Tag Archives: Europe

The Wolves of Paris

I have always thought that France was fairly unlucky as a country to have been ravaged over the centuries by various Beasts, the majority of which nobody has been able to identify with 100% certainty.  They have all been dismissed as merely oversized wolves, perhaps with attitude problems, but, somehow, I just cannot agree with that. Too many people who saw wolves perhaps three or four times a week were completely puzzled when they saw the Beast of Gévaudan, for example:

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Or when they saw the Beast of Benais or the Beast of Sarlat or the Beast of Auxerrois/ Trucy or the others whose individual blogposts I have not yet launched out into “Le Monde du Blogging”. Creatures such as the Beast of Lyonnais or the Beast of Cévennes/Gard/Vivarais or the Beast of Caen and Chaigny or the Beast of Orléans or the Beast of Veyreau. The Beast of Cinglais or the Beast of Gâtinais. The blood splattered list goes on.
What I did not realise, though, is that there are completely documented and wholly accepted  historical accounts which detail attacks on Paris by wolves. And not just one wolf or even one pack of wolves. These were a whole series of large scale attacks by animals which broke all of our present day rules of how to be a politically correct wolf. They gleefully attacked and ate people. French people. Parisians:

Iberian Wolf alpha male feeding on deer, its mouth tinted with f

The first wolf invasion came during the winter of 1419-1420. Over Europe as a whole, the weather that winter was unbelievably cold. In the east, in what is now Turkey, the Bosphorus was completely frozen over and it was possible to walk over the ice from Üsküdar to Istanbul, which was then called Constantinople.

In Western Europe, virtually all of France had already been made wretched by the debilitating effects of the Hundred Years War which was to last, rather inaccurately, 116 years, from 1337–1453:

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The winter of 1419-1420 was equally severe over the whole country with very low temperatures and copious amounts of snow falling for prolonged periods. Paris was occupied by the English and the famine there was so great that unfortunate Parisians spent all of their daylight hours wandering around just searching for food. Numerous packs of wolves, as hungry as the people, advanced into the suburbs of the capital, which was now just a vast, frozen wasteland. The River Seine froze over and people could cross over from one side to the other without problem:

hiver-paris-1891

Two years later, in 1421-1422, there was another winter of  almost unbelievable severity. Wolves again entered the city. Every night they roamed around the streets of Paris, dug up recently buried corpses in the local graveyards and ate them. Anybody who tried to intervene was ripped to pieces and eaten, presumably, as a second course. Any wolves which were killed were strung up in the streets by their back legs the following morning, as a perhaps, slightly over optimistic warning to the rest.

It was so cold during this winter that bottles of wine, grape juice and vinegar froze in the cellars of Parisian houses and in some cases icicles formed on the vaults of cellar roofs. The River Seine, which had previously been in spate, froze over in less than three days and the ice quickly became firm enough to walk on. On January 12th 1422, there began in the French capital what was considered at the time to be the most severe spell of cold ever experienced by man.
The River Seine froze completely throughout its entire length. Wells froze after four days. This harsh cold persisted for almost three weeks. To compound Parisian misery, a couple of days before the beginning of this extremely cold weather, there had been a heavy snowfall. Because of the severity of this snow and the subsequent extreme cold, people were completely unable to work. Instead, they resorted to jumping games, playing ball and other vigorous activities to keep warm. The freezing conditions were so intense that the ice in the streets and public squares persisted until March 25th. It was so cold that on the heads of cockerels and hens, their combs froze:

cockerel

Equally surprisingly, there were no wolves reported in Paris during the extremely harsh winter of 1433-1434. The big freeze began on December 31st 1433 and then lasted for nine days short of three months. After this, another severely cold period followed, from March 31st 1434 until April 17th 1434. Just as a comparison, during this particular winter, the entire River Thames in England had frozen completely solid from December to February and remained completely impassable to shipping.
The wolves, though, were back with a vengeance in the second Parisian “Winter of the Wolf”, “L’Hiver du Loup”.  This came in 14371438, when the weather was equally, if not more, glacial.
The River Seine again froze over completely and packs of wolves wandered into the French capital, roaming the streets in search of food. Here is an anachronistic photo of the River Seine, frozen over in 1437.  How can you tell that, mon cher Sherlock?

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In actual fact, there had been five unbelievably cold winters in succession over the whole of the European continent, and this was the last of the five. In England, the famine was so severe from 1437-39 that it was second only to the worst years ever in 1315-1317. These latter years were so wet that virtually all the nation’s crops failed and as many as 10% of the population may have eventually perished, in a decade characterised by crime, disease, mass death and cannibalism.

From 1437-1439, though, the winter cold was such that the English people in the countryside  were driven to attempt to make bread from fern roots and ivy berries. An unbelievably prudent Mayor of London had avoided this situation in the capital by importing a good supply of rye from Prussia. This may have been Mayor William Estfeld (1437) or Mayor Robert Large (1439) but personally I would go for Stephen Broun the Grocer (1438).

The only record of wolves in Paris which I have been able to trace during these three years of 1437-1439 came as early as the last week of the month of September 1439, when a desperate pack entered the city in search of fresh meat. They ripped out the throats of around fourteen people and duly devoured them. This occurred in the area between Montmartre in the north of the city:

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And the Porte Saint-Antoine in the east, right next to the Bastille prison:

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From 1450-1850, and possibly beyond that, into the early years of the twentieth century, the so-called Little Ice Age held sway over Europe. In 1457-1458 in Germany, for example, extreme cold froze the Danube River to such a thickness that an army of 40,000 men was able to camp on the ice. Two years, later during the winter of 1459-1460, the entire Baltic Sea was frozen and people could cross between Denmark, Germany and Sweden both on foot and on horseback:

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In France, the most severe weather came right at the beginning of the Little Ice Age during their very worst winter of 1449-1450. During this period the weather in France was very wet, extremely cold, and there were, consequently, huge quantities of snow. Indeed, the winter had begun as early as October 1449, when large numbers of olive trees began to die of the cold across the whole country.

It was during this exceptional winter that Paris became the victim of its most famous attack by man-eating wolves, “des loups anthropophages” (a very useful mouthful, should you ever need the phrase on holiday, or perhaps wish to prove your sobriety to a French police officer).

This pack, “The Wolves of Paris”, (Oh somebody, form a Heavy Metal Band…the name is crying out for it!), “Les Loups de Paris”, are thought to have killed and eaten large numbers of hapless human victims of all ages over the course of the winter. The animals initially entered Paris through the very large holes in its dilapidated city walls, which had been built some 250 years previously in the early 13th century. Of course, the original builder, King Philippe Auguste, had intended the walls to protect the city from human invaders rather than animal predators:

wolf pack one

The leader of the pack was a wolf named “Courtaud” which means “Bobtail”, as he had a tail which had been “docked” or shortened in some unknown incident. The descriptions of “Courtaud” at the time said that he was reddish in colour, not really a pigment that you would expect in a pure 100% common, Eurasian or Middle Russian forest wolf as the subspecies canis lupus lupus is variously known across Europe.  Suggestions have been made that its unusual colour was because it was an Iberian Wolf canis lupus signatus on its holidays from Spain, but there is a problem with that. As far as I can see, the Iberian Wolf is not particularly reddish. Here he is. Just look at that blood:

Iberian Wolf alpha male feeding on deer, its mouth tinted with f

According to the Wikipedia entry in the link above, canis lupus signatus has a lighter build than the European Wolf, some white marks on the upper lips, dark marks on the tail and a pair of dark marks in its front legs. There is no mention of red.
Don’t get me started, but my explanation for all those various Beasts (bêtes féroces, bêtes dévorantes ou bêtes anthropophages) which ravaged France over the centuries now comes into its own. I believe that they were members of a more aggressive, larger and now extinct species of wolf. If any unusual colour is mentioned for La Bête du Gévaudan, La Bête de Cinglais, La Bête de Caen, La Bête du Lyonnais or La Bête du Vivarais, it is always, exclusively, red. And, as we have just seen, Courtaud too had fur of this colour.

That is why I just do not believe that ordinary wolves were responsible for these blood spattered killings. And anyway, aren’t ordinary wolves a friendly looking bunch of chaps? They would not dream of eating anybody:

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At first, there were around twenty wolves in the Parisian pack and they killed dozens of people. Gradually, wolf numbers built up, and the list of victims grew longer and longer. In the first month, supposedly around forty people perished, with a total kill for the whole winter of several hundred. They included, for the most part, anybody the wolves found wandering around the city at night, or any individuals who were outside sleeping rough. Inevitably, the inhabitants of Paris in that winter of 1449-1450 were swept by a feeling of total panic. Attempts to kill the wolves in their dens were totally ineffective. The wolves became so self confident that they often enjoyed a sing-song on their way back from the pub:

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Eventually, though, Parisians became increasingly enraged that it was no longer safe to walk the streets of their beautiful city. Furious at all the deaths, a brave group of volunteers found a couple of unwanted cows and killed them. Then they set off, dragging the mutilated corpses along behind them on ropes, so that they left a bloodied trail. Eventually, the wolves began to follow the scent, and slowly, slowly,  Courtaud and his bloodthirsty colleagues were lured and prodded into the very heart of the city:

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When the wolves reached the Ile de la Cité (middle of the map), they arrived at the large square in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame, which is called the Parvis Notre Dame. Here they were trapped, surrounded by pre-prepared wooden barricades. Here is Notre Dame cathedral. See if you can spot the hunchback:Notre_Dame_de_Paris_DSC_0846w

And here is the large square in front of the cathedral, which is really quite extensive in size. I wouldn’t like to have chased a pack of wolves across here:

parvis-Notre-Dame

Finally, the angry Parisians stoned and speared the entire pack, until every single wolf was dead. Courtaud was paraded dead around the city in a cart, pulled by the triumphant crowd. Here is one of those bizarre modern art exhibitions which was held in Paris recently. I don’t suppose it’s Courtaud and his pals from 1449-1450, but I do hope that no real wolves died to make it:

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I do not really believe that Paris’ historical scrapes with wolves have necessarily finished. Grey wolves were completely extirpated from France in the 1920s and 1930s, but ten years ago they started entering the country again from Italy. There are now around 300 wolves in France and the farmers allege that they have killed more than 6,000 sheep in the last twelve months. The woods around Paris are well stocked with deer and boar and they would make an ideal hunting ground for wolves. Indeed, this year, wolves have been sighted just 40 miles from the city:

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Presumably preparing the Parisian populace for the latest lupine invasion, there are a number of different books available, all of which are all entitled “The Wolves of Paris”:

The first is by Michael Wallace:

“It’s the winter of 1450 and Paris is in a panic. A pack of ravenous wolves is loose in the city, feasting on human flesh. Lorenzo Boccaccio is summoned by a Dominican inquisitor who….”

The second is by Daniel P Mannix and a reviewer promises:

“an extraordinary story with verve and deft pacing. In the reading of what is a tale of high drama, building remorselessly to the climax…”

After that remorseless climax, where next, but the boxset by Lance Roddick, also available in separate sections:

gay wolves of paris

One of the sections has a wonderful review:

“The book started off talking about the hard times France was going through.”

You don’t say!

If you can, always finish a blogpost with a song. And what else could it be except…

 

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Filed under Cryptozoology, France, History, Science, Wildlife and Nature

The Cadillac of the Skies

 

On August 17th, 1943 the Eighth Air Force had tried to eliminate the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, deep inside the German heartland. Flying in daylight, and unescorted for the vast majority of the trip, the raid had been an audacious catastrophe. Some 230 bombers had taken part, and sixty of these were completely destroyed. As well as these sixty B-17s, a further 55-95 bombers were badly damaged. Many of these were too severely damaged ever to be repaired.

Living legends

The Eighth Air Force regained its composure, made good its losses in both men and aircraft, and, on October 14th 1943, they attacked again.  Flying in daylight, and unescorted for the vast majority of the trip, the raid was arguably a bigger disaster than the previous one. Of the 291 B-17s on the mission, 60 were shot down over enemy territory and another 17 damaged so severely that they had to be scrapped. A further 121 aircraft were damaged to a greater or lesser extent. These losses represented more than 26% of the attacking force.

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The losses of aircrew were equally devastating. Some 650 well trained and skilful specialists were killed, which constituted some 22% of the 2,900 brave young airmen who went on the raid. The 306th Bomb Group lost 100 men, with 35 either killed in the air or died of wounds and 65 made Prisoners of War. The 305th Bomb Group lost 130 men, which was 87% of their complement.
General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was later to state that the Black Thursday loss of American bombers in the Schweinfurt raid was “incidental”. Despite this callous dismissal of the lives of well over six hundred of his own men, further unescorted daylight bomber raids deep into Germany were immediately suspended until further notice. Cynics might well ask how many more B-17s  were left after the two disastrous attacks on Schweinfurt? Long distance bombing raids would only recommence in February 1944 with the advent of Operation Argument, a series of missions which would later be more commonly known as “Big Week”.

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I live in Sherwood, a suburb in the north of the Nottingham conurbation in England. At the end of our street is “Hucknall Road” which leads the seven or so miles to the much smaller market town of Hucknall.

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Strangely enough, Hucknall has a small grass airfield which is less than six miles from our street. Most days we can hear light planes making an enormous noise as they drone slowly overhead.

Hucknall RunwayxxxxxxDuring the course of April 1942, one man who frequently worked at Hucknall Aerodrome was to come up with an idea which would go a very long way indeed to winning the war in Western Europe. His name was Ronald W. Harker and he was usually known as “Ronnie”. Harker was the senior liaison test pilot with Rolls-Royce. Perhaps with Harker’s employer in their minds as an ulterior motive, the RAF had already invited the experienced test pilot to test fly the North American Mustang Mark 1, an American aircraft which was designed and built in the unbelievably short time of 117 days. This amazing feat was in response to a request by the British Purchasing Commission for an RAF fighter which would be an advance on the Spitfire.

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The original North American Mustang was powered by an Allison V-1710 piston engine and Harker was quite impressed with the plane’s handling qualities. Its performance up to 20.000 feet or so was commendable, but any higher, and the aircraft quickly became rather disappointing. Harker concluded that the problem was the inadequate Allison engine which was too low-powered to exploit the plane’s advanced aerodynamic features including a much more fuel efficient laminar flow wing. This innovation cut down the amount of turbulence as the air passed over the wing and would eventually lead to almost phenomenally low fuel consumption.

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Initially though, the new American fighter had an extremely unimpressive maximum range of only 400 miles, and when delivered to the RAF it was quickly relegated to Army co-operation and photographic work.
Ronnie Harker was employed by Rolls-Royce and was therefore presumably somewhat biased, but it was his suggestion to take out the Allison engine and to replace it with the Rolls-Royce Merlin 61, an act which was to transform a rather disappointing aircraft and to turn it into a war winner.
Despite a great deal of initial reluctance, mostly from the British Air Ministry, the first flight of the newly engined Mustang took place at Hucknall Airfield on October 13th 1942 with Captain R.T. Shepherd, the Rolls-Royce chief test pilot, at the controls. The Merlin-Mustang fighter’s performance was spectacular, particularly at high altitude. Thus the greatest fighter of the war was born and Harker acquired for the rest of his life the sobriquet of “the man who put the Merlin in the Mustang.” Harker also got a pay rise of a pound a week (just over one and a half dollars).

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Some four hundred of the Merlin-Mustangs were ordered for the US Army Air Force as the P-51 and Great Britain wanted more than a thousand, although only 25 were eventually delivered to the RAF because Rolls-Royce’s own Merlin production was already allocated to Spitfires, Lancasters and Mosquitos. In the USA, however, North American, now almost overwhelmed by the orders to be filled, had no such problems, using Packard and Continental versions of the Rolls-Royce engine built under licence. Eventually, more than 15,000 aircraft were to be manufactured.

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The P-51B carried just about the same amount of fuel as the P-47 Thunderbolt, but with its new Merlin engine “got 3.3 miles per gallon while the P-47 got less than 1.8.”. Brigadier General “Tommy” Hayes said that the Merlin-Mustang “had the three qualities you need most if you were going to escort bombers to Berlin – range, range and range.” The latter was extended even further by the carrying of two 512 gallon drop tanks which gave a maximum range of around 2,000 miles. In addition, the aircraft’s top speed increased from 390m.p.h. to 440m.p.h. and in the days after the war had finished there were to be many no doubt apocryphal tales of Mustangs which had exceeded the sound barrier in a steep or even vertical dive. In his memoirs, the P-51 ace Colonel Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson said that the Mustang “went like hell” because “the Merlin had great gobs of power and was equally at home high or low, thanks to its two-stage, two-speed supercharger.”

Mustang-Ferocious-Frankie-01 cvcc

This newly updated Mustang was, of course, exactly the aircraft that the beleaguered bomber crews in the B-17s of the Eighth Air Force had been waiting for. Now, with help of “our little friends” they could go about their business with considerably less apprehension than had previously been the case. The new aircraft is certainly said to have had an impact on Herr Reichsmarschall Göring who “when (he) saw the Mustangs escorting the American air armadas over the capital of the Reich is said to have realised that Germany had lost the war.”

little friends cccccc

The mechanism by which the Third Reich was, along with Göring himself, quite rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of History, was by no means a complex one. The Mustang pilots were quite simply encouraged to engage the Luftwaffe fighters in combat at every opportunity.  Given the quality of the new P-51, especially the P-51D with its superb all round visibility bubble canopy, the Americans duly shot down both the aging Bf109s and the newer Fw190s. Gradually over the months, the Mustangs killed off all the most experienced and most effective pilots in the Luftwaffe. Between January and April 1944, the Germans lost more than 1,000 fighter pilots, of which 28 had more than 30 kills and eight had more than 100. On one mission to Augsburg, much later in the war, Mustangs put a final full stop to the last and greatest German threat, namely the twin-engined fighter armed with multiple rockets. They destroyed 23 of the 77 that came up to oppose them.

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At the same time, as part of the same process, it became increasingly difficult for the Luftwaffe to find calm skies where rookie pilots might practice. And in any case there was soon too great a shortage of fuel for these young replacements to waste on practice flights. The situation swiftly went from bad to worse, and the Mustangs, and many other Allied fighters, all began to enjoy enormous success against increasingly weak opponents. The Germans were never ever throughout the rest of the war to enjoy air superiority.

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Allied bombers began by day and by night to operate with increasing impunity and to have an increasingly greater impact on the overall fighting capabilities of the Third Reich.

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The situation is perhaps best summarised by a joke which remains as yet unverified on Wikipedia. It was supposedly told by Wehrmacht soldiers in the weeks after D-Day:

“If the plane in the sky is silver, it’s American, if it’s blue, it’s British, if it’s invisible, it’s ours.”
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“This all happened because of the Mustang, and the Mustang succeeded because of the Merlin.”

I cannot resist finishing my hymn of praise to the most effective fighter ever by quoting the episode in “Empire of the Sun”, when the “Cadillac of the Skies” makes its appearance, strangely not in Europe but in China. Enjoy.

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Filed under Aviation, History, Nottingham

This sepulchre of crime

Today is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date which, in this country is celebrated, if that is the right word, as Remembrance Day. In the United States I believe that it used to be called Armistice Day but is now renamed as the more inclusive Veterans Day. I always feel rather guilty at this time of year because I have never been able to see the “First World War”, or what we used to be able to call,  unfortunately, “The Great War”, in any really positive light. I am now of such an age that in earlier years I was able to speak personally to at least two veterans of the Great War, both of whom were able to give me their highly critical points of view.
It is not my intention to offend anybody by what I say in this blogpost, but it has always been my firm conviction that there are fundamental truths about the Great War which are always quite simply ignored because they are so unpalatable, and it is far more convenient just to forget them. Because of this, I would fully concur with the writer whose article I read in a newspaper recently, who called “The Great War”, “ineptitude followed by annihilation”.
I have never been able to see The Great War as anything other than the story of, literally, millions of well intentioned, patriotic young men whose idealism was taken advantage of by older men of a supposedly better social class, but who were in reality buffoons who signed treaties, and then declared wars which other people had to fight. And when the conflict itself was fought, the way in which it was carried out guaranteed unbelievable levels of casualties, most of which as far as I can see, were considered as merely inevitable by the top brass as they enjoyed constant  five star cuisine in their châteaux five or six miles behind the lines. In the trenches the average life expectancy of the ordinary soldier was about six weeks. An average of at least 6,000 men were killed every day, as the two sides fought over an area about the size of Lincolnshire, or Delaware, or half the size of Connecticut.
You may think that I am being appallingly cynical, but I have always seen these young men as having been robbed of their lives for little real purpose, victims who, if they had been given the choice, would have ultimately rejected a government gravestone in France or Belgium in favour of an ordinary life in their own home town or village, with a wife and children and all the usual cares and happiness which we now, a hundred years later, see as a basic right. Most of all, I would not take particularly kindly to criticism of my point of view from anybody who has not been to visit the cemeteries of the Great War which are scattered in great profusion across the areas where the battles took place.

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This piece of land is perhaps as large as a medium-sized house with a medium-sized garden. It contains the remains of just fewer than 25,000 men. They were for the most part killed in the very first few weeks of the war, when, having joined up straightaway so that they didn’t miss any of the excitement or the glory, they were worried in case it was all over by Christmas. A very large number of them are now known to have been university students, who were soon to find that war had its negative side. At least one of these young men is not forgotten, though.Here is a little remembrance offered to his brother, Friedrich Stieme from Halle, who was killed in 1915.

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Here are the names of just some of the young men who are buried in that plot of land.

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Here are the names of some British and Commonwealth troops. They are recorded in enormous number on the Menin Gate in Ypres as the soldiers who were killed in fighting around the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. There are 54,896 of these men and they were killed before August 15th 1917, a date chosen as a cut-off point when the people who designed what Siegfried Sassoon  called this “sepulchre of crime” suddenly realised that they had not built the monument big enough for all the casualties to be recorded. These, of course, are just the men with no known grave. If every death is counted, then the total Allied casualties exceeded 325,000.(the population of Coventry or Leicester). German casualties were in excess of 425,000.(the population of Liverpool)

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This whole area is dotted with cemeteries whose names, like this one, I have now forgotten. Some of them have just twenty or thirty graves, whereas some of them have a number that would take you a very long time indeed to count.

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Too many of these men were unable to be identified because the British Army would not pay for their soldiers to have metal dog tags. The soldiers’ dog tags were made of leather, so that if their bodies remained in the wet ground for very long, the dog tags would rot away. This is why so many of them can be identified only as “A soldier of the Great War”. In addition, the fact that sixty per cent of casualties on the Western Front were caused by shellfire often made identification of casualties difficult. Notice too how nearly all the graves are covered in green slime, almost inevitably, given the rainfall totals in north western Europe.

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These graves are in a cemetery containing 300 British Commonwealth and 300 French graves which lies at the foot of the Thiepval Memorial.

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More important, though, is the enormous building itself wherein are recorded the names of the fallen who have no known resting place.

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A large inscription on an internal surface of the memorial reads:

“Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

On the stone piers are engraved the names of more than 72,000 men who were slaughtered in the Somme battles between July 1915 and March 1918. More than 90% of these soldiers died in the first Battle of the Somme between July 1st and November 18th 1916. Here are some of the names.

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Here are some of the graves in another, fairly large cemetery whose name I am afraid I cannot remember …

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It is an insane thought that the Great War still continues to kill people nowadays. I was told by our tour guide that on average usually one person is killed every week as they explore the old battlefields looking for souvenirs.  This shell has been found by the farmer and has been left at the side of a country lane so that the regular patrols by the local council lorries can take it away. Only idiot foreigners, of course, touch these unstable objects. The French and the Belgians leave them alone.

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This graveyard too I am afraid is one whose name I have forgotten. I remember that we went there because one of the other people on the coach had a relative who was buried there and he laid some poppies on his grave.

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This is one of the few places where I saw French graves. France had approximately 1,397,800 men killed in the war, with a further 4,266,000 wounded, giving a total of 5,663,800 casualties. Nowadays there are many areas of the country, particularly in central and southern France, which remain unfarmed wilderness because of this conflict a century ago which left whole provinces chronically short of men. The population of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire added together is approximately 5.7 million.

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This is part of the Tyne Cot Cemetery which is a burial ground for those who were killed in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. It contains 11,956 men, of which 8,369 remain unidentified.

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This is the “Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.” As mentioned above, the builders of the Menin Gate discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names, so the casualties after August 15th 1917 were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead. The memorial contains the names of 34,949 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies. The panels on which the names are written stretch away, seemingly  to the horizon.

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Sadly, at Tyne Cot cemetery, there are always relatives looking for members of their family who fell during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

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It is very difficult to find a neat conclusion to all this, but I am happy to leave the last word to His Majesty King George V, speaking in Flanders in 1922…

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”

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Filed under History, Uncategorized

Just what WAS the Beast of Gévaudan?

There is no shortage of theories as to the identity of the murderous beast I described recently,  la Bèstia de Gévaudan,which terrorised a whole province of France from 1764-1767, and claimed upwards of a hundred victims, mostly women and young girls. From what I have read, but above all, from what I have watched on “Youtube”,  basically, you will have to make your own  choice.

The creature was, therefore, perhaps a single enormous wolf, or maybe a number of wolves in a single pack, or even a large number of wolves in a number of separate packs.

Less fancifully, it could have been some type of enormous domestic dog, or perhaps even a wolf dog hybrid, perhaps with a red coloured mastiff involved. Its supposed invulnerability to bullets was because it wore the armoured hide of young boar.

It may have been a hyena although this species is thought to have been long extinct in Europe at this time. It has even been suggested that it was not a real animal, but a sex-crazed serial killer who dressed in a fur costume, pretending to be a wolf. In the same vein, it was perhaps a werewolf with a penchant for hunting women and young girls.

An initial, perhaps simplistic approach, is quite simply to look at pictures of the beast, and to compare it with photographs of the most likely candidates, and then to make up your own mind.

Firstly, here are some pictures of the beast itself. You need to bear in mind that they are unlikely to have been drawn directly from a witness descriptions, and that many of them may have been mere copies of the work of other artists. Furthermore, at this time, it was accepted practice to draw animals in a very stylised fashion, rather than in the more accurate zoological one. Because of this, therefore, the head and limbs are often out of proportion, and the body is frequently too large for a small head and legs. In many pictures, the artist sought to portray an unknown animal by reaching into his knowledge of Heraldry…

 

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Here are some photographs of wolves. I have deliberately picked what I consider to be the largest individuals, and to provide illustrations of animals in poses which are hopefully similar to those in the engravings of the beast.

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Here are some photographs of what are usually called wolf dog hybrids. Having looked at a much larger number of them on the Internet, I do feel that most can be dismissed immediately because an ordinary person would think that they were pure bred wolves. They are only noticeably different when crossed with a very distinctive breed of dog.

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Many cryptozoologists favour the hyena. Certainly, a number of the original drawings from the eighteenth century are titled as being “la Bèstia de Gévaudan, the hyena”.  Many of them, even the most wolf-like, have their flanks covered with either stripes or spots.
This picture was allegedly drawn by the killer of the second beast, Jean Chastel.

drawn chastel

Here are some pictures of the striped hyena.

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And here are some pictures of the spotted hyena.

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Basically, you pay your euros, and you take your choice.
As blogposts cannot be of infinite length, let me summarise the fors and againsts of all the possibilities as I see them.

A wolf or wolves?

This is the mot acceptable of a very large number of  explanations. Certainly, the prints found were deemed to be those of a wolf. Monsieur Antoine de Beauterne who was to kill the first animal, the Wolf of Chazes, said that there was « aucune différence avec le pied d’un grand loup » “no difference with the pawprint of a large wolf”

BUT…

Wolves do not normally attack Man. The locals used to kill around 700 wolves every year, so they all knew what a wolf looked like and could defend themselves against them. All the witnesses were adamant that the animal was not a wolf, but an animal that they did not know. That is why it was immediately christened “la bèstia”. Neither can wolves have a white breast and underparts, as a large number of witnesses said in their descriptions and, indeed, as is portrayed in many of the contemporary illustrations. Only a hybrid animal could exhibit this pattern of coloration.

Wolves do not strip the clothes off their victims, neither do they decapitate their prey.

After the Wolf of Chazes was killed, the deaths did not stop.

A rabid wolf?

An animal  diseased in this way would not have been afraid of Man, but it would certainly have died well before the three year period was  up. A number of rabid wolves? Isn’t that possibly stretching the argument a little?

A hyena?

The animal would certainly have been unknown to the inhabitants of the area. Members of the French nobility, however, frequently indulged themselves by importing exotic animals such as lions and tigers into the country, and we know that hyenas were brought into France at this time. So too, hyenas are supposedly relatively easy to train, or at least, easier than you might expect! Whether this would extend to converting them into fearless and ferocious attack animals is a different matter, however.
Hyenas are certainly capable of decapitating their prey. I have been unable to ascertain if they take the clothes off their victims, although I would have thought that they might have needed opposable thumbs for any particularly intricate garments.

BUT…

the second beast to be killed, the Bête de Chastel, did not have enough teeth to be a hyena. This creature was, without doubt, a canid of some description, according to the King’s Notary, Roch Étienne Marin, the man who carried out what appears to be an extraordinarily thorough autopsy. On the other hand, the creature was also examined by the famous Comte de Buffon, an extremely famous scientist and naturalist of the day, whose ideas were to have a great influence on Charles Darwin. Buffon pronounced it to be a very large wolf.

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The Striped Hyena, which resembles most closely perhaps, la Bèstia, does not hunt but scavenges. The Spotted Hyena does  hunt for itself, but nobody has ever really mentioned spots as a feature of la Bèstia.
In one of his blogposts, C.R. Rookwood suggests another exotic solution. He suggests that la Bèstia was a  mesonychid, a prehistoric mammal related to present day whales. They were very large predators with huge heads, long tails, and hooves instead of feet. The largest was Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, known only from its skull, minus the jawbone: for this reason, illustrations of its colour are, for the most part, just well informed guesswork. The structure of the animal is based on the other members of the family, whose skeletal structure is better known.

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This animal does fit quite closely the description given by many of the peasants who saw la Bèstia. A few of the reports did mention hooves instead of feet, although the creature may well have been described as having hooves to emphasise its connection with the Devil.

BUT…

How could a gigantic, fierce, flesh eating mammal have survived from a prehistoric era until the eighteenth century, without anybody noticing it?

A human serial killer?

Humans can remove dead people’s clothes. Humans can decapitate their victims. Some bizarre serial killers would enjoy the chance to mask their activities behind the depredations of a very large trained carnivore.

BUT…

All the reports by eye witnesses say that only an animal was involved. This idea of a human serial killer can only be maintained  if mutilated bodies were found and there were no eye witnesses who saw an animal attacking them. Only in the Cantal area, apparently, were these circumstances fulfilled.
Of late, many people have  become increasingly concerned by the involvement of Jean Chastel in this marvellous enigma. Jean, a farmer and inn-keeper in the province of Gévaudan, and his son Jean-Antoine, have come under suspicion because when both of them were imprisoned for a period  because of their aggressive attitude to two of Francois Antoine’s gamekeepers, the number of attacks by the monster diminished noticeably.

chastel 2 ccccccc
It has therefore been put forward that la Bèstia was the result of Jean’s crossing either his own or his son’s red-coloured mastiff with a wolf, and then subsequently training it to kill. Almost all the evidence is perforce circumstantial, but much of it is quite compelling.
The creature may have been, therefore, a particularly  aggressive hybrid, which Jean-Antoine Chastel trained to have no fear of human beings, but instead to attack and to kill them. Witnesses have said that if its attacks were met with strong resistance, la Bèstia would retreat fifty yards or so, then sit and wait, as if sizing up the situation, before finally returning to the fray. This has been  taken to be the behaviour of a trained animal, unafraid of its opponent, rather than a wild one, whose natural instinct in an equal contest would have been to save itself by fleeing. Furthermore, witnesses thought that la Bèstia was driven not by hunger but by its own fury and an innate aggressiveness. It could also be more agile and jump much higher than a normal dog.
According to hunters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, crosses between dogs and wolves were invariably very varied in appearance with dark or light tinges, sometimes marked with yellow or white or striped a little like a zebra. This, of course, agrees with many of the eye witness descriptions of la Bèstia.
Here are some pictures of mastiffs, although it is very difficult to know exactly what they looked like two and a half centuries ago. Nowadays, they simply don’t look particularly fierce….

 

Here is an English Mastiff around 1700.
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If we are going down the road of wolf-dog hybrids, then I was quite attracted to a long extinct breed of German bulldog, or Bullenbeisser…

Bullenbeisser extinct ccccccccc

On the other hand, others have said that no successful interbreeding of a Mastiff, or Mastiff type dog, has ever been successfully carried out with a wolf, even though such a hybrid might explain the colours noted by many witnesses.
From the summer 1764 to its death in 1767, la Bèstia wandered over vast distances in almost no time whatsoever. Perhaps the two Chastel were conveying their creature around the province by some artificial means…an explanation of the high frequency of attacks spread over a not inconsiderable area.
On many occasions, people reported the apparent invulnerability of the creature when either stabbed or shot at. It has been suggested that it was wearing some kind of body armour made from the skin of a wild boar. Many witnesses told of the creature being shot several times by experienced hunters, and not being affected by it. Other witnesses spoke of its entrails hanging down after it was stabbed. Could this have been the strapping for some kind of home made armour?
When it was killed, la Bèstia died in the parish of La Besseyre Saint Mary, where Jean Chastel and his son lived. Perhaps they felt that they were about to be discovered, so they shot the creature and then manufactured a tale of heroism and religious devotion to snatch a glorious propaganda victory from the jaws of ignominious discovery and defeat.
As to why the two Chastel would want to kill so many of the people in the area where they lived, that remains a matter of pure guesswork. Certainly, Jean Chastel was supposed to have been an unpopular loner, and given his previous record of various episodes of fairly serious criminal behaviour, he may well have been a man who the locals disliked and feared in equal measure.
Perhaps les Chastel, père et fils were rejected and hated by local women and children, and then took their massive revenge on them, like those American teenagers who return to their High School and kill everybody they can. Perhaps they were sexual psychopaths who enjoyed killing and eating women and little girls.

One further detail which may be of significance is that the loud, belligerent and generally anti-social behaviour of the father, Jean Chastel, seems to have changed profoundly from May 16th 1767 onwards. On this date, in the village of Septols, Marie Denty was attacked in a little lane near her house, right under the eyes of her parents, and killed, just before her twelfth birthday. Supposedly, she and Jean Chastel were very close friends and he doted on her like the grand-daughter he never had. Now he was “fou de douleur”, “mad with grief”, and seemed about to lose his sanity. Perhaps, les Chastel and their appalling pet had killed by mistake. Certainly, his ne’er-do-well son, Antoine, seemed suddenly to be released from an evil spell, and he turned straightway to God. Jean spent his time in pure pursuits such as prayer, confession and penitence. For his redemption to be complete, he and he alone had to be the man who finally killed la Bèstia. According to which sources you believe, in best werewolf killer tradition, he made some silver bullets. Or perhaps, he made them from molten lead which had had a statue of the Virgin Mary dipped into it. Or perhaps he made them from the medals of the Virgin Mary which he wore on his hat. Whatever the case, he certainly had them blessed at a religious ceremony.

The manner in which he killed the creature is extremely suspicious, and could very easily be interpreted as a tale told merely to satisfy contemporary religious feelings, and to exonerate a man who is not bravely hunting down a ferocious killer beast, but who is, instead, shooting it through the head in its kennel before the locals find out it is actually his beloved pet, and then string him up from the nearest tree. The following account I have translated from the French Wikipédia

“On June 19th, the Marquis d’Apcher decides to organise a beat around Mont Mouchet in the wood of la Ténazeire. He is accompanied by a few neighbours as volunteers including Jean Chastel reputed to be an excellent hunter. The latter finds himself at a place called la Sogne d’Auvers,  a crossroads where he sees the animal go past. Chastel fires at it, and manages to wound on the shoulder. Quickly the marquis’ dogs arrive to finish off the beast.”
“As regards this rifle shot, Legend has preserved the romanticised words of the priest Pierre Pourcher which he used to say came from tale told by his family, “When the beast came along, Chastel was saying prayers to the Holy Virgin. He recognised it straightaway, but through a feeling of piety and confidence in the Mother of God, he wanted to finish his prayers. Afterwards, he closes his prayerbook, folds his glasses up, puts them in his pocket and takes his rifle. In an instant he kills the beast which had been waiting for him.”

“A week after the destruction of the beast by Jean Chastel,on June 25th, a female wolf which according to several witness accounts used to accompany the beast itself was killed by Sir Jean Terrisse, one of the hunters His Grace de la Tour d’Auvergne.  He received £78 as a reward.”

Perhaps they were acting on behalf of somebody else. The usual favourite is Jean-François-Charles de La Molette, the Count of Morangiès. He may have wanted to destabilise the area, so that he could take over when the revolution inevitably came.  There were others. The Church wanted to teach the King and the members of the  intelligentsia of the time that free thinking is frowned uon by God….

“Return to the Ways of the Lord or face the Hound of Hell”

As I said before, basically, you pay your euros, and you take your choice.

I had just finished my investigations about la Bèstia de Gévaudan, and had made up my own mind that all the devastation could be attributed, without necessarily knowing the real motivation behind it, to Jean Chastel and his son Antoine.
And then I bought “Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America” by Linda S. Godfrey. I was enjoying reading this interesting and innovative book, when I stumbled upon page 93 which was about the Wampus Cat of Ariton in Alabama.

“The man who wrote me was disturbed by unidentifiable animal sounds while camping on his ten acres on the Pea River near Ariton, which lies about half an hour’s drive south of the picturesquely named town of Smut Eye. His normally rambunctious standard poodle refused to leave the safety of his trailer that afternoon, and the man was having a cup of tea at about 5.00 p.m. when he heard loud rustling sounds coming from outside the camper.”
“As he peered out the camper window he noticed a large black furred animal with a doglike face surveying his campsite on all fours. It was bigger than his standard poodle and, he said, “Looks like a cross between an ugly collie and an even uglier lab.” Weirdly, it sported a white chest.”
“The creature ambled nonchalantly through the camp and when it jumped over a fallen tree, the man saw that it had a long, sinuous tail like that of a cougar. He reported the creature to the area game warden who said that while she didn’t know what it was, others have reported seeing it, too!”

You can pursue this interesting hunt for truth a lot further if you have any knowledge of French. There are three exceptionally good videos about la Bèstia which can be found on a tourist website for the Auvergne region. They are well worth your time, and seem to portray this most baffling of stories in a fairly reasonable and sensible way. Un, deux et trois.
If you want to see even more videos about la Bèstia, then go to this website which is the French equivalent of “Youtube”. If you search for “la Bête du Gévaudan”, you will find a huge number of films, varying from 15 or 20 seconds long to an hour or more. On the first page, there are eighteen different videos, a further eighteen on the second page, and any number of pages after that.

Bonne chance! And don’t be put off by having to practice your French!

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Filed under Criminology, Cryptozoology, France, History, Science, Wildlife and Nature

What more does Afghanistan want?

A recent report on the financial help given to Afghanistan by the United States was recently presented to Congress. In summary, apparently more money has now been spent on rebuilding Afghanistan than the entire cost of helping Europe to rise from the ruins of the Second World War.

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In 1948-1952, the then US Secretary of State, George Marshall, launched his famous Marshall Plan ($61 billion today) to help reenergise not just one, but sixteen different European countries. Money was even offered to the Soviet Union and its allies, but they refused it.
250px-US-MarshallPlanAid-Logo_svgNearly sixty years later, Aghan corruption and waste have now pushed the price of reconstruction of that one single country to more than $62 billion, thus exceeding the amount the USA provided for Europe under the Marshall plan.
Despite all this cash spent in Afghanistan, the country remains in what appears to be almost permanent and insoluble political crisis and may well remain dependent on hand-outs for years to come, even though British and other foreign troops prepare to withdraw at the end of the year.
Development projects meant to provide Afghans with a sound structural foundation have cost American taxpayers $61.5 billion, but John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told Congress that…

“The majority of the projects seen were hampered by poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures and inadequate oversight. Billions were spent on ill-fated agricultural and infrastructure projects that failed to take into account Afghanistan’s culture. More than £2 billion was spent on improving the Afghan police, yet tens of thousands of ghost officers collect their pay, but never turn up for work. Nearly half of the 747,000 firearms provided for Afghan security forces at a cost of £372 million have vanished. The annual cost of maintaining Afghans police and military is likely to be double what the country collects in tax revenue.”

Well, poor old Afghanistan.
What more help do they need?
What else do we have to give them?
Have we not given enough?

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The whole situation is so very reminiscent of a previous involvement of the USA in Asia, now almost fifty years ago. This time, the American forces are helped by their many allies, but the situation is not so very different. They are fighting a frequently invisible foe, on behalf of people who may well not be worth fighting for.

It may not quite be a case of “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” but so often it seems like that…

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A boar, a sow and a hoglet? Surely not!

Any of my readers in either the Americas or Australia will wonder what I am talking about when I get excited about the European hedgehog  (Erinaceus europaeus)…

Hedgehog shropos

But that will be because, according to Wikipedia….

“A hedgehog is any of the spiny mammals of the subfamily Erinaceinae, found through parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand (by introduction). There are no hedgehogs native to Australia, and no living species native to the Americas.”

Hedgehogs are lovely, sweet animals, which often turn up in the more countrified or overgrown gardens just as darkness is beginning to fall on a warm summer night, and the bats are coming out to hunt.
It is a well-loved species, which has, however, declined sharply in England over the last ten years, with an overall decrease of at least 25%. Hedgehogs are, in actual fact, disappearing in Britain at a quicker rate than tigers are in their own jungle habitat in  southern Asia. The problems for hedgehogs are the usual ones. Gardens are nowadays generally tidier with lots of neat wooden decking, and hardly any patches of weeds and rough grass, full of slugs and juicy snails. More efficient fences have fewer holes in them to allow hedgehogs to range far and wide. The extensive use of insecticide means fewer insects, and a greater possibility of being poisoned. Road casualties are high because the animals’ first natural defence is to roll up into a spiny ball. Not too effective on a busy highway.
Recently though, in our wonderfully overgrown garden, we have been visited by two, possibly, three hedgehogs. We think that they are either a mother and two different children, or possibly, a father, a mother and one rather small and cute child. They snuffle about in the leaf litter, and yesterday morning, in the wee small hours, at about three o’clock, it was actually possible to hear their chewing and crunching from inside the house.
This is the mother, we think…
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And these individuals are all youngsters, although only their mother could tell them apart, and they may very well be the one and the same little chap photographed on three separate occasions. Spot the catfood…

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I think the reason for the arrival of these lovely, sweet little animals is the prolonged spell of great heat and severe dryness that we are currently experiencing here in England.  The drought means fewer insects than normal, and the hedgehogs are forced to try their luck closer to man than they might otherwise venture. We have fed our visitors with, for example, wet and meaty cat food, and they certainly appreciate a bowl of water. Traditionally, you are supposed to feed them a bowl of milk with lumps of bread in it, but this is not really a very good idea for a lactose-intolerant insectivore, even one who is willing to consume dog food when times are bad.
In this video, the mother is looking out for suitable scraps from the bird table…

My daughter had to stop filming when the hedgehog was on her shoe!
Here is our video of a cute baby hedgehog eating catfood:


The babies are called “hoglets”, and Mummy and Daddy are a “boar” and a “sow”.
If you are successful in finding and feeding any hedgehogs, make sure that you send your data to the 2014 Hibernation Survey which lasts until August 31st of this year. The more scientific data we have about hedgehogs, the more can be done to increase their depleted numbers.

To find out more about how you can attract hedgehogs to your garden and what to feed them, take a stroll along Hedgehog Street.

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