Thank goodness, Little Blue was found alive

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HIGH summer is a whirl of buttercups and butterflies and a perfect week for a nature festival, but the most spectacularly golden gilded glory just now has to be the St Ninian’s Isle treasure.

Don’t miss this marvel of Shet­land’s hidden depths, and drag the bairns along to see it too while it’s still here. Take a video or digital camera if you have one (if it is allowed – I’m not too sure) because the individual pieces are so intri­cately embellished that you cannot truly appreciate the craftsmanship at a distance. Video can zoom in; digital cameras likewise of course, but the eye isn’t up to the job in the current display.

I was lucky enough to be able to spend last Saturday (pretending that it wasn’t a fabulous day outside) at the treasure conference in the new museum and was mindblown by the revelations. The metalworkings are so delicate, that I had never even dreamed of the details which were displayed on the screen.

To the naked eye, tracery and interweaving gold lines twirl at you in a mesmerising swirl. But when a small chape is projected it is mag­nified hundreds of times and all of a sudden, complex tracery becomes hordes of minute animals clawing and dancing their way around the rims and sides, bases and centres, handles and curves of the 28 items.

Outside, dandelions have given way to autumnal hawkweeds; celan­dine and king cups are fading as meadow and creeping buttercup and lesser spearwort. Blue of spring squill bleaches into dainty seed­heads while devil’s bit scabious rises up even bluer.

Red admirals and cabbage white butterflies flit and dither about the flower beds and one poor admiral ended up in the greenhouse, which has monster spiders, so I hope it doesn’t get nabbed in a web. Honeysuckle is opening in sheltered spots and roadsides are cushioned in clovers.

Whales, otters, migrant birds and Shetland mice have all been vying for attention during the week and the weather is doing its “four seasons in a day” Shetland special.

Geology entered the stage in the Garrison on Tuesday and Jonathan Swale swung the audience through a multi-million arc of time travel back to Shetland’s beginnings. Simon King gave the Garrison crowd a night to remember and we groaned with envy at the places and wild dramas, the enchanting, hilarious meercat wobbles and the electric cool of the tame cheetah brothers. But I had some news myself a few days ago and I just have to share it. Small wildlife dramas can happen here too sometimes.

I can’t help it, I simply have to get off this chair and dance a jig; Little Blue is still alive!

The last glimpse I had of him (or possibly her) was in July 2004, trundling off into the darkness of a steamy, East Anglian night, heading for seven foot high nettles and a deep ditch.

For weeks I felt bereft. No warm, heavy pocket on long journeys; no carting cardboard boxes to and from schools where I was supply teach­ing; no more heating up bottles of goats’ milk and cleaning out glass droppers. No more shared walks.

Little Blue was the surviving hedgehog of a litter, most of which, mother as well, met an untimely death when they and their nest were scooped up by a digger when cleaning out an Effirth byre and dumped into a slurry pit along with old straw and manure. The mother had built a perfect nursery in a clean corner of the building.
There she had given birth to her litter only days before.

If it hadn’t been for a very alert observer, who heard the desperate squeaking later on, the babies would have died. They were crawling blindly round on a cold, scraped bare concrete floor; just three of them. They were tiny; about the size of pullets’ eggs, still white, with soft spines and eyes firmly sealed shut. They arrived at my door in a box of straw and they were raving hungry.

Over the next few weeks, aided by a well-insulated hot water bottle, regular bedding changes and quantities of fortified goats milk, they grew.

In order to ensure that each got a fair share of their grub, I painted a blob of different colour onto each back. Tragedy struck when Little Yellow, the toughest of the bunch, fought his way out of the soft bed one day en route for Mossbank School.

He somehow managed to heave up the corner of the hot water bottle wrapping and began to squeeze underneath. We found him later, quite dead, very warm and flat. Maybe his spines had prevented him from reversing out of danger.

Little Red and Little Blue thrived and grew. Then, without any ap­parent reason, Little Red stopped eating. I had virtually to force feed her and she hated it. Over several days, despite every effort, she weakened and then died.

Little Blue never faltered. The issue of eventual release began to loom. There were already too many hedgehogs in Shetland. There was a current crisis in the Western Isles about a hedgehog cull. We already had several hedgehogs in the gar­den. Road deaths were common.

In the end, mum saved the day. She hadn’t seen a hedgehog in her corner of rural Essex in a good dozen years. Somehow, Little Blue would have to emigrate.

There was just one problem. The family, mum as well, were booked into York University for the week of Quaker Yearly Meeting. So Little Blue came too; box, bundle of newspaper, dishes, food containers, detergent, mopping up cloths and kitchen roll and all.

Student accommodation blocks were immaculate, and each desk in each room bore a selection of advice, welcome and warnings: No pets or animals! It didn’t actually say “no hedgehogs” though.

Each room was cleaned daily, so there began an amazing routine. Up early. Feed Little Blue. Take for early morning walk until he relieved himself, then dismantle his accom­modation and feed trays, prepare a packed lunch and drink, add kitchen roll to pocket and leave room clean, scented and tidy.

Attend all lectures and work­shops, using coffee breaks to feed and exercise Little Blue. Repair to base at evening and reinstate hedge­hoggery. Sleep. It worked like clockwork.

The only trouble was, folk got to know. I soon had interested com­panions on coffee break walks. Little Blue became a quiet celebrity, enjoyed his walks and slept deeply during lectures. Thankfully, the cleaners never guessed. We sur­vived the week and arrived safely at mum’s, seven miles from Saffron Walden. Little Blue had earned his freedom and he charged off eagerly into the wilds.

Last week, four years later, mum telephoned to say that she had seen a hedgehog pottering about near her greenhouse. She approached, talk­ing quietly and the creature began to walk towards her.

There was no hyperventilating panic, no flinching into a ball. This hedgehog was no longer little, the blue paint had vanished long since, but there was no mistaking its calm interest in the human obstacle in the path. Briefly pausing to glance up at her, the animal passed firmly by and continued on its way across the garden.

A great feeling; knowing that against all odds, at least one of the Effirth litter survived and that all those weeks of caring and worrying, dropper feeding and cossetting had not been entirely in vain. I only hope that Little Blue manages to find a mate somewhere among the barren monoculture wastes of Britain’s wheat lands, from which countless millions of wild plant and animal treasures have vanished.

Meanwhile, in Shetland, hedge­hogs are in their element; gobbling up slugs and other beasties, and putting on plenty of weight for the winter. So ease off the slug pellets. Save up your egg shells instead and let Little Blue’s cousins sort out the slugs.

Jill Slee Blackadder