A LIFE WITH hedgehogs sounds more than a little uncomfortable. And such a life, as Hugh Warwick's charming book reveals, is smelly as well as prickly - the creatures produce a powerful, distinctive and frankly unpleasant pong (Beatrix Potter take note, you would not want a hedgehog doing your laundry). It is also prone to frequent tragedy. Hedgehogs have a way of not living terribly long, what with busy roads, plastic six-pack binders, steep-sided ponds and other deadly hazards. Few things are more upsetting for a hedgehog researcher than when one of his animals meets a sticky and untimely end.

And it's not just the nights spent searching for said deceased animal, and the loss of valuable radio-tracking gear. Every hedgehog has a unique personality, and as you track one week in week out through rain, snow, hail and other natural inclemencies, you tune into its individual nature and it begins to feel like an old friend. To find its eviscerated body, neatly scooped out by a marauding badger, is a severe emotional blow.

Of course not everyone is quite so attuned to hedgehogs as Hugh, who has been on their track ever since his student days - when he worked counting hedgehogs on North Ronaldsay, Orkney. The Daily Express had reported a "plague" of 10,000 hedgehogs eating their way through defenceless seabird eggs causing ecological catastrophe, and our Hugh was bundled up to Orkney to investigate. He found that the island's total hedgehog population was actually just a few hundred and the decline of the Arctic terns had far more to do with factory boats scooping-up all the sand eels they used to feed on, than anything the hedgehogs were up to.

But his investigations triggered a global media frenzy (thanks to hordes of journalists in the area on Queen Mother-watching duty) and volunteers all over Britain arrived at this remote outpost to ‘adopt’ the alien hedgehogs - recently introduced by the island's postman - and give them a safe home as far away as the Isle of Wight. This incident illustrated the degree to which humans engage with hedgehogs, and set off an improbable career for Hugh that has so far lasted over twenty years.

So yes, Hugh is obsessed with hedgehogs (in Old English, furz-pigs or vuzpegs, incidentally). But nowhere near so much as the people he writes about. For many of them, it is not that hedgehogs have taken over their lives. Hedgehogs are their lives: people like Elaine Drewrey, who runs Hedgehog Care in the old post office at Authorpe, Lincolnshire, and treats 300 or so sick hedgehogs a year. Faced with the choice of keeping her husband or caring for vuzpegs in need, the ties of love determined her choice. The husband went.

So far so unusual. But if you want downright peculiar, look to America, home to the International Hedgehog Olympic Games - which takes place on plastic tracks laid down in the function rooms of big hotels. Male and female ‘contestants’ must be strictly separated: the slightest scent of a female and any male within whiffing distance is hopelessly distracted from the dangling mealworms that lure them to the finish. These hedgehog athletes, by the way, are of a clean-smelling African dryland species.

So just what is it about hedgehogs? In 2007 the hedgehog was the runaway winner of the Environment Agency's contest for an icon to represent the natural world. For although the doughty firz-pig is very much an animal of suburban gardens - just listen out for the loud, vigorous snorting and snuffling that accompanies their mating - it is also completely and irrevocably wild, just as it (and its hedgehoggy ancestors) have been ever since the ‘mother hedgehog’ emerged during the Eocene period, fifty-six to thirty-four million years ago.

As such it is one point of contact with the wild that we can all experience, many of us on our own back-doorsteps. And here's how: "don't be shy, get down on your hands and knees, lean forward and see what happens as you get nose-to-nose with a hedgehog. Relish and wallow in the moment of making a connection with the most charismatic creature on the planet. Look into those wild hedgehog eyes and, if you are lucky, catch a glimpse of a special something, a spark that can change your entire life."

Oliver Tickell writes and campaigns on health and environmental issues. His latest book is SuperKyoto published by Zed Book, 2008.