Countryside writer MIKE BAGSHAW uncovers the wild side of his vegetable plot.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS is probably operating at its maximum all over the country about now, Ryedale included. We have all the necessary pre-requisites for exponential plant growth – warm temperatures, 18 hours of daylight per day and enough summer downpours to keep all the vegetation supplied with water.

Farmers love it because the grass that feeds cattle and sheep is rocketing up, as are cereal crops in arable fields.

The situation is the same in the wild – tree canopies are producing huge quantities of food, and plants in hedgerows and verges are going bananas. No, not growing bananas… going bananas, pay attention.

If there is a downside to all this it is that our quieter footpaths have developed forests of nettles and bramble tripwires, and anyone who turns their back on their vegetable plot for a couple of weeks (me) has seen them turn into impenetrable jungles.

The consolation is that my food-producing corner has become an animal nursery.

It started off with young blackbirds and song thrushes retreating into the waist-high grass and buttercups to escape prowling cats, but during one week in June it was baby hedgehogs.

I was first alerted to their presence by one of our dogs barking excitedly at a lump of soil on the lawn.

It wasn’t soil of course but a three-inch long hedgehog – young, but well-developed enough to possess effective spines and be able to roll into a protective ball. When I moved it out of dog’s reach, beyond the vegetable plot gate, I was delighted to discover that he/she had a sibling.

It being the middle of that June heat-wave, I figured that the two hoglets might appreciate a drink, so placed a saucer of water nearby.

Ten minutes later, when I went to check on them, I was astonished to find an array (that’s the official collective noun for hedgehogs) of six hoglets queueing for a drink at the saucer, but with no mum in sight.

There were two possible causes of this scenario; the mother had either already performed the customary few days supervised foraging, as is the norm, and then left her brood to fend for themselves, or she had come to some mishap and the young urchins were left in the lurch.

Either way I reasoned that putting some extra food their way wouldn’t do any harm. The hoglets agreed and tucked in with gusto to the bowl of worms, slugs and snails that I placed next to the water saucer.

That was all a couple of weeks ago now and I haven’t seen any hedgehogs since.

Maybe mum came back and led them off to pastures new or, more likely, they have each gone their separate ways to establish new territories in neighbouring gardens.

That done, they will spend the rest of the summer eating as many beetles, worms, molluscs and fallen fruit as they can find. They have huge appetites and aren’t that fussy about quality – they will even eat the bodies of any dead animals that they sniff out.

The reason for this gluttony is to build up as thick a layer of fat as possible by late autumn, because this is when all hedgehogs curl up and go to sleep for the winter.

That fat layer has to keep them sustained for the five months of their hibernation.

My sextuplets stand a good start chance of survival as they still have enough feeding time ahead of them, but hedgehogs born in August or September rarely survive the winter.

If you would like to encourage hedgehogs in your garden, leave a few wild, unkempt corners, put out bowls of water during hot spells (never milk) and avoid using insecticides or slug pellets.